By Andrew Pico
I’ve lived in functioning Democracies my whole life, but I’ve never actually had the opportunity to witness the work of Democracy happen right in front of me – until last week. I had the opportunity to accompany my colleague Yael Yechieli, Shatil Coordinator for religious freedom, to a few Knesset Committee meetings about a few different topics. The Israeli Knesset features both permanent and temporary committees about various subjects – Education, Finance, Foreign Affairs, Immigration, etc. Their purpose is to discuss pertinent issues, amend bills up for negotiation and to initiate new bills related to Basic Law or the Knesset itself. Shatil experts in various fields that get invited to these meetings give up-to-date knowledge about what is happening on the ground and consult with committee members about the right questions to ask based on their first-hand experience. Yael was able to direct the conversation in more relevant, productive directions based on reality, not on what some committee members might just assume to be true. The Knesset works better and more efficiently when people like Yael can keep decision-makers up-to-date and knowledgeable about specific happenings.
I haven’t been exposed to any government buildings other than the United Nations building in New York City, so I was immediately taken aback by the grandeur of the architecture and surrounding space. It had a brutalist quality to it with clear Greek influence, with large white columns surrounding the main building and a wide-open empty space leading up to the main entrance. Government buildings seem to be built to send a clear message, that the Nation exudes strength, longevity and independence. Immediate physical environments tend to have practical influences on the way we behave, feel and present ourselves so I can imagine walking into such a building every day for work would remind you of the gravity and impact of your work, that what you do has real impact on the lives of your people. Even though I was just coming to listen and absorb the experience, I couldn’t help but feel some of that heaviness on my shoulders.
During my visit I sat in on three different committee meetings. They dealt with transparency of information regarding religious services, immigration and Aliyah about Eastern European citizens whose Jewish status is continually questioned by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox dominated religious establishment, and about whether to change Israeli secular law to Jewish Halacha (religious Jewish law) or not. They all included heated discussions and a lot of disagreement. At times (especially in the secular/religious law meeting) there seemed to be more yelling and talking over each other than having the respect to listen. It was a shining example of the quintessential Israeli method of discussion, where differing opinions and ideas fight to be represented, only in the end to have none really prevail. There were some emotional moments as well, where we listened to a particular individual’s issues dealing with the Israeli religious authority and his religion being put into question.
Overall, I was impressed by the honest, frank discussion being had in these meetings. As much as it can seem like governmental institutions don’t have the interests of the citizenry in mind, I was pleasantly reminded that there are many good, honest representatives sweating every day to effect positive change in society on the institutional level. I was able to see first-hand how organizations like Shatil and the experts in their employ engage in these important discussions in order to have important, tangible effects on social change.