If I were a rich man,
Yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum.
All day long I’d biddy biddy bum.
If I were a wealthy man. […]
And it won’t make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong.
When you’re rich, they think you really know!
An absolute giant of Yiddish literature, Sholem Aleichem populated his stories with all the colourful characters of the Eastern European shtetl. And one of the most convincing is the ‘gvir’: the rich Jew; the parvenu, the village boss who mistakes subservience for respect and trades ‘charity’ for influence and power.
The Jewish shtetl is a thing of the (nostalgic) past; not so the gvir; that tragi-comic character, it seems, still struts around: among us, but not quite one of us.
Sir Mick Davis is a very rich man. He made his money in mining (coal, metals, petroleum); but don’t picture him in a hard hat with black on his nose – I suspect that he mines primarily from the comfort of a well-upholstered, directorial armchair. And I guess he’s put that money to good use: he is an important donor to the Conservative Party (Labour also likes money; but it doesn’t like Jews – let alone rich ones!) Davis served as Treasurer and – until recently – Chief Executive of the Tory Party.
I know, I know… a miner called Davis… what a cliché! But no: Sir Mick ‘the Miner’ isn’t Welsh – he’s Jewish. So, naturally, he also took an interest in the affairs of British Jewry: in 2009, he became Chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council. How, you’re asking? Well… previously, the JLC had been led by an elected official: the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. It looks like Mr. Davis took advantage of a change of guard at the helm of the Board to shoulder aside the new President. Or (to use the far more delicate language employed by the Jewish Chronicle)
he grasped the reins of its [the JLC’s] executive.
The newspaper commented – perhaps with a hint of irony – that this
may not have been exactly a palace coup but it showed who was boss in town.
Didn’t it just! I should warn you here: irony plays a big role in this story; where are you, Sholem Aleichem, when we most need you?
Mr. Davis first courted controversy in 2010, when he opined (in English and in public) that Israel ‘could become’ an apartheid state. Some may see quite a bit of irony in that: Mick Davis was born and lived his formative years in Apartheid South Africa. And… I might be wrong here, but I’ve never seen his name listed among the many South-African Jews who actively fought that appalling regime; unless, that is, one considers immigrating from South Africa to the UK as a brave act of social protest. If indeed young Mr. Davis omitted to valiantly combat the apartheid in his home country, it must’ve been just a matter of perspective: it seems it’s easier to recognise (and, consequently, criticise) potential apartheids that ‘may occur’ thousands of miles away; it’s not always easy to spot an actual apartheid operating under one’s very nose.
Mr. Davis’s comments on Israel’s putative apartheid-hood so outraged many in the British Jewish community that a petition was written demanding his resignation from public community positions. But it was quickly withdrawn, when Sir Mick threatened to let the whole weight of his… err… indignation bear – by threatening to deploy his heavy legal artillery against the poor… err… much less indignant petitioner! Not, God forbid, that Mr. Davis believes that freedom of speech is for him, but not for others; no, it’s just that, apparently, the petition had ‘misrepresented his positions’…
More recently, Sir Mick has once again become the talk of the (virtual) shtetl: in the cover-page article of the (almost bankrupted, but fortunately freshly resuscitated) Jewish News, he accused “Israeli politics” of “violat[ing] values of the Diaspora”.
I find the article full of (unintended) irony. So let me read it to you with a running commentary.
Says Sir Mick:
Israel remains surrounded by hostility but its emerging existential threats come from within.
Now, when he’s right – he’s right: the Jewish state is indeed surrounded by enemies: there’s for instance Iran (80 times larger than Israel in area, 9 times in population, 5 times in economic output), whose Holocaust-denying leaders call for Israel’s blood every day – and twice on Saturday. Leaving aside its nuclear ambitions, Iran has a large, strong and well-equipped military, which is currently busy entrenching itself in Syria, as close as it dares to Israel’s borders. Another of those borders precariously separates Israel from an Iranian ally: Hezbollah – and its 100,000+ rockets. To the south, there’s Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad; i.e., tens of thousands of rockets and mortar rounds, some capable of reaching targets hundreds of miles away. In Sinai (a territory 3 times larger than Israel, which the Jewish state once controlled but ceded in return for peace and security) lurks a very active branch of the Islamic State. You know – those nice people who’ve recently beheaded, crucified and burned a broad swath of blood and tears through Syria and Iraq. And that’s before one thinks of threats that currently seem – for whatever that’s worth in the Middle East – less imminent: such as a certain manic dictator with neo-Ottoman ambitions.
Yet Sir Mick has decreed that these are not really existential threats. ‘The problem’, he seems to preach to those Israelis who face the rockets, the bullets and the knives, ‘the problem is not that they want to kill you. No, let me tell you what the real problem is: it’s your own suicidal tendencies!’
Now, Mick Davis is certainly entitled to his opinion. It would be good to understand, however, on what specialist knowledge it is based? Because, although Costa Coffee has hosted many a debate on grand strategy, it doesn’t actually count as an accredited military academy.
But, as we know, people don’t actually need to have a clue what they’re talking about – they can still talk. The problem, says Sir Mick, is Israel’s
own dysfunctional political system.
And why is that political system so bad? First, he explains, there are
the hazards of proportional representation.
And I thought “proportional” was actually a positive thing… stupid me! I thought that it meant that each citizen gets a vote that is worth exactly the same; that the makeup of the Parliament is a true reflection of the views of the electorate, warts and all. That’s not what ‘first past the post’ delivers. In 2019, for instance, 1 in every 8 Brits (circa 12%) voted for the Liberal Democrats; but, because of the ‘first past the post’ system, that party only has 11 MPs – i.e. a mere 1.7% of the House of Commons.
In a proportional system, with 12% of the votes they would have gotten, of course 12% of the seats in Parliament – that’s what “proportional” means.
Don’t get me wrong: one can argue about the advantages and disadvantages of either system – till one’s blue in the face; if one donates to the Tories, I suppose that ‘first past the post’ is wonderful – it results in more bang for the buck; if I were to ask Liberal Democrat supporters, they might feel differently. But is the “proportional representation” any less democratic?
So what is Sir Mick’s beef with Israel’s “proportional representation”. Well, he tells us:
the outcome is a government the public didn’t vote for, led by a prime minister seemingly driven by holding onto power and propped up by parties who had previously pledged on principle not to govern with him.
So, Mr. Davis doesn’t like the outcome of the elections. I get that. I just don’t think that’s a good enough reason to change the system. No disrespect, Sir Mick!
But why is this new government one “the public didn’t vote for”? It represents a broad coalition, from left (the Israeli Labour Party) to centre (Blue & White) to right (Likud). The prime minister will be Benjamin Netanyahu (leader of the largest party, which received 29% of the votes), followed by Benny Gantz (whose party received 27% of the votes).
True, before the elections Gantz promised not to serve in a Netanyahu government. You caught him there, Mr. Davis, Sir! He’s a terrible, terrible man – the first politician ever to break a pre-election promise. I’m sure nothing like that ever happened while you were Chief Executive of the Conservative Party. (In Gantz’s defence, he may have followed bad examples: before elections, every US president in the past 25 years promised to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. It took a quarter of a century to find one that actually did – and I doubt you like him much.)
It is, I agree, terrible that Israel has such a “dysfunctional political system”. It gets people frustrated. So unlike UK’s wonderfully functional political system; the one that produced a pro-Remain Parliament despite a clear pro-Brexit referendum; plus 3 years of paralysis, a government begging for elections and an opposition courageously opposing them, etc. etc.
Where Sir Mick is right is that Israel will now have (for a while, at least) a Prime Minister who faces “corruption charges”. Netanyahu stands accused of having traded favours in return for a ‘kinder treatment’ at the hands of a major news outlet. British politicians would certainly never do anything like that! Although there were things… I seem to remember quite a few MPs (including ministers and shadow ministers) dipping their hands rather dishonestly into the public purse… But that’s a different thing altogether!
Oh, I do admire Sir Mick’s principled stance. In fact, I herewith demand that Netanyahu’s sorry ass be put in prison – if found guilty by a court of law. It’s just surprising for me to hear rumours that, in the past, Mr. Davis may have taken a less righteous position against alleged corruption by one of his own underlings. Well, given those false rumours, I’m sure that Sir Mick cannot but agree with me that people (including the Chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council and the Prime Minister of Israel) are innocent, unless proven guilty.
It’s only halfway through his article that Mr. Davis comes to the issue that really awoke his ire: the planned annexation by Israel of parts of the West Bank – in accordance with the latest US ‘Peace to Prosperity’ plan.
When we talk of existential threats to Israel, then annexation is the genuine article.
That’s, of course, a valid opinion. Unfortunately for Mr. Davis, it is just the opinion of an outsider. Sir Mick is not Israeli; he is a British citizen, paying his taxes in the UK. It is Israeli citizens (i.e., people who live in Israel, pay taxes in Israel, serve in the army in Israel and risk being bombed to smithereens in Israel) that are entitled to decide (as opposed to opine) what constitutes genuine existential threats to Israel. And a clear majority of those Israeli citizens voted for parties that accepted the US proposal.
But it doesn’t look like Sir Mick is content with ‘just’ an outsider’s opinion:
The keep your wallets open and mouths shut model of Israel-Diaspora relations was viable when Diaspora Jewry saw in Israel’s political leadership an embodiment of its values rather than a violation of them.
The “wallets open” was understood – and not just by me – as a hint. After all, as the Jewish News says, Sir Mick is not just any outsider; he is
one of Britain’s biggest philanthropists to Israel.
I just wonder if, when Mr. Davis decided to give whatever he gave “to Israel” (or, more likely, to whatever causes and organisations he finds useful in Israel), he informed people that those donations came with a clear caveat: ‘I pay – I get the say’. ‘Coz, had he said so to me (I’m Israeli), I would’ve told him to keep his money. I have no idea what Sir Mick’s experience is with donations to the Conservative Party; but Israel is a sovereign country.
Apparently, however, some sovereign countries have duties to set up other sovereign countries. How else am I to understand Sir Mick’s sententious determination that Israel has a
moral and strategic imperative to extricate itself from ruling over [the Palestinians].
Before I read Sir Mick’s wise words, I rather stupidly thought it’s the task of every nation that doesn’t yet have independence to “extricate” itself from its rulers. Including by making the necessary concessions and compromises to achieve that goal. As Jews – and Indians, and Pakistanis – did in 1947. In Sir Mick’s perfect world, however, it is the sacred duty of Israel to offer
a tangible alternative on this issue.
Well, a (or, rather, another) “tangible alternative” has just been offered by the US Administration. It may not be an administration to Sir Mick’s liking; it may not be an “alternative” he likes, or that the Palestinians like. But, surely, Mr. Davis hasn’t made his millions by walking away from deals, simply because the opening offer wasn’t to his liking. While the US document unsurprisingly expresses a US ‘Vision’, it also leaves the door wide open for negotiations:
The peace agreement that will hopefully be negotiated on the basis of this Vision should be implemented through legally binding contracts and agreements (the “ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN PEACE AGREEMENT”).
In fact, the reputed architects of the ‘Vision’ have gone to great pains to make that clear. Speaking about the Palestinian leadership in an interview he gave to an Egyptian media outlet, Jared Kushner said:
If there are things they want to change, if they don’t like where we drew the lines, they should come and tell us.
Were they able and willing to make peace, the Palestinian leaders could simply have said ‘We agree with the principle that there should be an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. Everything else – let’s negotiate.’
In the absence of such a response, Israel’s ‘duty’ of providing “a tangible alternative” becomes a duty to provide ‘a tangible alternative acceptable to the kind of leadership for whom no alternative was acceptable in the past 100 years’. I am not as knowledgeable as Sir Mick – but I found no such ‘duty’ in the Torah. Maybe it’s in the Statutes of Values of the Diaspora that he appears to own.
But the relationship with the Palestinians isn’t Sir Mick’s only imputation towards the Jewish state. Israel, he intones
must radically improve social mobility within its own society.
And why does he think that Israel has such poor social mobility? Because
for an OECD country, Israel’s gaps between rich and poor are extraordinary.
Some may view as ironic that a multi-multi-millionaire preaches about narrowing the “gaps between rich and poor”. But beyond the irony, according to OECD data, Israel has a Gini Coefficient of 0.35. UK’s is 0.36. Gini is a widely used measure of income inequality: 0 (zero) corresponds to perfect equality, 1 (one) to worst possible inequality – so the lower, the better. Well, I’d like to think that Sir Mick applies more rigorous research and due diligence to his business dealings than he does to his pronouncements on social issues. Otherwise, I’d say such sloppiness is… how should I put it… “extraordinary”!
Next, Sir Mick’s bounces from pseudo-economics back to pseudo-politics:
Israel advocates around the world, of which I am one, boast about the full citizenship rights of Israel’s Arab citizens and their role in Israeli life. However, the MKs those citizens elect are still considered governmentally trayf.
Firstly, on behalf of all my countrymen, I’d like to thank Sir Mick for his unparalleled advocacy. It’s valiant defenders like him that make us feel so much safer!
However, the rest of the passage is a bit of a spin. Those MKs are not considered “governmentally trayf” because they are Arabs (indeed, one of them happens to be Jewish); nor because they are elected by Arabs (there are Jews who vote for the ‘Arab List’ and there are Arabs who vote for the ‘Jewish’ parties); no, the problem is not the ethnicity or religion of those MKs or of their supporters – but the political views that they represent. It’s about Zionism vs. anti-Zionism, yes – but not just. The Arab Joint List includes a communist party; a hyper-nationalist party; and an Islamist Party. Given the record of those ideologies in the region and the world, mainstream Israeli politicians may perhaps be forgiven for not wanting such parties in the governing coalition.
But the issue is more fundamental than that. In a parliamentary democracy, there is a right to vote, to elect their parliamentary representatives (and be elected as such); I wasn’t aware that there was a right to have one’s representatives included in the governing coalition – whatever their politics. Are you making up democratic rules as you go along, Mr. Davis?
Apparently, Sir Mick’s list of Israel’s many violations of ‘values of the Diaspora’ also includes the fact that the Jewish state has failed to teach British Jews Hebrew:
How for example, can we nurture a thriving and mutual beneficial sense of shared peoplehood, when so many Diaspora Jews, particularly in the English-speaking world are unable to speak Hebrew, the language of their homeland?
That is indeed a problem – and I must thank Mr. Davis for pointing it out. Too bad he pointed it out… in English; in a Diaspora Jewish English language newspaper!
And it’s not Israel’s only linguistic and cultural sin. Mr. Davis also determines that:
Jewish Israelis need more and better education in Arabic and Arab culture. Arab Israelis need more and better education in Jewish culture and history.
Don’t you just looove one that always asks for “more and better” – but fails to even mention what has already been achieved? To start with, most Israelis (or their parents or grandparents) hail from Arab lands – so Arab culture is hardly unfamiliar to them. Arabic is part of the curriculum in most Israeli secular schools – at all levels. True, it is not compulsory to study Arabic – it’s one of the optional languages students can choose to study (and many do). In recent years, more teachers of Arabic are employed in Jewish schools – no doubt because Mr. Davis has determined that this is the way forward. Most Arab Israeli parents understandably choose to give their kids an education in Arabic schools – but that education includes the study of Hebrew.
And actually, may I suggest that – before he idly shoots his mouth off again – Sir Mick takes the time and the trouble to watch the excellent Israeli series ‘Fauda’? It is available on Netflix. With English subtitles, Sir Mick; no worries!
Don’t get me wrong: Mr. Davis can actually have a say on how Israel looks like – and how she should look like in the future; once he comes to live there, of course. I’m sure he has enough money to buy himself a decent flat in Sderot!
But, let’s face it – he is unlikely to make Aliyah. In fact, he doesn’t even envisage such possibility. He bashes Israel ‘as a Jew’ from the Diaspora. Why? A very charitable explanation would be ‘because he cares’. It’s a very strange way to show it, but hey-ho…
Unfortunately, I am more inclined to believe an explanation that Sir Mick himself let slip at some point:
I think the government of Israel […] have to recognise that their actions directly impact me as a Jew living in London, the UK. When they do good things it is good for me, when they do bad things, it’s bad for me. And the impact on me is as significant as it is on Jews living in Israel.
There are no less than 4 rather emphatic me’s in that short peroration. It would seem that Mick Davis does care deeply… about Mick Davis!
Well, Mr. Davis Sir, as an Israeli who served for 20 years in the IDF, I am sorry for all the inconvenience that we caused you!
Oh, and… for whatever it’s worth, this Jewish Israeli (of the Ashkenazi variety) loves the Arabic language and culture. Take for instance this brilliant proverb, which applies so well to you and your hatchet-job of an article:
الكلاب تنبح والقافلة تسير
It means: ‘The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on’. So long, Sir Mick!