David Newman
Views on the Borderline

British Jewry and the Forthcoming Elections

Britain goes to the polls in just over a month. Unlike Israeli elections, which often take up to three months to take place once they have been called, the British system demands the holding of elections within 3-4 weeks following the formal dissolution of Parliament. It will be strange to have elections in December, just three weeks before Christmas, in the UK – the first time in almost a hundred years – but given the almost collapse of the Parliamentary system over the never ending soap box saga of Brexit and the desire by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to finish, once and for all, with Brexit and get on with life, it had to come – sooner or later.

Britain’s Jewish community, numbering no more than some 270,000 people, does not have any major electoral impact outside two or three constituencies in North West London – Finchley and Barnet – where two thirds of that community reside. Notwithstanding, a community which has succeeded beyond all imagination in all walks of British life during the past hundred years, have a real dilemma in deciding for whom to vote – especially if they are – as the vast majority indeed are – amongst those who voted to remain within the European Union.

Despite the fact that Brexiteers and Remainer cross party lines, the holding of an election, rather than a sorely needed referendum with some real facts and information replacing simplistic and unfounded slogans which were used in the run up to the original referendum, has become identified with the Brexit yes or no options. A general election should be about the many other issues facing society, from welfare and education, to regional development and economic policy. Corbyn and the Labour Party, which is clearly even more divided over Brexit than are the Conservatives, have stated that they will campaign on these issues, but it is hard to see how, given the past three years of parliamentary irresponsibility, other issues will supersede Brexit.

Given the majoritarian, first past the post, British electoral system (which badly needs reforming as does our electoral system in Israel), it remains to be seen whether the two other candidates on the block – the Liberal Democrats headed by Jo Swinson, and the Brexit Party of Nigel Farrage – both of which are campaigning on Brexit and nothing else (the Liberal Democrats to remain regardless of the referendum, the Brexit party to leave immediately without any deal on the table) , will steal enough votes from either of the two large parties in sufficient numbers to radically alter the traditional two party outcome – regardless of how many votes they obtain in each of the 650 constituencies.

As an out and out Remainer (due diligence), I find it increasingly difficult to understand how responsible and intelligent members of the Jewish community could have voted in favour of Brexit. True, I have lived in Israel for almost forty years, but I retain strong links with the UK and have spent much of the past three years based in London, where I follow the local political scene with great interest, even attending some of the Parliamentary debates. I retain the right to vote, but will not be using it as I believe one should only vote in the country they have chosen to live, work and raise children – and that is most definitely Israel.
In the same way, I am against any attempt to change the Israeli law and allow Israeli citizens residing outside of Israel to vote in the Israeli elections – or for that matter for Israeli politicians to raise money for their campaigns from Diaspora Jewry – the money from which could be used for much more important purposes.

I do not understand how Jewish members of the community could have such short historical memories of where Europe was just seventy years ago, immediately after the end of World War II, and how, despite the many bureaucratic and economic deficiencies of the EU, of which there are far too many and which definitely need to be reformed and improved, how economic issues could take precedence over the fact that borders have come down, that a younger generation of Europeans are less interested in nationalistic and exclusive ideologies, and how much of the traditional fascist and national jingoism has been removed from the European debate as a result of EU expansion. The break up of the EU is being accompanied by the resurgence of right wing nationalism and xenophobia and it has always been the Jews who eventually become the long term victims of such racist ideologies.

That is not, in any way, to deny the growth in new forms of anti-Semitism, much of it from an anti-Israel left and on many university campuses, accompanied by the growth of radical ideologies within parts (and I stress, parts) of the immigrant Moslem community, who make little distinction between Jews as a religious global entity and Israel as a national State in which Jews are an eighty percent majority. To deny this form of anti-Semitism would be akin to being colour blind, but to put it down to membership of the EU is a gross misreading of contemporary social and political change inside a reconciled Europe – a Europe in which inter-State conflict and animosity has been, for the moment at least, resigned to the trash cans of European history, in no small part due to the expansion of the EU.

But that majority of the Jewish community in the UK who voted to remain in the EU do, indeed, have a real dilemma in the forthcoming elections. Jewish citizens, who have been long term members and supporters of the Labour Party for over a century, due to their focus on social welfare (the most intrinsic of Jewish values), respect and acceptance of the downtrodden, the immigrant and the ethnic “other”, have left the party in droves – if they have not yet been forced out through continuos harassment or by means of deselection as candidates in the next election. The number of Jewish parliamentarians is far less than in the past, partly due to the growth of educated and politically aware candidates who rightly represent their own ethnic communities, where Jewish parliamentarians often filled that role in the past.

Jeremy Corbyn is indeed perceived by many Jews in the UK as a threat to their future existence, although talk of having their bags packed if he were to become Prime Minister, are highly exaggerated. If, as Corbyn states time after time, this is a falsification of reality, then why has he done absolutely nothing to put an end to such activity? He may indeed jump to the defense of the rights of a Haredi Jew being attacked in the street, or a Jewish cemetery being desecrated, or even send (often misinformed) messages on the occasion of Jewish festivals, but he is clearly directly responsible for adding much fuel to the debate by consciously ignoring and side stepping anti-semitic sentiment and nuance amongst many of his closest advisors and supporters. His refusal to internalize the strong links between the Jewish community and the State of Israel, which he criticizes and delegitimizes incessantly, despite the fact that well over ninety percent of the Jewish community (as is the case in all other Diaspora communities) see their identity and their fate being intricately linked with that of Israel, is clearly a major factor in this process of alienation.

One does not need to be brain surgeon, nor a blind supporter of everything Israel ever does, to understand this simple fact.

Let’s be clear about it. The physical safety of the Jewish community in the UK is not threatened. But the very fact that the CST (Community Security Trust) has to issue new and more stringent security regulations to Jewish schools, synagogues and youth clubs where, in the past, one could walk in and out freely without being interrogated and questioned before being allowed to enter, the fact that many synagogues and other institutions have removed distinct Jewish signs (such as the magen David) from the front of their buildings, and the fact that there are some (albeit not too many – but every individual is a case in point) who no longer wear their kippa in public – in a country where the Jewish community had become much more open and outwardly recognizable due to their feelings of acceptance and security in the decades that preceded current events – all of these are indicative of the way that large parts of the community now feel. And with all due respect to the denigrators, this is most definitely not a stupid community who simply follow slogans which they see in newspaper or community headlines. They are closely involved in local and national political affairs and the vast majority weigh up their alternatives carefully with all due consideration to alternative viewpoints. One only has to read the strongly worded letter of leading Reform Rabbi, Jonathan Romain, which was published last week – a rabbi not exactly known for right wing views, to understand where the Jewish community is at, at this moment in time.

So, given all of these dilemmas, who will Britain’s Jews vote for? Who will the traditional Labour supporters who favour the remaining in the EU vote for, given the appalling Labour Party and Corbyn record on anti-semitism, a record which continues to grow, transforming a once proud party of the undertrod into a leading proponent of racism – and yes, anti-semitisim is racism, it cannot be disconnected from all the other ethnic and religious minorities, as though the Jews are a different case – just because they have been successful and are white.

Given their high level of political awareness and involvement, it is unlikely that the Jewish community will stay at home and not vote. But will those who favour Remain and /or find it impossible to vote for a Conservative Party – despite the fact that in the past two decades a growing percentage of the community (albeit still a minority) have indeed moved in that direction as they have become better off and identify the Margaret Thatcher legacy with their own family experiences – will they swallow their pride and decide that Brexit is the better of two evils when compared with the growth of Labour Party anti-semitism. Or will they opt for the Liberal Democrats (who don’t exactly have a great record on Israel) as a means of showing their disaffection, but in the hope that Corbyn will eventually be replaced (especially if he loses the election), that the Labour Party will get back to where it was as recently as the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown era (both of whom, alongside John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May, were all strong supporters of both Israel and the Jewish community) and they will be able to return to what they see as their natural political home.

I don’t profess to know what each individual will do. They will no doubt split over a variety of options and their impact on the overall electoral outcome will be marginal. But what is clear, perhaps for the first time in British political history, is that the Jewish community will be swayed and influenced by recent events impacting the community. When we grew up in the safety and security of Britain of the 60’s and 70’s, proud of our Jewish heritage and not afraid to display it in public, Jewish issues were not on the national political agenda. That, unfortunately, is no longer the case, and it remains to be seen how this sensitive line between a desire to remain in the EU, for political rather than economic reasons, a desire which is probably a lost cause by now, and the growth of new forms of anti-Semitism by many who also support Remain within the Labour Party, will be negotiated.

About the Author
David Newman is professor of Geopolitics in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Originally from the UK, he was awarded the OBE in 2013 for promoting scientific links between the UK and Israel. From 2010-2016, Newman was Dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at BGU. His three distinct, and vastly different, areas of expertise cover Border Studies, Israeli Politics and Society, and Anglo Jewish history of the 19th and 20th centuries.