Cleggmania Rising

Britain is lucky to have a real alternative in the race for prime minister.

Here at the Nation, we like to think that all our interns go on to accomplish great things. But all the same, it's not every day that one gets compared to Winston Churchill, Barack Obama, Princess Diana, Tony Blair, and even Jesus. But with two weeks to go before Britain's general election, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg (Nation intern class of 1990) is Britain's new political superstar. (Clegg, wisely and humbly, has said that any grand historical analogies are "daft.")

After stealing the show from Labour's Gordon Brown and the Conservative Party's David Cameron in Britain's first-ever televised debate on April 15, Clegg and his party have surged in the polls and media attention, creating, as one British reporter described it, "the hysterical condition known as Cleggmania." But in this case, the mania is backed up by hard facts. According to a YouGov poll for the Sun, the party is leading with, as the newspaper put it, "a staggering 33 per cent." This is the first time the Lib Dem party has been in the lead in a general-election race in 104 years.

We'd certainly love to claim that it was Clegg's internship that launched him into the political stratosphere. After all, since the Nation's internship program started in 1978, it has produced an extraordinary cohort of writers, reporters, editors, activists, and a few politicians. Labour's Ed Miliband, who was elected a member of the British Parliament in 2005 and is now secretary of state for energy and climate change, interned just a year before Clegg.

What marks Clegg as a former Nation intern is not only his dabbling in journalism, but how buoyantly he has axed the political establishment and the status quo. His strong populist message and clear articulation of people's discontent with politics as usual -- the corruption revealed by the MPs' expenses scandal and the Tories' dependence on tax-exempt billionaires; the sclerotic political system; and broken promises -- has made Clegg a feisty contender.

What gets less attention than Clegg's telegenic savvy is how the Lib Dems' surging prominence is healthy for British politics. The inclusion of a credible third-party candidate in national televised debates has shifted the campaign's dynamic and pushed Brown and Cameron to be more "radical" -- a term that has positive connotations in hidebound Britain right now. Perhaps even more importantly, by proposing alternative ideas often excluded from campaigns and debates, Clegg and party have made not-ready-for-prime-time ideas quite appealing! And because many Lib Dem policies are to the left of Labour's, it has moved the Labour Party to do some smart and left repositioning.

Clegg and his party -- which opposed the Iraq war -- are campaigning on a platform that would scrap Britain's Trident nuclear submarines, ensure the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, restore and protect civil liberties with a Freedom Bill, and make radical changes in the electoral system. (To be fair, on certain issues such as trade policy and deficit reduction, the Lib Dems are more "centrist" than Labour.)

Indeed, Clegg and his party sometimes seem to be channeling Nation editorials -- and laying out a model political platform for the left: whether it's calling for breaking up banks, chastising executives for obscene bonuses, exhorting the wealthy to pay their fair share, supporting a financial transactions tax and the closing of loopholes for the rich and polluters, or calling for investment in a sustainable and green economy.

On Tuesday, as British regulators opened a formal investigation into Goldman Sachs's London operations, Clegg called for the investment bank to be banned from doing business with the British government, pending the investigation's outcome. "They are a reminder of the recklessness and greed that have disfigured the banking industry as a whole," he stated.

The Cleggmania may yet blow over. As the Nation's British correspondent Maria Margaronis (intern class of 1983) rightly observes in the magazine's current issue, "Britain's superannuated winner-takes-all electoral system, and decades of gerrymandering favoring the two main parties, make it unlikely that the Lib Dems can win enough seats to take 10 Downing Street, even with a majority of the popular vote." (As for the United States' own superannuated electoral system, I'd humbly ask you to read my July 2008 essay, "Just Democracy," which lays out reforms Americans must make before they can achieve a viable multiparty system.)

Whatever the outcome, in these last few days we've witnessed an alternative and affirmative channeling of the anti-politics wave that is such a powerful force in Britain right now -- and in the United States. And though Clegg's personal appeal is clearly a major factor in his astonishingly fast political rise, he and the Lib Dems are playing a valuable role by bringing laser-like attention to issues that the two bigfoot parties have ignored for too long.

Some other political cultures I can think of should be so lucky.

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A State for All Its Citizens

The United States should not be fooled by Israel's claim that it can be both Jewish and democratic.

In the conflict studies courses I teach, I expose my students to theories that claim state-sanctioned inequality is a source of perpetual conflict. I know this to be true not only from my academic research, but from personal experience: I also run a small research institution in the northern Israeli city of Haifa that focuses on the status of the Palestinian citizens in Israel and their relationship with the state. This population, with the silent complicity of the United States, has long been the target of official state policies of discrimination.

In spite of America's professed commitment to equality, the U.S. government makes an exception when it comes to Israel's insistence on being recognized as a Jewish state, which in theory and practice means privileging Jewish citizens over all other citizens. U.S. President Barack Obama declared his support at the United Nations last September for "two states living side by side in peace and security -- a Jewish state of Israel, with true security for all Israelis, and a viable, independent Palestinian state." Similarly, Vice President Joe Biden told an audience at Tel Aviv University in March that negotiations should lead to "a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders." It appears that affirmation of Israel's identity as a "Jewish state" is becoming a routine part of U.S. discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

But it would be politically and morally wrong for the United States to support recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Israel's Palestinian minority makes up between 16 to 20 percent of the population, depending on whether the Palestinians in East Jerusalem are counted -- a larger percentage than the African-American population in the United States. The total percentage of non-Jews in Israel -- Muslims, Christians, and others -- reaches approximately 25 percent. To recognize Israel as a Jewish state excludes this sizable minority from full and equal participation in Israel's political and civic life. This is a recipe for enduring social strife and conflict.

There are few honest observers in Israel who dispute that a Jewish state, by definition, privileges one group of citizens over another. This inequality is expressed in various ways, including in Israel's Basic Laws and its laws of land control, immigration, and resource distribution. The modern Israeli state belongs only to its Jewish citizens -- and even to non-citizen Jews in the diaspora -- but not to its Palestinian citizens. As a result, a sizable minority of Israel's citizens have no state to call their own. Israel's Basic Laws stipulate that "a candidates list shall not participate in elections to the Knesset ... if the goals or actions of the list ... expressly or by implication" negates Israel as a Jewish state. Thus a party that explicitly requires Israel to become a state for all its citizens and not a Jewish state runs the risk of disqualification.

Is this really what Obama wants? Has he contemplated the built-in inequality that accompanies a "Jewish state"?

The U.S. government's ironclad commitment to Israel's security is the result of international politics, on which there can be differing views. However, supporting Israel's continued privileging of one group of citizens over another on the basis of national identity or religious affiliation is neither morally defensible nor harmonious with America's founding principles. The concept of a "Jewish state" is not equivalent to the still-objectionable term "Christian state" used by some groups in the United States. Rather, it is akin, in the eyes of Israel's non-Jewish citizens, to the concept of a "white state" -- a notion that is completely unthinkable in the West.

The United States has previously overlooked Israel's settlement policy for reasons related to its national interests and domestic political considerations. Now Israel is confronting the grave consequences of these policies: Difficult political choices over West Bank settlements have precipitated increasingly sharp divisions within Israeli society. Similarly, the diplomatic support the United States lends to Israel's ambition to be recognized as a "Jewish state" does not serve either country's long-term interests. Israel's welfare is best ensured by a system that guarantees real equality for all its citizens and national groups, rather than state-sanctioned ethnic discrimination.

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