Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Much better than the IBL: Part 2

This is the second half of my post about my trip to the Knesset last Wednesday, dealing with the part that was actually inside the Knesset.

I got to the visitors' gallery, and it was almost completely full. It turns out that 90% of the people there were with some sort of organized group (of older adults), which I didn't know until later on, when someone gave a signal and they all left together.

I have been following enough Israeli news for the last 15 years that I was able to identify many of the Knesset members by sight -- the unmistakable visage of MK Binyamin "Fouad" Ben-Eliezer, MK Effi Eitam towering over his chair that looked tiny in comparison, MK Rafi Eitan sitting next to a fellow Pensioner and looking collectively like Statler and Waldorf, and of course the prime minister himself. Some of the other household names, like Amir Peretz and Bibi Netanyahu, did not appear to be present.

Speaker Dalia Itzik presided over the session at times, tag-teaming with someone who may have been Deputy Speaker Ahmad Tibi, as well as someone who may have been Deputy Speaker David Rotem. Though the Speaker of the Knesset is not a party leader the way she is in the US, presiding over the Knesset plenum itself is a much more hands-on job than anything that can be imagined in the US Congress, because it carries with it the role of kindergarten teacher. None of this "I yield to the gentleman from Minnesota"; Knesset members are continually shouting at whoever is speaking, so that the presiding officer has to keep telling MKs to sit down and/or be quiet, often calling them out by name. "Chaver ha-Knesset Ploni, Chaver ha-Knesset Plonit, Chaver Ha-Knesset Almoni, CHAVER HA-KNESSET PLONI!"

The visitors' gallery is behind glass (and for good reason -- even if we've been screened for weapons, they probably don't want us throwing our lunches at the MKs), with sound played through a speaker. This means that we could only hear the people who were miked (whoever was speaking at the podium at the time, and the presiding officer telling everyone else to sit down), so unfortunately I couldn't hear what the others were yelling, only that they were yelling. I think they should give all the MKs microphones, and play those on a separate audio track, so that those who wish can listen to that track on headphones if they want the deluxe experience. Also, when the MK at the podium got particularly loud, they sent the sound system into overdrive, so that what we heard was distorted. As a result, the most impassioned parts of the speeches were the most difficult to hear clearly. These are issues that need to be dealt with in order to make the Knesset the best spectator sport experience it can be. I refer the question to MK Rabbi Michael Melchior, chair of the committee on Education, Culture, and Sports.

Disclaimer: I'm still working on my Hebrew. It's decent (I'm in level vav), but I still have some trouble understanding when it's spoken quickly, and/or with distortion (see above). Therefore, there are no guarantees of accuracy in the transmission of any of these Knesset discussions, except regarding the general topic of each bill, since the title of each bill was up on the TV screens during the whole debate, so I had plenty of time to read it.

When I got inside, they were debating Israel's response (or lack thereof) to the Darfur refugee crisis. Specifically, there had been a petition by 40 MKs for the Knesset to discuss the government's failure to address the situation of the Darfur refugees in Israel. As I arrived, an unidentified be-srugah-ed MK was giving a historical overview of past instances when Israel had absorbed large groups of (Jewish) immigrants -- from Ethiopia, India, etc. I couldn't tell which side he was arguing for. Later I realized that it was quite easy to figure out which side someone was on by their choice of words: the people who had arrived from Darfur were referred to either as פליטים (refugees) or מסתננים (I had to look this one up: infiltrators, which is related to "filter" in both Hebrew and English).

Next, MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) gave a fiery speech in support of absorbing the refugees. She said "Have we forgotten that we are all refugees???", and appealed to the principles on which the state was founded. In fact, everyone seemed to do this -- every issue was cast as a struggle for the soul of the state. I didn't catch the name of the MK who spoke next; if I had to guess the party, I would say Yisrael Beiteinu, but I have no idea. He said that 90% of the "infiltrators" weren't really refugees anyway, and were just coming into Israel because they wanted to, and Israel doesn't have the capacity for them. On the other side, others spoke who may have been MK Taleb el-Sana (United Arab List) and MK Dov Khenin (Hadash). All of these speeches were interrupted by outbursts from the floor; sadly, as noted above, I couldn't hear the interruptions.

Finally, PM Olmert got up to speak. It was clear that he was attempting to add gravitas -- his tone was more subdued than any of the previous speakers, most of whom got very excited, and he started by saying that it was important that the Knesset was having this discussion, since there were 40 MKs who thought it was an important discussion to have and submitted a petition. Then he started talking about how the infiltrators were here illegally, and large groups of them had crossed the border in the Sinai in the dead of night. As an American, I found both sides of this debate to be eerily familiar. He said that Israel can't just take whoever wants to come in. MK Ran Cohen yelled at Olmert repeatedly, and I really wish I could have heard what he said.

They called for a vote, and the vote passed overwhelmingly, and many of the MKs left. Unfortunately, I didn't hear what they were voting on. Perhaps a motion to table the discussion and continue it another time? Given the divisions that were apparent in the debate, I don't know what else could have passed so easily.

Voting in the Knesset is craaaaazy! Everyone has electronic voting devices at their seats, which I think is also true in the US Congress. The difference: Anyone who has ever watched C-SPAN knows that each house of Congress allows plenty of time (5 minutes? 10 minutes? I forget) for a vote, during which time C-SPAN cuts off the sound and plays classical music, while the numbers on the screen slowly increment and the cameras show members of Congress milling about on the floor. In the Knesset, they get 10 seconds! A number of times, the person speaking last had to run from the front of the room back to his seat so that he could vote before time ran out. So the TV screens in the front show a big yellow countdown: "10, 9, 8...", and then the results appear instantly. Eric Mazur would be proud. In addition to the numbers of ayes and nays, the screens also show a picture of the Knesset seating arrangement, with each seat colored green or red based on how they voted. During the various votes that I saw, I definitely noticed clusters of green and red, suggesting that they're sitting by party. Does anyone know what the Knesset's seating arrangement is? Obviously, it's more complicated than in a two-party system, where each party gets one side of the aisle.

After this, the Knesset considered a series of proposed bills. All were proposed by opposition MKs, all were subject to an upperdownvote, and all failed by a comfortable margin. So it's the sort of thing that would never make it to the floor in either house of the US Congress, since these bills would be held up in committee. The Knesset has committees too, so I guess I don't understand the Israeli "how a bill becomes a law" process.

The first proposal was from MK Avraham Ravitz (United Torah Judaism). For some reason I found Ravitz's Hebrew to be the easiest to understand. Perhaps he was speaking slower? Perhaps Hebrew isn't his native language (leading to speaking slower)? Perhaps his yeshiva background meant that his vocabulary/syntax/etc. was more familiar to me from the study of Jewish texts? Unclear.

Ravitz started by invoking the principle of equality. (When a UTJ representative starts talking about equality, keep one hand on your wallet.) He said that it is increasingly common in Israeli society that there are couples who are living together for many years but not legally married, and it's not fair that they should be treated differently from married couples. (A surprising thing to hear from a haredi MK!) Then he got into the specific situation: War widows are entitled to an IDF pension iff they are not remarried. If they get married, they forfeit their widows' benefits. Therefore, (Ravitz claims) some women have gotten wise to this, and are not marrying their longtime partners, so that they can still get their pensions. Some of these women are "traditional" and don't want to live together as a couple without marriage, and are therefore getting private kiddushin without getting formally married through the rabbanut. (Aha! So the "principle of equality" is a vehicle to avoid undermining the power of religious authorities.) To prevent these incentives not to get married, Ravitz proposed that married and unmarried widows be treated the same in regard to military pensions. He didn't mention any specifics.

Minister of Agriculture MK Shalom Simhon (Labor) got up to rebut the proposal, on behalf of Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. This led to an outcry from the floor and much gavel-banging, though as always, I couldn't hear what the outcry was about. Was it controversial that Barak was not present himself? Since Barak is not a member of Knesset himself, is it standard for him to address the Knesset anyway when relevant matters come up, or for him to send someone else? Simhon (on behalf of Barak; he may have been reading from prepared remarks) addressed the financial details of Ravitz's proposal (none of which Ravitz had addressed himself). I couldn't understand much of what he was saying, but I think it may have been that giving pensions to married widows would require reducing the pensions of unmarried widows (in order to balance the defense budget), and I think he may have used a Hebrew phrase corresponding to "adding insult to injury". Ravitz had 3 minutes to respond, and then the proposal came to a vote, and lost.

Next proposal: MK Effi Eitam (National Union) on "protection of soldiers". Since his voice frequently sent the sound system into overdrive, I couldn't figure out what the actual proposal was; all I could make out was the rhetoric. He was talking about how the soldiers serve in dangerous situations in Gaza and the West Bank. Given what I know about Eitam's politics, there's no chance that this was a "support the troops; bring them home" type of measure. Since this was another defense issue, Simhon got up again on behalf of Barak, and I caught the phrases "war crimes" and "international law". Eitam got up to respond, shouting even louder (if that's possible), and I heard "international law" again, but this time in a sneering tone. The proposal came to a vote, and lost. (Perhaps he was suggesting that IDF soldiers should have immunity from prosecution for war crimes? I have no idea.)

Next, MK Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) proposed an employment non-discrimination law. I didn't hear him specify what types of discrimination would be prohibited, but as a model he cited a California law banning discrimination based on race, sex, religion, and more. Wikipedia says that Sa'ar "has proposed bills to jail employers who fire pregnant women". So it's interesting to see that anti-disengagement Likudniks can be all over the map when it comes to domestic issues. There was no rebuttal or vote. Perhaps it was tabled for later discussion?

The last proposal I heard was from MK Benny Elon (National Union), and would require every student in public schools to visit the Kotel and the Old City of Jerusalem at some point during their education. He had proposed this a number of times before, with no success, and now had an axe to grind. He started off by railing against various MKs who had opposed it. He said it couldn't possibly make such a major dent in the budget if each student only has to go ONCE IN TWELVE YEARS. He must have repeated the phrase "ONCE IN TWELVE YEARS!" at least ten times, as he emphasized that his proposal was really not such a big deal (yet such a big deal). Elon is shocked, shocked, that 50% of incoming army recruits have never been to the Kotel before.

Minister of Education MK Yuli Tamir (Labor) responded, and clarified that she is still against the proposal, not only for budgetary reasons (as Elon had suggested) but for principled reasons as well. "Don't teach me what Zionism is! Don't teach me what love of Jerusalem is!" She said that the government shouldn't be legislating school trips, and this decision can be left to individual schools. She also said something about visiting the Knesset and Supreme Court (possibly along the lines of "If you're going to do that, then why not have everyone visit the Knesset and Supreme Court too?", but I'm not sure).

Elon got up again and said fine, they can visit the Knesset and Supreme Court too, what do I care. Then he said "ONCE IN TWELVE YEARS" many more times. The proposal came to a vote, and lost.

Then I left. In conclusion, I would totally go back. Free entertainment for hours on end!

On the way home I passed the youth center and thought "Don't these kids ever go to school?". And then I realized... the strike!


  1. I love this kind of stuff! My personal fave is watching UK Prime Minister's Questions on C-SPAN.

  2. Israeli bills don't go to committees until after the first reading (for government proposed laws) or the "preliminary reading" (for laws proposed by individual members)