Knesset contingent teaches a crash course in Israel 101

For anyone weary of television news showing rocket attacks from Gaza and U.S. political infighting, the visit here of five enthusiastic parliamentarians from Israel last week was a breath of fresh air.

The youthful Knesset delegation — even those pushing middle age looked buff — came to California mainly to meet and talk shop with city and state legislators in Los Angeles and Sacramento.

They also spent time with Jewish community leaders, clergy of many faiths, and participated in an informative session on planned Israeli government reforms.

“Talking to the Knesset members gave color and context to what’s going on in Israel beneath the surface of news reports,” said Ron Leibow, chairman of the Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee, which organized and hosted the visit.

Not by accident, the five Knesset members personified the ideological and ethnic diversity of Israel. Most startling for those accustomed to daily headlines of Jewish-Arab confrontations was the presence of Nadia Hilou, a chic, blondish Arab Christian grandmother, representing the left-wing Labor Party.

She was flanked at an interfaith luncheon Friday, hosted by the Board of Rabbis, by Knesset members Shlomo Molla of the centrist Kadima Party, who was born in a small Ethiopian village, and Yoel Hasson, also of Kadima, whose grandfather came from Tunisia.

Rounding out the delegation were Moshe Kahlou, born in Libya, of the right-wing Likud party and Ophir Pines-Paz of Labor, who were not present at Friday’s event.

Karmel Melamed’s Iranian American Jews blog has more on this visit, including an audio podcast.

At the interfaith luncheon, Los Angeles showcased its own religious diversity, with Methodist, Presbyterian, Mormon, Roman Catholic and Baha’i clergy and lay leaders joining rabbis and Federation representatives.

The three visitors spoke warmly of their meetings with city council members and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and later, in Sacramento, with some 35 state senators and assemblymen, plus Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Afterward, the visitors spoke informally to The Journal, stressing how Ashkenazi-Sephardi and other ethnic divisions, which not so long ago were seen as a real threat to Israeli unity, have become largely a nonissue.

“We’re now all part of the Israeli mosaic,” Hilou said.

Earlier in the week, Pines-Paz, Hasson and Hilou gave a crash course on Israeli politics, focusing on a bill introduced by Pines-Paz to drastically reform Israel’s electoral system and government structure.

With widespread agreement in Israel that the present system of electing the 120 Knesset members by countrywide party lists, rather than by individual constituencies, is dysfunctional and guarantees perpetual political instability, the question now is how far the reforms will go.

Pines-Paz’s bill, based on lengthy studies by a presidential commission of 70 men and women, provides for the direct election of 60 Knesset members from 17 regional constituencies, and another 60 through the current national party lists.

Alongside numerous other recommendations, Pines-Paz said the bill, if passed, would cut down on the proliferation of small mini-parties, which contribute to the system’s instability, reduce the number of cabinet ministers, tighten party discipline and boost public participation.

The fact that the average Israeli has practically no way to influence, or punish, his national or local legislator “causes much concern about the future of Israeli democracy,” Pines-Paz said.

Hasson said he backs the reform plan, while Hilou warned that the proposed electoral reforms would lessen the viability of women and minority candidates.

A reporter from a local Hebrew-language publication asked why Israeli expatriates living abroad are not allowed to vote in Israeli elections by absentee ballots.

Pines-Paz rejected the idea, asserting that the vote should be limited to those living in Israel, who are directly affected by the choice of leaders.

The political discussion was presented under the auspices of the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel (CECI), founded by Los Angeles entrepreneur Parvis Nazarian, which has launched an ambitious voter education program in Israel.