Sunday, November 02, 2003

"This could never happen in Russia," Said the security guard disapprovingly. "The elections there were much better organized." Russia, well, there's a nice stable democracy for you, I thought, but didn't say anything out loud. The security guard looked rather forbidding. He went on to explain that there was no campaigning on Election Day in Russia, but they gave out free food and drink in the polling station. Good way to get the starving masses to come and vote, I thought. Well, the street outside this polling station, in a notoriously crime-ridden neighborhood, in a satellite town south of Tel Aviv, on Municipal Election Day last Tuesday, was obviously nothing like Russia. It didn't resemble anything I'd seen before either, in the various polling stations in better neighborhoods, where I'd always cast my vote for the past twenty years. They were always orderly and organized, with a quiet, responsible, business-like air of "Let's all do our civic duty like good citizens".

This was more like a carnival, a happy-go-lucky street party. "There was a big brawl out here last elections," The security guard informed me. Delightful, I thought.

It looked like the whole neighborhood had shown up, mainly to make a bit of money by working for the various parties, if not to vote. There was a great deal of campaigning going on, with definitely far more party activists around than voters. Party activists were running after passers-by calling after them to vote for their parties, brightly decorated trucks were driving past with music and jingles blaring out, kids whizzed by on scooters and bikes, party banners trailing behind them, party activists haggled with the befuddled-looking policewoman in charge, to allow them to move their tables a few meters nearer the entrance to the polling station. They were all too close as it was. Lacking backup (according to the talkative security guard), the policewoman had given up trying to keep them to the mandatory twenty-five meters.

The street had everything necessary for a lively, exciting Election Day, even a pizza vendor, trying to attract customers to his nearby pizzeria. Everything except voters, that is. Actually, this was not strictly true. Every so often, one of the musical trucks stopped to let out a Shas (Sephardi ultra-religious party) activist along with an elderly lady, usually at least in her eighties. The Shas activist would then gently escort the elderly lady into the school that was serving as a polling station.

The party activists were busy trying to justify the salaries their parties were paying them by trying to give out voting slips to passers-by. At one point this activity became so aggressive that one man, after having three such voting slips stuffed in his hand against his will, bellowed out "Voting slips, voting slips! Who else has a voting slip for me?" Then dramatically threw the voting slips on the ground in disgust. Another woman wasn't interested in voting slips, but she really wanted some of the T-shirts the party activists were wearing. She asked the security guard if he could organize any for her. He threw up his arms in angry frustration.

Shas activists were handing out presents to those coming out of the polling station, a framed photograph of the venerable Rav Ovadia and a little booklet of Psalms. I heard them asking one woman, before presenting her with her little bag of goodies, "You did vote for us, didn’t you?" "Betah, betah" (Sure, sure), she answered and winked at me, a twinkle in her eye.

Later, I visited my regular North Tel Aviv polling station, in the girls' old school. It was sleepy. I didn't even see any campaigners. They were all round the corner, adhering docilely to the twenty-five meter thing. Weary from my morning experience, I'd made a short cut through a parking lot, so I wouldn't have to pass them. Not that it would have mattered. This was an indifferent bunch. Shas didn't even bother with this part of the world, so everything was very quiet. No musical cars. In fact, it was all extremely civilized and subdued. Everyone was quite well behaved and European. But oh, how boring.

Hard to believe it was the same country.

Footnote: On National Election Day, one year, my mother-in-law called me up on the phone and surprised me by saying "Hag Same'ach" (Happy Festival!). In her view, the day we get to participate in deciding who is to run our lives is a joyous occasion, a festival.

I thoroughly enjoyed the short time I happened to spend in the street outside the polling station in that tough blue-collar neighborhood, because the people there made me feel that the democratic process really was a festival, a cause for much gaiety and dancing in the streets. Yes, voters are fed up of having to come and vote all the time. Yes, participation was lower than ever before. I agree that it was probably a lot tenser at that same polling station at the National Elections at the end of last year. These were only the Municipal Elections. But there was no mistaking that these people were having fun.

Prophets of doom in Israel, most of them writers in Haaretz newspaper, like to rant regularly about the untimely demise of Israeli democracy. Last Tuesday I saw democracy as experienced by people, most of whom will never once in their life bother to read anything written on the longwinded comment pages of Haaretz. And it was clear that they really believed in the process.

It seems Israeli democracy doesn't belong solely to the left wing, Ashkenazi, Haaretz-reading affluent after all. South Tel Aviv style democracy may look a bit different, and sound a bit different, but I still believe it has good, strong roots. What a discovery!