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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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15 Comments »

  • The Goy Husband says:

    Dear Hasid,

    This is a somewhat problematic issue. The old and often racially motivated character assasination of citizens of Jewish faith/culture/heritage in the Anglo-democracies (USA, UK, Aust, NZ, Canada or SA) is an easy slur.

    May I suggest that regardless of any view as to State policy towards Israel (itself hard to put into simple black or white boxes) voters are predominately motivated by social, economic, lifecycle, class and regional motivators in this relatively secular society.

    It may be the case that some voters will disguise their decision to vote for X (knowing that you vote or punt for Y or Z) by reference to a simplistic one issue reason. It is always easy to give the difficult to complain about reason to the complex (I’m just not that much into Y or Z) analysis.

    Australians do reflect some ethno-religious differences in voting. I just don’t believe that international affairs (given the bipartisan relationship of strength with Israel) is a big mukker motivator.

    On balance, I suspect that one issue voting is greatly over-stated. But the advocates of any position (take your pick: anti-abortiion, anti-GMFood, pro-Forest Industry or pro-Republic) are very happy to have pollies believe in the power of the lobby!

    However, interesting thread. Back to the housework!

  • The Hasid says:

    Hi GH!

    Thanks for your response. Could you clarify what you mean by “The old and often racially motivated character assassination of citizens of Jewish faith/culture/heritage in the Anglo-democracies (USA, UK, Aust, NZ, Canada or SA) is an easy slur”?

    To clarify what I meant:
    I certainly did not mean to engage in any form of character assassination. Possibly I was little bit heavy-handed in the anecdote at the beginning, for narrative effect, but it stems from many ‘real life’ conversations I’ve had on the topic. I’m absolutely not condemning people for voting based on ethno-religious lines, or people who are motivated by foreign policy (again, I was heavy on the rhetoric in the second section!).
    I’m just curious as to why and how it happens. Was hoping it would provide a good entree into a discussion of how much Israel factors into the voting habits of Aussie Jews of ALL political persuasions.

    And do you really think one-issue voting is over-stated? Possibly. I think it’s more significant that you suggest, but ultimately it’s impossible to know and we probably just have to agree to disagree. I don’t know if exit polls shed any light on the matter…?

    Your point about people disguising “their decision to vote for X… by reference to a simplistic one issue reason” is very interesting though! Going to chew on that one for a while.

    Enjoy the housework, you renaissance man, you! I’m cleaning out the filing cabinet this PM. Joy of joys.

  • The Goy Husband says:

    Dear Hasid,

    I was alluding to the late 1800s into the 1940s anti-Semitic rant from the loopy Right most (but also the rabid Left) regarding the mixed or alleged conflicted suspicion about some elements of the Jewish diaspora.

    It is very much in the vein of ” of course, they have international allegiances don’t they ” rubbish that is peddled whenver you are (a) envious (b) without an argument (c) just being offensive (d) against their policy positions (e) or all of the above.

    I was just sounding a warning sign to any hardliners that see conspiracy/israel/neo-con linkages. The sandpit in cyberspace is not here. Try http://www.protocols of zenophia or whatever else makes you feel good.

    I am particularly pleased to see that the political history (including up to the present time) of Aussie Jewry is a reflection of so many various influences. It is so mainstream as to make it a bit boring!

    Some sort of kowtowing to an extra-territorial allegiance is not (to this modest observer, political science graduate and keen history geek) on the radar. Sure, critics of Israel may argue that very few depart from the bipartisan script – but the reality is that this position is squarely in the middle ground of Australian politics.

    Israel’s relationship with Australia (security, economic and cultural) may be a high profile diaspora issue for dinner table chat (we Presbyterians argue over rugby failures and the foul weather of the old country!) but I suspect that little hard analysis exists to assess, track or understand the complexities of this variable factor. It may not be a push factor (make you vote X) but it may be a pull factor (make you think twice before voting Y)

    However, I recognise that this thread will open up a diversity of opinion – which is good.

    The joys of marrying up as well as marrying in … back to the OMO and the student exam marking.

  • The Hasid says:

    Ah, understood!

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, GH.

  • HearSay says:

    Hasid,

    Interesting thoughts, but I think there is a large differnce between the polarised nature of US politics versus Australian politics.

    What I mean is that Australian Politicians, and political parties, are so closely clumped together around the ‘centre’ of the spectrum that when a first time, or 20th time voter is asked to tick a box, it’s often a matter of ‘What will this government do for me and mine?’

    Often, that is translated into tax breaks, or higher investment in education, sure. And for various ethnic/special interest groups, the place of that particular group in government policy is a necessary element to consider when casting one’s ballot.

    In the Jewish/Zionsit case, more often than not, it is the place of Israel/Jewish community affairs in foreign/domestic policy of the particular party that is at the forefront of one’s mind. This is not a result of mixed allegiances, or a misplaced sense of what is relevant to an Australian voter, but rather because the reality of Australian politics is a very dull one, where politicians take a largely “same-same, but different” approach, where the only difference is rhetoric, rather than policy. Often the only thing separating two grey haired, middle aged men for the inexperienced or largely disintered is the priority they place on, and way they talk about what matter to Jews and Israel.

  • The Hasid says:

    HearSay – hello and welcome!

    You raise some great points.

    In many ways, I think you are saying something similar to The Goy Husband – that the way certain politicians and parties portray their Israel/M.E. stance works as more of a pull factor [“Oh, I suppose I might as well vote for Ms. X’s party over Mr. Y’s – there isn’t much difference between them, but Ms. X has visited Israel several times in her capacity as shadow Foreign Minister and is very supportive of Israel’s sovereignty and economy”] than a push factor. This is very interesting paradigm through which to view Australian voting habits in general.

    And I think you’re spot on about the “same-same, but different” approach. What’s interesting is that in the US (which you have rightly pointed out is much more polarised), there seemed to be a lot more fear regarding Obama’s “plan” for Israel, even though Obama and McCain’s policies re Israel were very, very similar. Their difference (in terms of Israel at least) was mainly in articulation and communication, and Obama is definitely a maven of that art! And yet many Americans – and American Jews – totally flipped out, claiming all sorts of crayyyzeee mishegas, like Obama was a Muslim intent on dismantling the Jewish state. It’s interesting that in Australia we’re much less likely to caught up in the fear-mongering. I suppose our media is a hell of a lot more moderate, and we’re less likely to see who we vote for as a defining element of our ideology/personality. That, or the food we eat has fewer steroids. Who knows.

  • Frochel says:

    Hi Hasid,

    An interesting post,

    Even forgetting the one-issue voting, the fact that we do not directly elect our leadership, but rather just our local representative, creates a similar conundrum for many people.

    For example, we have grown in our esteem for Michael Danby (Labour, Melbourne Ports). As it happens this has nothing to do with Israel nor Jewish community politics. Rather, we have been impressed with his activities in relation to Tibet, Burma, and some other similar human rights issues. However, we have been disgusted with Rudd, Swan, Wong, Garrett etc, whose incompetence has only been matched by their mendacity, and lack of accountability.

    We’re not necessarily calling for radical electoral reform – we’re just pointing out another conundrum to this whole voting mishugas.

  • Malki says:

    And really its the same Meshugas, isnt it Frochel?

    You are a fan of Danby not because of what he can do here in Melbourne Ports/or his domestic policies/actions, but because of what he can do/or his stance on overseas issues. Same as cousin Sammy a little, eh?

  • Elmo says:

    Hasid

    I wonder if it is not somewhat related to age.

    I can think of many older Jewish people who have been through the camps and who have told me that the only issue of importance when voting is a party’s attitude to Israel.

    You can understand why.

    Let me assure you — nothing is as important for these people.

  • The Hasid says:

    Touche, Malki!

    You’ve got a point. Is it a smidge hypocritical for one to question the value of voting in Aussie elections based on Israel-related policy; but then endorse other candidates/parties because of their foreign policy relating to other countries?

    Maybe. But maybe not. I do think it’s possible to ‘weigh up’ – in very broad brushstrokes – the which countries are more/less significant to Australia politically, and which countries Australia is in a better position to impact upon (for lack of a better word) positively. A lot depends on the country’s proximity and trade importance to Australia. Take Indonesia, for example – one of Australia’s closest neighbors, huge population, very militarised, massive trading partner, popular tourist destination for Australians, myriad Human Rights abuses, growing population of Islamic fundamentalists. No revelations there – we all know Indonesia’s a big fish. It is going to feature much more prominently than Israel in my decision-making process. Likewise China, for other big reasons. To me, that makes complete sense. I see it as quite separate to Sammy’s motivations, and a lot more logical. In keeping with this rationale, I don’t think I’d take Burma and Tibet into serious consideration, simply because I don’t see Australia playing a major role in resolving their political struggles – other than the standard declarations and condemnations.

    And all of this would take a backseat to domestic issues… So ultimately it’s a pretty small piece of the pie for me.

    Horses for courses, I suppose. Everyone’s got different priorities.

  • The Hasid says:

    Elmo – you are quite right, I am sure that many Holocaust survivors base their vote in large part on a candidate/party’s policy re Israel, for obvious reasons.

    The ‘Sammy’ of my scenario is under the age of forty, though… As are many of my friends and family members who concur with the ‘Sammy’ view. So it does make me wonder whether the importance of Israel in Australian politics has been influenced by Australia’s (particularly Melbourne’s) holocaust legacy. That would make a lot of sense. And I wonder whether Sammy’s political persuasions would be equally represented in the Jewish population of Canada, which has a very similar Jewish demographic/immigration history post-WWII. And then to see it vs. U.S., which has a relatively small per capita proportion of survivors…

    Good point.

  • Eli says:

    I guess I am with cousin Sammy on this one. But then I wonder if the large Greek or even the Italian communities ever vote with the same considerations in mind. Not that there has ever been in my memory any issues concerning Greece or Italy that have given the local communities any need for consternation as to whom to vote for in a Federal Election.

    Or could it be that “Sammy” sees himself like many Jews only as sojourner in this great land. That the soulful call of the shofar sounding out “Next Year in Jerusalem” is ultimately a greater concern.

  • Malki says:

    Its also likely that MOST PEOPLE make their voting decision based around a single issue which they feel is most important to them. Isnt it?
    I know a large number of people who do this, not Jewish, not old, not aligned. It just seems that everyone has their ‘thing’.

  • The Hasid says:

    Eli, you have almost convinced me! The soulful call of the shofar, indeed.

    I know so many Sammies: those who eat meat pies at the MCG on Shabbos and those who consider themselves strangers in a strange land. And probably some who are a bit of both.

  • frosh says:

    I’m wondering how the cousins Sammy out there will respond to this from Julie Bishob.

    Australian opposition’s No. 2 accuses gov’t of abandoning Israel

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