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December 4, 2014 8:43 am

Israeli MKs Must Vote Their Conscience on Jewish State Bill

avatar by Maurice Ostroff

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Reuven Rivlin. Photo: Itzike/Wikimedia Commons.

I am puzzled. Mainstream headlines in Israel and abroad point to an imminent breakup of the Israel coalition government over what has come to be known as the “Jewish State” bill. One headline shouted, “Bennett: No Jewish State bill, no coalition.”

What I cannot understand is why a matter of such vital national interest cannot be decided by a free vote, according to the consciences of individual cabinet and Knesset members. I cannot believe that officials of any party would – or could be expected to – vote against their conscience on this important issue simply because of party identification. (I am equally puzzled by the fact that in the U.S., matters of national concern like gun control and immigration are decided on party lines.)

This “Jewish State” bill, drafted by coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), MK Yariv Levin (Likud), MK Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi), and MK Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu) and passed by the cabinet with some modifications by a vote of 15-6, can hardly be regarded as a crucial objective of the coalition government. This is especially true since the bill was not a factor in forming the coalition. Why then are certain individuals determined to jam it through?

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If common sense were to prevail, all reasonable positions should be heard and debated. For example, many influential persons including President Rivlin have publicly expressed their opposition with reasoned arguments that deserve serious consideration.

In December 2010, then speaker of the Knesset Rivlin wrote a guest column calling on parties to allow Knesset members to remain true to their conscience and to their role as representatives of the people. He said they should not be held to party allegiance if it violates their beliefs.

He wrote:

“Prime Minister Menachem Begin often said that even when something is obvious, it should still be said. In the past, the independence of Knesset members and the need to grant them freedom of thought in decision-making and voting was something that was obvious; after all, we live in a democracy, not a dictatorship. The problem is, however, that over the course of time, the demanding nature of parliamentary life, as well as various events and behaviors of Knesset members, have eroded this once obvious point to the extent that it again requires clarification.”

Rivlin also warned of the dangers that lobbyists pose to the democratic process in Israel.

Perhaps we can learn from article 38 of the West German Bundestag’s Basic Law, which states unambiguously: “Members of the German Bundestag shall be elected in general, direct, free, equal and secret elections. They shall be representatives of the whole people, not bound by orders or instructions, and responsible only to their conscience.”

The governing system in Israel should also reflect this principle.

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  • Sylvia Gruber

    Elected representatives cannot be responsible only to their respective conscience. They need to be responsible as well to the voiced expressions of opinion on the part of their constituents.

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