In the wake of the EU referendum result, Jewish experience, ingenuity and thinking can inspire the rest of the country. The UK faces enormous uncertainty, instability and insecurity. As a people, we have dealt with these over the centuries, accustomed to living on our wits
and making the most of a situation. Israelis may be experts in security, but Jews are specialists in insecurity. We can offer some lessons to our fellow countrymen in how to excel in this situation.
The referendum win for Brexit took many by surprise. It does not seem to have reflected opinion in the Jewish community, which was around two to one in favour of remain. It has led to the replacement of the Prime Minister, destabilised the Leader of the Opposition and sparked a political earthquake in the UK.
It was no run-of-the-mill Westminster event, but a seminal moment in post-War Britain. Only in the long stretch of history will we be able to look back and assess the true consequences. But we now face a hiatus until the new Prime Minister Theresa May invokes article 50 to trigger the exit. It will take time to negotiate the UK’s new relationship with the EU, whether its’s Norway-plus, Switzerland-minus or a plain old British version. Similarly it will take a while to work out how to deal with the 80,000 pages of EU law which has applied to the UK.
Britain so often a byword for stability and consistency, is engaging in soul searching following Brexit..The former US secretary of state Dean Acheson famously remarked in1962: “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role.” Now, through leaving the EU
after 43 years of membership, we are again raising the question of the UK’s place in the world. Some have pointed to a national hysteria or nervous breakdown. Before the country gets too downcast about Brexit, our community can offer some helpful advice, based on four elements.
First, uncertainty is OK. We’ve lived with it for centuries. We were never able to control the external environment we were in, which was invariably hostile. We turned our attention inward, nurturing the home and synagogue as the cornerstones of community life. Jews have learnt to
appreciate the beauty of today, not quite knowing what tomorrow will bring. A revival of community spirit in the UK, which we had a taste of in 2012 through the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee, would do wonders for national self-esteem.
Second, as Jews, we have often operated away from the mainstream, usually not by choice, and learnt to function as individuals. Similarly, since the UK has opted out of our major regional bloc, we will have to be more self-reliant.
Third, the economic contribution Jews have made over the ages has been remarkable. It would seem that persecution has acted as a stimulant to innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship. The Jewish economic achievement has been analysed in Steven Silberger’s book called “The
Jewish Phenomenon: Seven Keys to the Enduring Wealth of a People.” The traits include that real wealth is knowledge which is portable; that successful people are professionals and entrepreneurs; and also a psychological drive to prove something. They could be the guiding
forces for the Britain of today. We need to build the tech giants of tomorrow, encourage entrepreneurs and summon the war-time spirit of defiance and perseverance in the business sector.
Fourth, as Jews, we must be particularly sensitive to the impact that political convulsions can have on community relations. There have been some worrying signs of an increase in hate crimes, fuelled by a exclusive English nationalism. Poles and Eastern Europeans have been targeted particularly, borne out in police crime data but also anecdotal evidence. Stories of bullying in the school playground or Poles bursting into tears on a train carriage make the heart sink. We know that the external environment, including political turmoil or economic hardship, can act as an incubator for prejudice. Three times since 1990 the GDP growth of Europe fell below 1%: in 1914, in 1938 and after the financial crisis of 2008, and these have all been times of war and heightened anti-Semitism.
Following Brexit, lots of questions are being asked, and there are not always clear answers. Because of our civic activism, Jews have been called the “Americans of Britain.” But as the country’s oldest minority group, we can show the best of British. Our ancestors were
used to living on the edge, taking every day as it comes, and not knowing with certainty what tomorrow would bring. Drawing on our history and the best Jewish traditions, we can show the rest of the country how to make the best of insecurity and uncertainty.
Zaki Cooper is a Trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews.