Navigate to News section

Want To Understand Brexit? Look at the Israeli Left.

From West Midlands to Modi’in to Maryland, treating voters with disdain is a recipe for disaster

Liel Leibovitz
June 27, 2016
Photo collage: Tablet. Original photo: Dan Kitwood / Getty
In London, a pigeon flies past a statue of Winston Churchill and the Houses of Parliament the day after the majority of the British public voted to leave the European Union on June 25, 2016. Photo collage: Tablet. Original photo: Dan Kitwood / Getty
Photo collage: Tablet. Original photo: Dan Kitwood / Getty
In London, a pigeon flies past a statue of Winston Churchill and the Houses of Parliament the day after the majority of the British public voted to leave the European Union on June 25, 2016. Photo collage: Tablet. Original photo: Dan Kitwood / Getty

I’m pretty terrible at predicting the future. If you’d asked me a few weeks ago, I would’ve told you that Stephen Curry might as well make some room on his finger for a second NBA championship ring, because there was just no way LeBron would pull off an upset. I still remember pontificating about what a dumb idea it was to make a mobile phone that could also play music and surf the web, because people really wouldn’t want to be interrupted in the middle of their long and thoughtful conversations. Even as a kid, I showed very little foresight, making fun of anyone who believed that a show about mutant teenage turtles who were also pizza aficionados and masters of ninjutsu would ever take off. I’ve been wrong a lot. But Brexit? That one I got absolutely right, and for a very simple reason: I was raised by the quivering, arrogant, and hopelessly delusional tribe of the Israeli left.

If you think my assessment uncharitable, mosey over to the promised land and have a chat with anyone who still votes Meretz, though you may have to hurry as there are fewer and fewer of them with each electoral cycle. Catch one on a good day, though, and you will probably hear the following account of all that plagues the state of the Jews: Israelis, goes the leftist ur-narrative, used to be reasonable and genial people. They used to believe in peace, which is why they signed the Oslo accords and welcomed back Yasser Arafat and strove toward a permanent two-state solution of peace and reconciliation. Then, like a devil out of Bulgakov, Netanyahu, a Middle East Mephistopheles, appeared on the scene, and, with his dark tricks, poisoned hearts and minds, turning Israelis from a gaggle of glowing Labor-voters to a rabble of benighted boobs, always reaching for their pitchforks and always thirsty for blood. If only reason would prevail, cries the Israeli left, peace will soon return. And if it does not, disaster is almost certain.

Omitted from this story, of course, are a few inconvenient facts, including most mentions of unrequited Israeli concessions and almost all talk of escalating Palestinian incitement and violence. But bring none of this up with the left, please: Only fools and racists still talk about things like terrorism or religion or national pride.

Translate these attitudes into the Queen’s English, and you’ll hear an all-too-familiar story. Labour, for long the occupants of 10 Downing, downplayed legitimate concerns shared by growing swaths of the population as being somehow inappropriate, as if only bigots watched the news and concluded that lax immigration policies deserved, at the very least, close scrutiny. Some members of the party have come to see this strategy as misguided: Jack Straw, Labour’s former Home Secretary, for example, recently admitted that setting no restrictions on migration in 2004 was “a spectacular mistake” as well as a “well-intentioned policy we messed up.”

That last sentence is more or less the motto of progressives around the world these days, applicable to everything from former Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner’s disastrous populist economic policies, which led her nation to the brink of ruin, to Obama’s Syria policy, which made the entire world exponentially less safe. Such bungling of basic policies is bad enough; but blaming it on the people who were wise enough to reject it is an insult which, when added to injury, does not go over well anywhere from West Midlands to Ma’alot.

If you’ve listened to the Remainers these last few weeks, you’ve heard this unique and noxious form of condescension in play. “Nationalism is on the march across the Western world, feeding upon the terrors it seeks to inflame,” wrote Harry Potter’s creator, J.K. Rowling, in a spirited anti-Leave screed on her website. For a minute there, you might’ve thought she was writing about Death Eaters, not ordinary folks who feel proud of their country, a normal and fundamentally human sensation viewed by most enlightened progressives these days as just two or three steps above setting fire to a wooden cross while wearing loose-fitting white sheets.

“Finding the present scary?” Rowling continued, “We’ve got a golden past to sell you, a mythical age that will dawn again once we’ve got rid of the Mexicans/left the EU/annexed Ukraine! Now place your trust in our simplistic slogans and enjoy your rage against the Other!” Yup. No other reason to believe in tradition, no other way to connect with national identity: Look at the flag with anything but haughty contempt, and you’re practically on your way to a pogrom.

This vile line of argument was pulsating beneath most pro-Remain campaign efforts, whether self-consciously or not. To make their case, the Remainers marched a phalanx of experts, all of whom sternly warned that departure would be disastrous for this reason or that. They also dialed up the anti-Brexiter rhetoric, accusing EU opponents of being chauvinistic xenophobes and promoting the narrative that only the elderly, the unemployed, or those without formal education supported separation from the EU, an argument that wasn’t much helped by the fact that these demographic markers pretty accurately describe the queen herself.

Could it have been done differently? Imagine a Remainer going on TV and delivering the following speech: We know you’re proud of our country and its heritage; we are, too. We know you chafe at the kind of regulation that often stifles creativity and growth; you have every right to be, and we promise to work hard and push for further reform. And we know you’re concerned about safety; just looking at recent attacks in Brussels itself, you’d be crazy not to. Your fears are valid, as are your hopes, and there’s no reason to argue that pledging our collective allegiance to a customs union riddled with bureaucracy and inept at protecting the wellbeing of its citizens is somehow nobler than honoring the unique and particular glory of England’s storied civilization. But staying is in our best interest, and so let’s. We can have whatever discussion we need to have later, in the comfort of our economic stability.

No one, of course, gave such a speech. Instead, we heard from Labour that what Brexit really is about is jobs and the economy and other good material things that good materialist Marxists tend to see as the core of all that matters. They’re hardly alone in this view of the world: Speaking in Africa last year, Obama admitted to being baffled by the fact that so many of the continent’s despots cling to power even after they have so much money and could not possibly want for any concrete comfort. It never occurred to the president for one minute that there may be emotions beyond material needs that guide the hearts and deeds of women and men.

Nor does it occur to Obama, or to fellow progressives around the world, that the debate over immigration, sadly but obviously, isn’t about jobs or the GDP. You can point out all you want that immigrants are absolutely necessary to a country’s growth, that they bring in much more than they take, and other undisputed factual truths. But to do that you would have ignored the anxiety at the heart of this issue, an anxiety not without its real-world sources and not very well served by calling all who feel it a bunch of backward racists.

Democrats who ascribe the rise of Trump to some sort of collective Republican outbreak of hatefulness may want to take notice. So may any remaining Israeli lefties seriously entertaining thoughts of political power. As James Bloodworth put it in his excellent analysis of the Remain camp’s failure, “the salt of the earth were treated as the scum of the earth and, unsurprisingly, they wouldn’t stand for it. The dark consequences will be felt for generations to come.”


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.