The year 2016 is one many in the Jewish community would like to forget. Brexit is proving deeply divisive and, as the Remain camp likes to point out, it hasn’t even happened yet. The election of Donald Trump was as deep a shock to most American Jews, bastions of American liberalism, confronted with a leader potentially as spiteful and racist as the one portrayed in Philp Roth’s prophetic 2004 novel, The Plot Against America.
Here at home, Jewish values and support for Israel came under vicious and brutal attack from internet trolls, with Labour’s Luciana Berger under siege. The anti-Israeli sentiments unleashed by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party quickly transmogrified into traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes.
The old left-wing stager Ken Livingstone, once Corbyn’s foreign policy adviser, disgraced himself with his suggestion that Hitler was a Zionist. The LibDems found themselves in the ducking chair when the malignant anti-Zionist Baroness Jenny Tonge chaired an event at the House of Lords populated by Holocaust deniers and other extremists – yet this did not stop the LibDems’ hero in the Richmond Park by-election, Sarah Olney, being photographed with Tonge, before the pictures mysteriously vanished from campaign literature.
Working for a pro-Brexit paper, I, like many of my colleagues found the Leave vote a deeply uncomfortable personal experience. A close member of my family accused me of ‘ruining their children’s lives.’ I almost stopped going to shul on Shabbat rather than confront friends who all but accused me of adopting racist little-Englander positions.
The most ferocious attacks came when the Daily Mail, borrowing from the playwright Ibsen, ran its Enemies of the People headline above a story on the Appeal Court ruling that the Commons should have a say on invoking Article 50. A senior member of the judiciary, with whom I always had an amiable and civilised relationship, asked how I could work for such a paper.
Rarely in my long life in journalism have I encountered such hostility. It has to be said that in a democracy the lawyers and judges should not regard themselves above criticism, especially as citizens are granted such little insight into what factors form their views. Most are drawn from a privileged group of schools and universities and, in contrast to the US , there are no public hearings on their appointment.
As for Brexit, my arguments have always been economic. The very idea I, as the son of refugees from Nazi Europe, would oppose giving shelter to immigrants fleeing from violence and poverty is anathema. My economic critique has long been based around the notion that the European Union is a dysfunctional club.
Far from being the wonderful market of 500million people described with such enthusiasm by the Remain campaign, it has delivered acute economic stress and division. In Greece and Spain, youth unemployment has reached 50 percent. In Italy, it approaches 40 percent. Belgium and France have been shown to be countries that have failed to confront terrorism, some of it aimed at Jews.
Here in Britain, when it is pointed out that Britain’s economy was the fastest growing in the Western world in 2016, one is confronted with the retort it’s because Brexit has not happened. Divorce feels more comfortable – 2017 will see elections across Europe with right-wing parties with anti-Semitic roots in leading positions.
We in Britain are fortunate that despite Brexit and the rise of extremism we have a government that fully recognises the contribution and importance of the Jewish community to economic and intellectual well-being, as Theresa May and Amber Rudd have shown.
I wish Jewish News readers a prosperous, healthy and safe 2017.