Towards the First Citizen's Assembly in Israel
The erosion of representative democracy is widely evident the world over. At its core, it is a crisis of governance, bellying weakened ability to serve vital public interests of fundamental and complex problems. These include issues such as: reducing the socio-economic gap, providing decent health and welfare services and the future of education and dealing effectively with a global pandemic as the covid-19 crisis.
This crisis of governance is coupled with a deep public mistrust in the democratic process and institutions, further undermining the ability of governments to solve complex important problems such as the climate and ecological crises.
At the same time, a growing number of experiments are attempting to renew the institutions and the tools of democracy – many with a great deal of success – by increasing the power of citizens at large to participate and influence decision making processes, on local and national levels.
These new models of participatory and deliberative democracy represent a turning point in the theory and practice of democracy. They are dedicated to strengthen work for the common good, and infuse the vital inputs of citizens’ wisdom and experience at the heart of the policy making and legislative processes.
What Are Citizens' Assemblies?
One of the most renowned examples of these innovations is known as the “citizens’ assembly,” has been used in a variety of contexts around contentious and complex issues such as democratic reform, local sustainability and climate change. In a citizens’ assembly the participants are randomly chosen to be a representative sample of the broader public. This group, numbering usually between 100-150 male and female citizens, are a sort of “mini-public,” statistically representative of key demographics (gender, age, geographic origin, socio-economic status, race, religion, education, etc.).
This group – the citizens’ assembly – undergoes a process designed to make recommendation on a specific public policy issue. This includes an extensive learning process, meetings with experts and key stakeholders, a facilitated deliberation process and the arrival at a consensus or widely agreed upon recommendations for proposed policies. The assembly sets about its work with a mandate from the national parliament or relevant sovereign political body, which has invited the input of the assembly and has committed to taking its policy proposals seriously in the formulation of policy.
Citizens' Assemblies Around the World
The proliferation of citizens’ assemblies is gathering steam all over the world. These are proving to be a useful model to complement and refine the capabilities of representative democracies. In Ireland, for instance, an assembly, formed in 2018. recommended a revision of the law to legalize abortions, putting an end to a decades-long source of conflict in Ireland. Other assemblies have taken place in different countries such as Canada and the Netherlands on contested issues such as election reform, and most recently, with a growing number of local and national assemblies set up on how to deal with the climate emergency.
For instance, in France a Citizens’ Convention, convened in response to the yellow vest protest (movement des gilets jaunes), used the model to draft policy measures for climate adaptation and mitigation measures in the country. The Convention has submitted its recommendations to President Emanuel Macron in June 2020. The French government is currently working to implement the conclusions of the assembly, which include changes needed to the French Constitution. Other assemblies have been set up in the U.K. Belgium, Iceland, Austria and Australia.
Citizens' Assembly in Israel
Inspired by these examples, and cognizant of the necessity for revitalizing modes of democratic deliberation and discussion, the Heschel Center this year spearhead a coalition of activists, representatives of civil society organizations and experts to enact the first citizens’ assembly in Israel on dealing with climate change. This civic initiative has charted a course of building the necessary infrastructure and capacities for this to come to fruition. The group has launched several action tracks: a) to inform and raise widespread public awareness about citizens’ assemblies b) build know-how and capacity, c) to convene an experts advisory board d) to lobby and secure official government mandate for first citizens’ assembly in Israel on the topic of policy to address the climate crisis in Israel.
To convene the first citizens’ assembly in Israel on climate change by December 2021. We view this objective, as a vital stepping stone in laying the groundwork for adopting deliberative democracy in practice and enhancing authentic citizens’ participation on all levels in Israel- on essential topics and issues important to the achieving the common good in Israel.
Dr. David Dunetz, leads education, climate and collaborative democracy projects at the Heschel Center. He was an IPPI Fellow in 2019 at the Institute of Advanced Sustainability (IASS) in Potsdam, Germany, where he researched Citizens’ Assemblies and citizen participatory models in the sustainability policy arena. This resulted in a policy paper which he authored.
Dr. David Dunetz, head of climate and collaborative democracy has travelled to Potsdam, Germany, to research Citizens’ Assemblies.