Israel Got a Blackjack This Week

It’s my understanding that Blackjack has the best odds of any game in a casino. It also happens to be my game of choice. Stake me at a table with others who play the rules, give me coffee and restroom breaks, and come fetch me a few days later. I think I literally could play for days. While doubling down and splitting can result in better wins, there is nothing that gives that rush of getting dealt a blackjack. You get a moment of respite as the dealer pays you out immediately (3:2 in most casinos) if the dealer him/herself does not have blackjack. You then get to enjoy watching everyone else play their hands. A blackjack hand is the shortest play at the table in terms of time.

Israel got a blackjack this week with its own 21. The 21st Knesset is, by far, the shortest Knesset ever convened. It will dissolve for new elections on September 27. It will be a total of about 20 short weeks with no real government formed with a majority coalition. A source of pride we often repeat is that Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East.” To quote Rabbi Yehuda Kurtzer, “I don’t know about [the] ‘only democracy in the Middle East’ but with two elections in six months, it’s definitely [the] ‘MOST democracy in the Middle East!’”

For Israelis, it’s frustrating, unnerving, disappointing or – for many – boring or Israeli politics as usual, but for me and so many American Jews, it is so powerful and awesome to understand how messy and truly representative Israeli democracy can be. As a quick primer, Israelis vote for parties, not people. Those parties then present lists of who will get in and in what order based on how many seats they get. There are 120 seats (number in the ancient Sanhedrin = seats in the Knesset). Once a party achieves at least 3.25% of the total vote, they get whatever percentage seats of the total vote achieved. Both Likud and Blue & White got 35 seats in the last election. That means each achieved 29% of the total vote. Twenty-nine percent of 120 is 35. (Ask a Jewish day school student if you need help following the math.)

That’s only the first part because no party, ever, has won a majority of seats. Golda Meir (HaMa’arakh - Alignment Party) was the closet with 56 seats won in 1969. So what to do? The President of Israel appoints the party— almost always the party who won the most seats, to form a coalition to get a majority of seats. This is where the negotiations begin with cabinet positions, political promises and personal favors. This time around, the negotiations fell apart primarily over the position held by Yisrael Beytenu led by Avigdor Liberman regarding a bill for drafting haredi Jews (ultra-Orthodox). They are all right wing parties that were negotiating, but Yisrael Beytenu is a secular-Zionist party while the others in the potential coalition were religious besides Likud itself. 

It is interesting that the secular-religious divide prevented a government from being formed while we, as Diaspora Jews and our Jewish Federation movement, advocate regularly in Israel for religious pluralism. The truth is, in Israel today Jews are either religious or secular with the non-orthodox movements (Reform and Conservative) barely breaking a few percentage points of the affiliated population. Perhaps if Israelis were more open to experiencing other authentic and even halachic ways to be Jewish, the rift between secular and religious, Diaspora and Israeli would be smaller. Too often from my Jewish summer camp and Hillel professional experiences with Israeli staff have I heard them say, “I came to America as an Israeli, and I am going home a Jew.” American Jewish life has something to offer our Israeli family. 

Twenty-one is a lucky number— a multiple of seven which is holy, and let’s not forget my beloved blackjack. I am more interested than optimistic about what will come about for the 22nd Knesset, but in my casino game of choice, it’s a bust.

Shabbat Shalom,

PS - Want to see what else I've been saying? Check out my past articles.