There was a membership meeting at shul Saturday night to discuss plans to finish our building’s unfinished basement. A well-meaning, socially-concerned member (true, those labels apply to pretty much everyone in Kehilat Yedidya ) suggested that democratic procedures required that we poll the entire community, asking each and every member whether they favor or oppose the proposal.
If you’ve ever been involved in synagogue governance, or served on a PTA board, or tried to run any other organization, no matter how mundane, you’ll know why I started turning red. You work together with other concerned members and, through a process of study and deliberation, weigh various options, compromise between opposing views, and put together the best plan you can. Then you bring it before the membership and everyone becomes a partisan and wants to go back to square one. If the meeting isn’t well-managed, all your work is for naught.
How anti-democratic of me! I’ve been accused of precisely such dictatorial tendencies on several occasions during my life. But my socially-concerned, democratically-committed fellow-Yedidyan was wrong. In properly-functioning democracies, not everyone gets to decide everything. And an overdose of public involvement can in fact subvert true democratic process. It’s just such a surfeit of democratic politics that has turned Israel into a nearly non-functioning democracy in recent years, and led to a situation where Israelis will be presented in February with a choice of notably mediocre candidates for its legislature.
Paul Starr’s review</a of Nancy Rosenblum’s book On the Side of the Angels: An appreciation of Parties and Partisanship in the last issue but one of The New Republic summarizes the problems with participatory democracy. When everyone decides everything—and this can be directly, through a referendum (a reform that has, thankfully, not reached Israel yet), or indirectly through such devices as primary elections—the public is polarized. Voters and candidates are pushed into taking black-and-white, yes-or-no positions on complex issues.
Yet the essence of representative democracy is compromise and the creation of consensus. A legislature is better at setting policy for a country than a poll of the citizenry is because opposing interests can be balanced and majorities created. For the same reason, a small committee can create a building plan, while an entire synagogue membership never can.
Kehilat Yedidya’s kitchen is tiny and members often ask why we made it so small. But the size of the kitchen, like so many other details, was the product of deliberation over how to allocate limited space to a large variety of needs. Presenting such an issue to the full membership would have polarized the community between proponents of a big kitchen and proponents of a larger multipurpose space; with 250 people involved in making the decision no deliberation and compromise would have been possible.
Israel needs institutions that promote deliberation and compromise and discourage grandstanding and polarization. We need to bring back the back-room deal and to reinstate party bosses. Today we don’t have democracy—we have chaos.