“The New Politics” is the favourite spin in the aftermath of the UK general elections Phrases like “hearing the voice of the electorate”,“for the good of the nation”, “stable government”, “tough decisions” and are already well worn. Observers watch the minutiae for any sign that all is not well with the first government coalition since 1945. For right of centre Conservatives, “first past the post” is in their political DNA; any electoral reform is anathema. For their Liberal Democrat opposites, electoral reform is an absolute and the chance of achieving it compelled them to coalesce. Whilst both parliamentary parties approved the deal their leaders proposed, a referendum on electoral reform isn’t happening tomorrow.
Other election models exist and one with which many British voters are unfamiliar is Germany’s which mixes both proportional representation and constituency as its basis and has survived 50 years of German democracy. Another with which some British voters may be vaguely aware is Israel’s. The minutiae of it would escape them, but they note its propensity for crashing in advance of its full term, and the preponderance of tiny parties which become sine quae non for the creation of this or that government.
In the heat of those frenetic hours before the historical coalition formation, “the arithmetic doesn’t add up” daunted a Labour-Liberal Democrat arrangement. The much vaunted “chance to create real progressive politics” by Labour and Liberal Democrat sources gained some traction. But, it all rang hollow when it became obvious that it would depend upon the three “devolved nations”, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Northern Irish were the most referenced as having only one consideration – lots of money from the UK, and at a time when the UK doesn’t have it. This sounded very familiar territory to any Israeli voter, like me.
Of course there is no direct parallel between the UK and Israel. The culture and histories are entirely separate even if they once collided in the dimming days of Empire and Mandate. The Israeli media became feverish at the notion that Nick Clegg, seen by them as the most anti-Israeli UK politician, would partner with Labour. This lack of any real understanding of either Clegg or his party smacks of the kind of ignorant dismissal with which they treat President Obama.
There is some synergy in how UK and Israeli electorates have felt about their political classes. In the UK the electorate was saying “none of you alone deserve to lead us; all of you have been tainted with the expenses scandal”. Israelis have given up on their political class. What they do about it is disconcerting. They condone corruption by not speaking out about it and demanding new leadership and legislation to eradicate it. They keep electing people whose promises of peace and stability are vacuous. They resent and reject external criticism even if they voice the self same criticisms.
This last is reflected in how the Israeli media and some of its politicians have reacted to the emergence of J Street. There is a palpable softening of that, less “anti-Zionist” “self-hating Jew” rhetoric, after J Street’s meeting with US Ambassador Oren, who had rejected their invitation to their inaugural last October, and with President Peres and other luminaries earlier this month in Israel.
There is more than a tinge of paranoia in the general tone still. It’s a kind of “how dare they question us?” A constant response is “they don’t pay our taxes or wear our uniforms”. Many J Street supporters have done both, but all believe in and support the continued existence of Israel. They just don’t think they should shut up any more with their criticisms, but still keep sending Israel their cash.
J Street is nothing like the “hodgepodge of anti-Zionists, Israel supporters who identify with leftist Meretz ideology, and decent but naive people who don’t always know what’s going on in Israel,” as described by Shlomo Avineri in Haaretz last week. It is a movement of some 170,000 American Jews that has taken at least three years in research and development, and is lead by people who are genuinely Pro-Israel and Pro-Peace. Had it been a hodgepodge, President Obama would not have sent his National Security Adviser General George Jones to speak in his name at the inaugural. And Jones knows a thing or too about our little conflict.
Avineri ignores the obvious – that the US is the leading western power with a primary role in resolving the conflict. Its Jews are predominant in Diaspora-Israel relations and are very often – some feel too often – the fall back of Israeli politicians at odds with US administrations. Of all Diaspora communities, American Jewry has the most influence over Israel, far beyond that of European Jews whose very post-Shoah existence is something of a mystery to many Israelis and whose governments are frequently branded with the two “antis” – Israel and Semite- despite representing Israel’s most necessary trade markets.
Perhaps it was the ‘vision-statement-and-signatures’ approach of J Call that appealed more to Avineri. J Call seeks to create a movement of Jews across Europe which expresses an almost universal Jewish identity with and support for Israel but which shares a deep anxiety about Israel’s future and is no longer scared to say so. The differences between J Call and J Street are reflected in different cultures and histories and thence how to express the idea and attract support.
The political reality is entirely different. J Street lobbies in support of the Obama administration’s Mid-East policy and draws its strength from a community located in the nation that leads the West. In some senses the EU is already where Obama is. Amongst profound questions J Call must answer is whether there is to be a joint EU policy direction, or different policies for different European governments, or both. J Call having announced its intentions in Brussels on May 3rd now has to package the reality of what its stands for and that is no mean feat. J Call has to unite the diversity of Europe’s national, cultural and linguistic paradigms. Unlike J Street which can claim to speak for the heretofore silent majority of Progressive American Jews, J Call does not enjoy a pan European Progressive Jewish hinterland – the Progressive voice is not yet a dominant force in European Jewish life.
What is happening is Topsy Turvy. UK politics may indeed never be the same again. Diaspora-Israel relations are in the throes of a fundamental and urgent re-assessment. The former is prompted by external economic circumstances which are of such crisis proportions the electorate could not trust one party to solve them. Successive Israeli governments have acted not only without accountability to the family of nations it claims to be part of, but without answering the very people it serves. What Israel faces is potentially much more catastrophic than a financial crash. The vibe generated by J Call in Brussels is identical to that of J Street – Diaspora Jews care deeply for and about Israel. Rather then denying caring voices, Israel must listen to the family it has.