When Natan Sharansky first entered politics after his momentous arrival in Israel as a symbol of the ‘return’ of Soviet Jews, it was with a new party that he had established to represent the growing numbers of olim from the former Soviet Union. Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu was likewise initially created to serve the interests of that constituency.
Unlike the ‘Russians’, we ‘Anglos’ have never sought to concentrate as a political bloc. Firstly, it would make no sense electorally. Over 1.5 million people arrived from Russia and its collapsed empire; olim from English-speaking countries probably number not more than a tenth of that figure. If we all voted for one party, but no one else did, that party would be unlikely to cross the current electoral threshold of 3.25 percent of the vote. But there’s another reason also: unlike Israelis from Moscow or Moldova we came here with experience of democracy, we are used to choosing between competing political parties.
Is there an Israeli party out there however that could claim to be a ‘natural home’ for Anglo voters?
Yair Lapid is coming to my home-city of Jerusalem this week for a special town hall-style meeting with Anglo voters and I want to make the case that, if there were an ‘Anglo’ party, it would look an awful lot like Yesh Atid.
What am I basing this on? Well firstly, notwithstanding the often vocal minority of Anglos that are associated with the settlement movement, Anglos tend to be political moderates. Unlike many democracies in continental Europe, the countries from which Anglos have arrived have traditionally eschewed extremes of left or right. In the UK, the US, Canada and Australia parties are usually fighting it out on the center-ground. Even in these extraordinary times of Trump and Corbyn – with a US President nodding and winking to the far-right and an extreme-left faction taking over the British Labour party – these exceptions prove the rule where Jews are concerned. American Jewish conservatives are among the most prominent anti-Trump Republicans, while British Jewish voters deserted the Labour party in droves at the last election.
Yesh Aid is unabashedly a party of the center. As the veteran political commentator Ben-Dror Yemini has said, “The political center in Israel is indeed a difficult place. Many have failed in it, but it’s still the most important place. It’s the place where the thinking people are. It’s the only place which deviates from the moldy dogmas.”
Specifically on what is still the principal fautline in Israeli politics, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “the moldy dogmas” desperately need discarding. Yesh Atid’s centrism rejects both those who seem to believe we can remain ruling another people for eternity; and the utopian peace processers who continue to insist that a deal can be reached with the Palestinian leadership against all the evidence.
My second claim is that Anglos tend to genuinely conceive of Israel in terms of it being both Jewish and democratic. This duality matters to us. We have strong Jewish identities by definition; we made the ultimate Aliya-of-choice, leaving our homes and jobs in wealthy western countries. But how many of us would have left thriving and long-established democracies for a country that was not similarly constituted? Unlike much of the Left, Yesh Atid is unapologetically Zionist and reverent of Jewish (as opposed to just Israeli) identity; unlike much of the Right, Yesh Atid sees Israel as firmly a part of the West, with its commitment to liberal democratic values like religion and gender equality, and respect for the rule of law.
Anglos tend to be very critical of Israel’s bloated and inefficient bureaucracy and its governmental shortcomings. Uniquely among Israeli parties, Yesh Atid has made a priority of tackling corruption and government waste, to bring Israel up to the governmental standards of the most advanced western democracies. It was Yesh Atid who, in their one spell in the government coalition, forced through legislation limiting the number of government ministers to end the tradition of a Prime Minister creating meaningless minister-without-portfolio positions to pay off allies at taxpayers’ expense. (That legislation has since been rescinded by the current Likud-led coalition.)
Religion is another area where Yesh Atid presents what should be a very attractive package to a great many Anglos. It does not go along with the more radical positions of some on the Left, who push for a complete, US-style separation of religion and state. Yesh Atid recognizes that Israel was established to be the homeland of a particular people with a particular history and set of traditions. But neither is it willing to go along with the Likud and Bayit Yehudi, kowtowing to the ultra-Orthodox extremists that run the Chief Rabbinate. Yesh Atid supports serious reform of the system; making conversion less of an oppressive and unwelcoming procedure, addressing the horrendous corruption in the kashrut industry and allowing marriage outside of the Rabbinate – finally ending the absurdity of the Jewish state being the only country where Jews cannot get married with the Rabbi or ceremony of their own choosing.
Finally, olim from English-speaking countries care deeply about the issue of Israel’s image abroad. Many of us have experienced hostility to Israel on campus; we’ve grown up with CNN and The New York Times, or the BBC and The Guardian. No Israeli politician has been more active defending Israel abroad in the last couple of years than Yair Lapid. He has appeared at anti-BDS allies, at meetings with EU officials and on the media (including on the no-holds-barred, interview/interrogation BBC show Hardtalk).
Lapid instinctively understands the importance of fighting the delegitimization of Israel. Like Benjamin Netanyahu he has an innate sensitivity to antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and the ability to speak out against it eloquently in English; unlike Netanyahu his diplomatic defense of Israel is not compromised by a hardline political base that rejects any compromise, even at the risk of jeopardizing Israeli democracy.
If every political party is expressing a vision of the society they wish to build here, Yesh Atid is presenting the Israel I most want to live in: proudly Jewish and proudly democratic; respectful of religion but no less respectful of the cause of religious freedom and tolerance; committed to peace and willing to make concessions to achieve it, but realistic about the root cause of the conflict – Arab rejection of Israel’s legitimacy – and unafraid to call out our ‘peace partners’ on their duplicity; passionate about cleaning up corruption and making government more transparent and accountable.
I think a lot of other Israeli ‘Anglos’ will agree with me.
If you are interested in attending Yair Lapid’s Town Hall Meeting in Jerusalem on 6th September, you can register here.