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My Cousin Sammy (OR: The single-issue voter: a portrait)

June 23, 2009 – 10:09 am15 Comments
Sammy and The Hasid get political

Sammy and The Hasid get political in the diner (this photo not taken at Shabbos dinner)

By The Hasid

Picture it: Melbourne, 2007!

It’s a Friday night in November. You’re partaking of the Shabbos meal with your nearest and dearest, somewhere in the Jewish Commonwealth of Glen Eira. The conversation turns, inevitably, to the election – in a couple of weeks Australia will either have a new government headed by the lamentably nicknamed K.Rudd, or an old government headed by the lamentably tenacious John Howard.

Your family members start discussing their various political proclivities and opinions (and true to the cultural stereotype, there are many to be had). So what the heck, you throw yours in too: You’re voting Greens.^

Silence, punctuated by a heavenward glance from your Mother. Your uncle thinks you’re “wasting your vote” because you’re not voting for one of the two major political parties. Your younger sister looks quietly amused. Oh this will be fun, she’s thinking… Because, right on cue, your cousin Sammy exclaims: “The Greens hate Israel! How can you vote for a party that is against the existence of the State of Israel?! Are you mad?!”

Now, to be fair, Sammy’s exaggerating a little bit for rhetorical effect and you both know it. But you can see where he’s coming from. He is motivated by a deep concern for Israel’s interests, both within Israel and abroad.

You’re concerned about Israel as well, and you certainly wouldn’t vote for a party which questioned her right to exist. So you explain that, well, actually, the Greens aren’t opposed to the existence of Israel, and also that you don’t agree with everything the Greens have to say about the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (in fact there’s quite a big chunk you disagree with), but you’re going to vote for them regardless because this is an Australian election. After careful consideration and perusal of the relevant literature, you have concluded that you agree strongly with their domestic policies, particularly (but not exclusively!) in relation to the environment.

Your cousin Sammy – who resides permanently in Australia and does not hold an Israeli passport – counters that “on principal” he could never vote for a political party whose Middle-East policy was not geared towards the best interests of Israel. And even though he thinks Labor has some excellent policies this time around with regards to health and education, he’s voting for the Coalition because that is what he believes to be “best for Israel”. For Sammy, Israel policy trumps domestic policy, every time.

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So there you have it, dear reader. My fictional cousin Sammy is a single-issue voter.

Single issue voting gets a bad rap from bleeding-heart libs like me at the best of times. In America, the phrase immediately conjures up images of gun enthusiasts and gun-toting anti-abortionists. In Australia, it generally takes a more benign form, like people from Adelaide with bad haircuts agitating for the restoration of ‘family values’ to Australian society. [Which in turn makes me imagine sitting down to a game to Trivial Pursuit with Kevin and Therese on a Shabbos afternoon. I reckon they’d make a formidable team. But I digress.]

However it manifests – and regardless of whether I agree with it – single-issue voting occupies an influential position in the Western democratic political landscape (and probably the non-Western, non-Democratic political landscape too).^^ How an individual decides to vote is entirely their business, and if they’re motivated by a very specific, ‘niche’ issue, so be it. [Even as I’m conceding this fact, I’m shaking my head in dismay and muttering under my breath, “But what about the public health system? Educational reform? Carbon emissions? Tax breaks? The fact that I don’t think I could have withstood another term of John Howard’s eyebrows? There are so many issues and you only get to vote once every four-ish years! Argh! Pass me the tweezers!”]

BUT.

What if that single-issue doesn’t relate to the country in which you live? What then? Does it make sense to vote for the Party which is going to be “best” for Israel if you’re an Australian citizen voting in an Australian election? And that’s assuming that there is indeed a significant difference between the Mid-East/I-P policies of Australia’s two major political parties! If such a difference exists I couldn’t discern it during their electioneering and I still can’t discern it now. As a layperson, the status quo seems unchanged. [I’m sure many of you will disagree with this assessment and I am happy to be enlightened or challenged!]

And let’s say, hypothetically, that Australia elected a Labor/Coalition/Greens/whatever government that was extremely, singularly pro- or anti- Israel? What then? Would it actually make a difference to Israel and Israelis? Is Australia about to broker a peace deal between Bibi and Hamas? Does Australia play a key role in Middle-Eastern geopolitics? Would this hypothetical Australian PM’s support or condemnation of Israel have a tangible, tachlis effect aside from his/her actual words of support/condemnation? Hypothetically, I can see the possibility of an impact on trade relations. (And trade is definitely significant – the suggestion of sanctions against Israel is extremely concerning and I do not wish to downplay it.) But politically…?

I’m not asking who you vote for. I’m not even asking which Australian political party is “best” for Israel. (If it’s at all possible, it would be great to keep that discussion to a minimum, otherwise we’ll be here forever.) I’m not asking if you think I should have voted Greens.  I’m asking how you decide who you’re going to vote for.

How important is Israel for you in Australian elections?

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^ OK. This is me. Names/identities of family members have been fictionalised. Sister and cousin totally invented for sake of snappy narrative. Note to self: never attempt to write in second-person ever again.

^^ Although it doesn’t relate directly to Australia, it’s worth mentioning JCER‘s ‘Great Schlep‘ campaign during the 2008 American election, fronted by comedian Sarah Silverman. JCER endorsed Barack Obama, and created a very successful cross-platform website to encourage young Jewish adults to visit their grandparents and convince them to vote for Obama. It seems to me that the major focus of TGS was single-issue voters – people who were going to vote Republican because they thought Obama was “bad” for Israel and the Jews. I don’t want to weigh in on the Obama debate in this discussion; but I mention the campaign because it’s an interesting illustration of the perceived influence of single-issue voters.

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