Thursday, August 11, 2011

Don't mess with Israel's democracy


Israel's democratically-elected rightwing government is not going away, much as well-meaning diaspora liberals like Mick Davis (pictured) might wish it to. It was elected by Jews from Arab countries and Soviet immigrants hard-bitten by their experience of antisemitism and totalitarianism. Could it be the Jewish diaspora which could do with a better representation of Sephardi views? That's the message of Michelle Huberman's article for Jewish News:

It doesn’t matter how many times you swear at the TV, throw up the newspaper, or gnash your teeth when the Netanyahu/Lieberman government is mentioned. It is simply not going away, not in the short term anyway. Its democratically-elected MKs will not evaporate because you don’t agree with them - whether you’re in Hackney or Hampstead.

Nowhere is this distaste for Israel’s ‘right-wing’ government felt more than in the pronouncements of Mick Davis, the UK UJIA chairman. Last week I was an observer at the Board of Deputies. The invited guest was Mick Davis: last year Mr Davis was in the eye of a storm when he warned Israel risked becoming ‘an apartheid state". I personally thought that Davis was having a ‘Gerald Ratner’ moment, making a flippant aside he would live to regret - especially when his gaffe gave ammunition to anti-Zionists like Gerald Kaufman ( Ratner’s jewellery empire collapsed when he let slip that one of his best-selling items was ‘cheaper than than a prawn sandwich’.)

But no. Mick was standing by his words and refused to retract them. And he was not alone - his remarks have been echoed by Israeli politicians, including Kadima member and Defence Minister Ehud Barak.

The pressure Mick and other western liberals put on Netanyahu to replace his coalition partners, the Sephardi orthodox party Shas and the Russian immigrant party of Yisrael Beitenu, is not democratic in the slightest. These parties were voted in by swathes of the Israeli electorate who no longer identify with the appeasing policies of the Labour party. This pressure is a call for an unrepresentative, and therefore undemocratic, government. Is that morally acceptable?

Democracy is the right of every person, irrespective of their religion, origin or accent to vote for the party of their choice. It is not for Mick and Co. to dictate how the country is run, based on their own personal values.

The traditionally left-wing Ashkenazi elite is a relic of the past. Over 50 percent of the Israeli population is now made up of descendants of Jews from Arab countries or ex-Soviet immigrants. Both sectors lived under tyrannies – whether the police states of the Arab world, or totalitarian Communism. These voters’ hawkish views derive from their hard-bitten experience of antisemitism. Jews from Arab countries who came to Israel as penniless refugees nurse a deep distrust of Arabs, while resenting the ‘Ashkenazi elite’ for failing to stand up for their rights.

Of course the government was also swept into power by disillusioned Labour supporters, who, mugged by reality after the Second Intifada and the rise to power of Hamas, saw that the last thing the Palestinian leadership wanted was peace.


But until we accept that the Israel of today is not the Israel of yesteryear - and understand that their government must reflect majority opinion, we will always be out of step.

And so back to the Board of Deputies. Fantastically democratic. I felt I was watching a session of Parliament. Every Deputy is elected by their synagogue. Whether it's United, Reform or Liberal.

I could see that a significant sector of our community in the UK is not represented - the Sephardi and Mizrahi community. Yes, the established Spanish and Portuguese synagogues are included. And there are a few Sephardi Deputies from the United Shuls. But what's missing are the smaller ones - frequented by Israeli Sephardim. The Moroccans. The Iraqis. The Adenis. My research has turned up over a dozen of these Shuls in London alone; some have over 500 members each.

These are Jewish communities who have managed to uphold tradition and faith against all odds while adapting to British life. Many came as refugees fleeing persecution in Arab countries or married an English spouse. Some 99% have family in Israel who have served in the IDF. I think their voices would be a boost to our community.

Should we be reaching out to them to join the Board of Deputies, although their views are likely to be more right-wing than our Ashkenazi-dominated community? Will they speak more passionately on behalf of our Israeli brethren? Or are British Jews going to find them a bit too in-your-face? Narrow-minded? Not quite British enough?

Board of Deputies chief executive Jon Benjamin tells me that that they are more than welcome to join, although nobody has yet taken the initiative to invite them. We could probably do with some Sephardi realism on the UJIA executive too.

Read article in full (p 12 of 11 August issue)




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