There is a long-overdue conversation which must be had. It will not be a particularly pleasant one, but it is essential all the same.
When the self-defined ‘pro Israel, pro peace’ group Yachad set up shop in the UK last year, its ‘statement of core principles‘ placed it firmly on the Left of the political map. Whilst history has proved time and time again that ‘Left’ does not necessarily equate to ‘democratic’, Yachad does claim to be “committed to Israel as a democratic and Jewish state”.
Let us, for the time being, put to one side the irksome fact that despite the above claim, Yachad appears to have no qualms about co-operating and collaborating with a whole plethora of organisations and individuals decidedly less than dedicated to maintaining a democratic Jewish state – including its support for the non-negotiated unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state and its latest excursion into Ben White territory, as documented here.
The conversation I believe we must have is about democracy, and it is one which also applies to other bodies acting in a similar manner to Yachad, such as J Street and the New Israel Fund.
A basic principle of democracy is that the citizens of a given nation together, by means of universal suffrage, determine the policy, laws and actions of their state. Democracy is also based upon the important principles of equality and freedom. Under the democratic system in the State of Israel – to which Yachad claims to be committed – every citizen over the age of 18, whose name appears on the electoral roll, may vote. That right to vote is not, of course, dependent upon religious affiliation, ethnic background, wealth, or any other factor which would undermine the principle of universal suffrage.
And yet, despite not being citizens of the State of Israel and therefore not eligible to take part in the democratic system, the members of Yachad and similar groups seek to influence the policies, laws and actions of that state. In fact, they seek to side-step Israeli democracy which, despite their fine declarations, is obviously something which deeply disappoints them.
The members of Yachad are of course by no means the first to be disappointed by and frustrated with the results of democracy. In fact, such disappointments can be said to be an inherent part of the system, but the art of preserving and safeguarding a democracy is rooted in the recognition of the very simple fact that although it is a system under which one does not always get the results one wished for, those results must be upheld and respected all the same.
From the Geneva Initiative to J Street and Yachad, there have long been those who tried to circumvent the will of the people when the will of the people did not square up to their own ideals and expectations. The common denominator between such bodies is that they are convinced that they know better than the Israeli voters – whom only they can save from themselves.
And so, such groups (claiming to speak for an unquantifiable number of people because they have been elected by no-one) will try to bypass the annoyances produced in plenty by the democracy they claim to uphold through the use of money and the influence it buys: antithesis to the idea of democracy if ever there was one, as well as being inherently foreign to Left-wing ideals.
A clear example of this was seen only a couple of weeks ago in a Knesset sub-committee meeting in which the unelected leader of an unelected body claiming to represent British Jews (who, incidentally, also took credit for the formation of Yachad) informed those present that for the UK Jewish community to be effective in the support of Israel, the voices of their leaders (ie the speaker) must be heard within Israel.
But not only is the idea that interested parties unable and unwilling to take part in the democratic process in Israel should bypass that process by means of hard cash abhorrent. The members of these foreign Jewish groups also seem remarkably unconcerned by the fact that 20% of Israeli voters are not Jewish. What moral right can Jewish groups such as Yachad claim to have as they coincidentally attempt to influence the futures and lives of Israel’s Muslim, Druze, Christian, Bahai, Bedouin and Circassian citizens?
One will often hear the argument put forward that because all Jews are in theory entitled to make aliyah and become Israeli citizens, the voices of Jews abroad – members of the Jewish nation – should be heard in Israel on an equal footing. That argument is, of course, not supported by Israeli law, which makes taking part in the democratic process conditional upon citizenship. Even if we were to put aside the fact that the right to vote is dependent upon certain obligations such as living in the country, paying taxes and contributing military service, there is another facet to that argument too.
The voices we hear from abroad trying to influence Israeli policy come exclusively from the West. Even if one did contemplate the idea that Jews abroad should have a stake in deciding Israel’s future, one must necessarily include in that Jewish voices from outside the English-speaking bubble. And that would include voices which represent a very different Jewish experience to the one exemplified by groups such as Yachad or J Street.
Such different voices exist inside Israel too – where not only Jewish experiences are relevant – and indeed they are part of what shapes the choices made by Israeli voters. What groups such as Yachad and J Street fail to appreciate time and time again (somewhat condescendingly and with more than a whiff of old colonial-style attitudes), is that the Western, left-liberal, English-speaking approach to the many thorny problems which Israel faces is far from being the only legitimate view-point.
The voices of Jews expelled from Arab lands, or of Israeli Druze and Bedouin, or of the former Lebanese civilians who found refuge in Israel 12 years ago (to name but a few) are no less legitimate or important because those groups do not have vast amounts of money with which to purchase influence.
That is why we have democracy in Israel: so that all the members of our beautifully rich and varied society can have their say, no matter what their personal status. So that all the people who will be affected by any choices the Israeli government takes can make their opinions on those decisions known.
As someone who comes from the Left and believes fervently in Israel’s truly multi-cultural liberal democracy, I find it offensive that some Jewish groups abroad apparently have so little to learn from the opinion-forming experiences of Israelis and so little respect for Israeli democracy that they seek to bypass it, thereby silencing voices different – both politically and ethnically – to their own.
I would hope that Left-leaning, liberal democratic British Jews would find that offensive too.