Israeli elections (not a sabbatical update)

(A slight rant – you’ve been forewarned and I know I might not be popular with the views below)…There’s a couple of things that I think we in the diaspora Jewish community have to acknowledge, when viewing the Israeli election results (and more generally Israeli politics). I wrote this before reading Rabbi Creditor’s piece.

The first thing is, for those of us progressively minded who may be dismayed by the results. My friends in Israel who have expressed the feeling of loss in the recent results, principally it seems because they really thought this time round Netanyahu would lose (so psychologically the grief is greater and despondency even more manifest), are entitled to feel despondent about whether the electorate represents their progressive views. There’s no escaping the incendiary views that seemed to win Netanyahu’s likely continuation as Prime Minister. But we in the diaspora are not entitled in the same way. We don’t live there.

By which I mean to say, we can be concerned about the strength of non-progressive feeling (even if there wasn’t a ‘massive’ rightward swing). We can seek to support organisations that more accurately reflect our values and what we seek for the State (and two states), lobbying policy change – after all Netanyahu comfortably presents himself as ‘the’ spokesperson for the Jewish people. But you know what, in my lifetime here in the UK we had years of Thatcher and Tory governments, followed by years of Blair and Labour. I could feel that one or the other didn’t represent me, especially as I reached voting age. But it was the will of the electorate. If I wanted to change the government, I had the option of joining a political party and/or participating in protest and I could cast my vote. If I couldn’t persuade enough people to join ‘my’ cause then it was my problem. Which means, you can be unhappy with Israeli government policy, advocate for change in the political positioning, I can even be fed up with Netanyahu’s woeful record in leadership anywhere but his own power. But if you don’t live in Israel you can’t complain about who was elected. If you want to change the government (as opposed to the policies) then go and live in Israel and participate in the democratic process. If you’re Jewish or even ‘simply’ have a Jewish grandparent you can move to Israel under the law of return, become a citizen, pay taxes, vote as much as you like (which by the way is the other side of the coin to Netanyahu’s offer for French or Danish Jews to come to Israel after the terrible shootings). If you don’t live in Israel, don’t bleat about the choice the electorate has made. That my friends is democracy. And the more we despair the clearer the gulf between the diaspora Jewish community and Israel seems evident.

Now here’s the other thing that many of my close friends and colleagues in Israel might not state explicitly or don’t agree with me about, but for me this is a case for Zionism. This election makes clear, especially having read some moving posts by those articulating a view of politics in Israel, that casting a vote in Israeli elections is making one of the strongest, demonstrable examples of life-and-death Jewish decisions. And I know it’s not just Jews voting (and for that matter there are those directly affected by the election who are unable to vote). Let us, as if it were possible, for a moment not talk about the enfranchisement of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. I’m talking about the reality that day to day Judaism  is no longer, really, about these enormous decisions. It’s about who’s coming to the communal seder, complaining about Jewish leadership, choosing (or not) to join a synagogue, rising antisemitism. But casting a vote in the Israeli elections has clear ramifications for the future of the Jewish people in a way that little in the diaspora can.

Actually, it’s one of the deficiencies of Israeli politicians as I saw it this time round, and one of the deficiencies in Jewish leadership in the world. We no longer talk about visions for the Jewish people and the world in which we live. We don’t say often enough these are the values that I think should be manifested in my community and society and push a conversation around them. Not in specifics. But a vote in Israel, at least in an implicit way, is a way that the Jewish people understand their particular and universal vision and are given the chance to express that understanding – what it means to be Jewish (how to be) and what we want our relationship to the world around us (including our fellow citizens and neighbours) to be.

This year began with a frightening reminder of antisemitism and the threat it poses. As Jewish communities we have in the diaspora, especially in Europe, been faced again with the existential anxiety that merely being Jewish or identifying with the Jewish community can be life endangering. We have mourned again for Jewish blood shed on European soil. That anxiety has been all pervasive in the last three months in communal discussions. Now imagine if that anxiety was every day for decades. That is what hangs over the electorate when the votes are cast in Israel. Being Jewish counts for more than culture or niceties of communal politics. Jewish identity in Israel stands for, at least potentially, the possibility of life and the quality of life for all those who share life on a little sliver of land in the Middle East and all inhabitants of our tiny planet. That is the potential of Zionism. Not the tragic racism, bigotry, theocracy, inequality and occupation which these election results seem to reinforce.

Zionism is more than a romantic dream. It is the expression of a people’s identity. The opportunity to be and to become. The expression of a vision of a minority for the global society. No longer is Judaism bagels and bar mitzvah. It is values and vision. That’s what we have lost sight of I think. We obsess over us and them politics. We see shadowy figures of millennia of Jew hatred lurking at every street corner. We fight over communal politics and authenticity. We plutz over synagogue membership. We throw lavish Bar Mitzvah parties and go to our lovely cultural events. We have become blinkered and unimaginative. And we the leaders, preachers and speakers have fallen into this short sighted trap. It is time to speak again about visions and values, over and over until we’re heard, about turning our oldest gift of prophetic imagination into action.

Rant over, now back to giving some tzedakah (charity) to the organisations in Israel that share my progressive values and trying to support my friends who live in Israel who are at a loss for where progress towards peace, equality and justice will come from.

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2 thoughts on “Israeli elections (not a sabbatical update)

  1. Juliet Samuel March 19, 2015 / 8:43 am

    But what about the 2million Arabs who live there? (Not even including those on the Palestinian Territories). I know you said “putting them aside for a minute”, but they do also have a right to vote and, one hopes, would vote.

  2. Juliet Samuel March 19, 2015 / 8:46 am

    There’s also the argument by Arendt that once you are a state, you give up a lot of nice religious things you might have liked in your community (in return you get to not be persecuted). Voting will always to a large degree be about guns and butter.

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