What Israelis Can Learn From Britain's Revolutionary Voters

A referendum based on the will of the people who choose to ignore their leader’s fear-mongering is something Israelis can only dream of.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
Supporters of the Vote Leave campaign cheer as they wait for Boris Johnson during the first day of a nationwide bus tour to campaign for a Brexit, Truro, U.K., May 11, 2016.
Supporters of the Vote Leave campaign cheer as they wait for Boris Johnson during the first day of a nationwide bus tour to campaign for a Brexit, Truro, U.K., May 11, 2016. Credit: Luke MacGregor, Bloomberg
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

The self-evident is self-evident: The result of the referendum in Britain was a victory for ultranationalism, xenophobia and isolation, and it could augur disaster. Its significance cannot be overstated. But after everyone said it, and since no one knows what tomorrow will bring, we can also applaud Britain’s revolutionary voters. They expressed a new and upsetting global trend. “A new zeitgeist in politics,” history professor Ilan Pappe calls it. This new spirit of the times holds not only clear dangers, but also great promise.

The referendum, the outcome of which no one prepared for seriously, must be examined in the wider context: as part of the growing revulsion to political institutions and the individuals who lead them. The electoral successes of Jeremy Corbyn (and of the winner of the referendum, Boris Johnson) in Britain, Alexis Tsipras in Greece and both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the United States foreshadowed this trend. Above all, they expressed the repulsion felt for the existing order, a global cry of “throw the bums out” together with a deep desire for something new. These figures offer ideological alternatives that are seen as subversive, as undermining the existing order. They challenge the system. Each of these men offers something different. Some are charlatans, artists of illusion, who express dangerous worldviews, but all promise change. Until recently they were no-hopers, curiosities, but that’s changed. The Brexit vote is part of this new wave.

The 17 million-plus Britons who voted to leave the European Union did so for a wide variety of reasons. Most of the leave voters were from the lower classes. Some of them don’t want the million or so Poles living in their country; some registered a protest vote whose ultimate result already frightens them. (What will become of the 432 European soccer players in Britain’s Premier League, asked many in the United Kingdom this weekend.) Some of them saw the well-oiled EU machine in Brussels and wanted only to give it a good swift kick. The distribution of the vote is instructive: Only London voted to remain in Europe. The English periphery had its say, and it was different from that of the kingdom’s financial, political and cultural capital. Small towns and former manufacturing cities wanted a divorce. They said no to the elites, which they believe do not represent their aspirations, their world. While nearly everyone at the top of the political establishment was for remaining, some 17 million Britons rose up to say, we’ve had it with your promises, your cliches and your horror-show scenarios. There is something inspiring about that.

Pappe, an Israeli who is the director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies and co-director of the Exeter Centre for Ethno-Political Studies at the University of Exeter, believes it’s too early to predict the implications of the referendum’s sensationalist results. “After every revolution comes a reaction, and it all depends on what happens there. How Europe responds and what Britain’s new leadership does,” he says. Pappe, who has lived in Britain for many years now, was for remaining in the EU, but he sees the great promise represented by this captivating popular revolt.

The old politicians are losing their appeal. Some are corrupt, most are shallow demagogues who never say what they really think and nearly all of them are near to bursting with their own self-importance. We are flush with them in Israel. It’s time to get rid of them. The desire to replace them could give rise to dangerous figures, or to clowns — we’ve had our share of them — but we cannot ignore the hope that this longing generates. Europe is in a relatively good position today, perhaps the best in its history, but it’s not good enough for some of its citizens and immigrants. Britain’s citizens have had their say.

A referendum on the will of the people, and a people that comes out against the fear campaign of its leadership are things that Israelis can only dream about. A shake-up, something like this amazing Brexit, is the only thing that might be capable of fomenting change here. An exit from the territories, for example. That’s why we should look at Britain, the same Britain that is scared of itself now, with great hope and envy.

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