Brexit unleashed political turmoil and all manner of charges from the defeated ‘Remain’ camp. When a Polish person was abused on the Manchester tram network the cry that it was all the fault of ‘Leave’ and the desire for more controlled immigration was heard.
This accusation and much of the other muddled thinking heard since Britain voted itself a new relationship with the European Union has become the conventional thinking. The truth is, as the British Jewish community knows only too well, racism – in the shape of anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist incidents – was on the agenda long before Brexit occurred. Community Security Trust data shows that reported incidents reached a crescendo during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014, when it was witnessed in high street grocery shops from Birmingham to Holborn in Central London.
Even as the post-Brexit drama was being played out in the Labour Party, Shami Chakrabarti’s report on virulent anti-Semitism in parts of Labour was overshadowed by clumsy remarks by besieged leader Jeremy Corbyn. He crudely likened the behaviour of Israel towards the Palestinians to Islamic state. The impact of his remarks was to renew the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel narrative on the left of Labour and in parts of the National Union of Students rather than defuse it.
There is no doubt that Brexit is an enormously disruptive event that has created all kinds of economic, commercial and diplomatic challenges. However, some of the concerns are misplaced.
A suggestion by one acquaintance was that it would make it impossible for their offspring to work in Germany. The idea that commercial organisations are going to close off channels to creative and other talent is nonsensical.
On the diplomatic front, nothing much changes either. President Obama may have put Britain at the back of the queue for a trade deal, but the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan, with his finger on the legislative button, has reversed that and placed the UK at the front of the queue for a new trade deal.
Senior Israeli diplomats have few concerns about Brexit either. The biggest worry, perhaps, is David Cameron’s absence from the Council of Ministers, where he has been a strong voice against anti-Semitism across Europe and the drift of the European Commission into pro-Palestinian positions. However, his ability to change attitudes, one voice among 28, has always been limited.
Israel sets much more belief in bilateral relationships among friends in Europe than it does in a dysfunctional and often hostile European Parliament and European Commission that seeks to limit its academic and technological institutions that operate across the ‘Green line’ of the pre-1967 borders. Indeed, it finds some of the leaders thrust into power by the euroland crisis to be much better partners in peace and prosperity.
The arrival in power of Alexis Tsipras of the left-wing Syriza party opened the way to a much more constructive relationship between Israel and Greece. Similarly, a good relationship has struck
up between Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Brussels may be hostile to Israel, but the most powerful politician in Europe, Angela Merkel, is regarded as among Israel’s greatest friends.
The EU has hitched political restrictions on its trading agreements with Israel, but that hasn’t prevented the UK becoming one of the state’s most important trading partners after the US and China. Indeed, in recent times that two-way trading relationship, worth an estimated $5bn a year, has come to buttress diplomatic relations between the two. It has undermined some of the traditional pro-Arab attitudes in the foreign relations establishment. Divorce from Europe could, in the view of Israeli diplomats, allow the technology, economic and financial relationships between Israel and the UK to become deeper and more valuable.
For British firms, the 10 percent or so devaluation of the pound since Brexit should make UK exports more competitive in Israel. And for Israeli investors looking for real estate, pharma and other assets overseas, London has overnight become cheaper.
No one said Brexit would be easy, or that it would be wholly beneficial. However, there are good reasons for the entrepreneurs in the Jewish community and for Israel not to wallow in pessimism.