We are told that it was Winston Churchill who said that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that that have been tried from time to time.”
There seems to be little doubt that Churchill was correct. Democracy has many faults. It is inherently slow to respond to quick-moving events, in as much as it needs to involve both majority and minority opinions in the conversation. It is an inherently inefficient form of governing when compared to dictatorships or monarchies. It would be simple to list its faults.
But democracy has one strength that is undeniable: it provides an opportunity for multiple voices to weigh in on issues and, when committed to its essence, it insures that minority opinions are publicly voiced. Sometimes those minority voices have the power to affect necessary change that an entrenched authority is reluctant to make for political, financial or self-absorbed ideological reasons.
One only has to look at the impact that surviving students at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School have had on the issue of gun control in the United States. The massacre of their classmates mobilized them to challenge the established patterns that have evolved after these tragedies: lots of talk, no action. While some might see the response as an example of community organization at its best, community mobilization cannot take place without the trappings of democracy. I am under no illusion that these idealistic and committed students will be able to push the United States toward gun laws and regulations that exist in almost every other industrialized country in the world. Yet their actions are a reminder of how powerful alternative voices can be in a democracy.
As I watched these brave and motivated students demand action, I was reminded of how often our own community is reluctant to allow fresh views and opinions to see the light of day. On February 14, Andrew Cohen published an opinion piece in the Ottawa Citizen that asked many important questions about the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).
He correctly identified its many – 18 – priorities and even praised them. “Much of CIJA’s work is commendable, even indispensable,” he noted.
“Indeed,” Cohen wrote, “some of its work is motherhood: protecting schools, promoting Kosher food, improving palliative care and fighting anti-Semitism.”
I believe he went too far when he suggested that individuals who disagree with CIJA withhold their contributions to the Ottawa Jewish Community’s annual campaign. Community, like democracy, means participating even when not in agreement with every initiative.
But Cohen was not out of line when he questioned the ability of the group to speak for Canadian Jewry. It is true that CIJA held a community consultation and the Jewish Federation of Ottawa distributed a questionnaire on CIJA’s behalf. But how many individuals participated in either? How was the information used?
Democracy requires a two-way mechanism of communication in order to accurately represent “the people.” Cohen was not wrong in suggesting that CIJA’s advocacy on behalf of the State of Israel was not reflective of the spectrum of opinion held by the Jewish Community in Canada.
He correctly identified that advocacy for Israel has become advocacy for the position of the government of Israel. There are many Canadians, as well as many here in Ottawa, who are ohavei Yisrael (lovers of Israel), but not supporters of the current government and its policies. All too often the two are conflated. One can love Israel and disagree with the government’s position. These disagreements do not disqualify one as a supporter of the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.
Cohen suggests, perhaps correctly, that CIJA was born out of frustration with the slow democratic nature of the Canadian Jewish Congress. The founders of CIJA found that too many views frustrates the ability to speak with a singular voice to government. The founders of CIJA seem to believe that a singular voice offers a greater possibility of enlisting Canadian governmental support for the government of Israel.
Unfortunately, a singularity of voices may have exactly the opposite effect. It may lead to not only a rejection of Israeli positions, but an ambivalence about Israel itself. It may lead to many Canadians wondering why their neighbours and CIJA speak with different voices.
Our community would be best served if CIJA were to open its office windows and allow the fresh air of new ideas and new views to waft through. Our community would be best served if many more of us participated in the untidiness of democracy, which is so vibrant in Israel. This untidiness needs to be reflected in our own advocacy organizations.