I think it’s important to spend a minute here and take a step back from a larger perspective. Here Israel is, in the Middle East- surrounded by failed and failing states, country’s imposing religious persecution and violating human rights (Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt as not-so-friendly neighbors just to name a few). All of these countries are Muslim states, and Israel, as a Jewish state, is also a country founded on religious belief. Amidst all of the political chaos in the region, Israel emerges as the only country founded on Democratic principles in the Middle East. Although technically not a democracy (seeing as there is a Parliament), the country has been able to maintain ideals upholding freedom and equality. Obviously not perfect in any way, and not without criticism of minority populations, the political system in Israel is one of unique diversity.
First fun fact is that Israel’s Parliament is called the Knesset, named after the body of government that ruled over the Land of Israel back in the times of the second temple. Synagogues, temples, and shuls here in Israel are also called Beit Knesset (הכנסת בית), and literally translates in English to “gathering or assembly.” There are 120 MK’s (Members of Knesset), which are arranged in the voting room in the shape of menorah… which we also learned is coincidentally the same shape as most other Parliaments as well. There are representatives from Jewish, Arab, and Christian populations coming form more than 10 political parties.
There are no districts or constituents in the small country of Israel, just parties. The party in government sits on one side and the opposition party, facing the other. The two main parties are Likud and Labor, and in order to be party in government you need a simple majority of the votes. This means coalitions form constantly in order to tip the scale in favor of the 61 required votes. The Prime Minister, currently Benjamin (Bibi) Netenyahu of the Likud party, sits at a normal seat just like any other MK because here in the legislature he is just another ordinary MK. It is in the Executive Branch that his role of Prime Minister earns him the gold star. There are two permitted official languages in the Knesset—Hebrew and Arabic. I think everyone was shocked to learn that unless spoken by a special foreign guest, affairs cannot be discussed in English.
Inside the voting chamber there are three floors. The ground floor is where the MK’s sit. The second floor looks directly down on them from around the room and has reserved spaces for special VIP guests such as foreign heads of state and family members of MK’s, the media, and of course for the President and other prominent Israeli figures (yes, Israel does have a President, Reuven Rivlin). The third floor is behind a wall of bulletproof glass where any Israeli citizen or visiting guest with a valid passport can sit to observe. Why the bulletproof glass you may ask? Years ago there was an incident where a mentally-ill Israeli man threw a hand grenade into the parliament on the first floor below. So, to learn from the past an easy solution was to just create a clear wall so people can still see what’s going on while further eliminating security threats. One thing that was very clear to me if nothing else: the Knesset stresses the importance of transparency in the government. Local television stations are dedicated to live streaming of all floor proceedings, similar to C-SPAN in the US.
After hearing from a legal department representative at the Knesset, we also ventured to Israel’s Supreme Court. To be honest, I think I “nerded out” enough over the Knesset… so I’ll just choose to focus here on the architectural marvels that I happened to remember. Maybe it will help to paint a bit of a picture. Walking into the Supreme Court you have one wall on the right made of Jerusalem stone; the other is a plain white wall. Walking up on an inclined pathway you are surrounded by a clash of the “old” and the “new.” In Israel, lawyers and judges wear the same garments and black robes, so it’s harder to distinguish the positions. Another fun fact: the two main halls of judges look inwards towards a courtyard that is modeled after the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Funny enough, because as we were walking through that was the first thing that popped into my head!!!
In other news, my parents and sister are flying into Israel today for the week so I know that I will be eating like a queen :) We are supposed to go to Haifa and Sfat for little tiyulim so I am excited for that. My Hebrew Ulpan classes are scheduled to end in a few weeks, and I am trying to get as much out of them as possible before I am left to my own motivations to continue learning this incredibly difficult language. I am still volunteering when I can in the garden in Petah Tikva, tutoring English for a family friend to make some money on the side, and attending all of the rest of the MASA programming before it falls to the backburners for the second half of the year.
I really can’t believe this week marks my fourth month in Israel. In some ways it feels like I’ve been here forever, and in others, I feel like I just got here yesterday. I am surprisingly not bored by the monotony of my routine yet (probably because there isn’t much monotony!), so I am just waking up every day refreshed and happy to be here :D