WE NEED to talk about Theresa May and Michael Gove. What could there be to talk about? They are friends of the community. They speak at our charity dinners. They are glowing about Israel.
The problem is their views on Europe. Gove, the Justice Secretary, is campaigning for Brexit. May reluctantly wants to stay, but said recently she thinks we should leave the European Convention on Human Rights instead – an option currently not on the table. They are both proposing fundamentally dangerous paths. I want to explain why Jewish people should be very worried.
The EU and ECHR exist because of separate international treaties but have a common origin, growing from the ashes of the Second World War, the Holocaust and what was known as the European Movement.
The movement’s big idea was that to prevent another disastrous conflict in Europe we needed to bring states closer through political, social and economic cooperation.
Churchill was the driving force, understanding that, to defeat communism and extreme nationalism, Europe must be rebuilt on the foundations of common values: democracy, equality and the rule of law.
From that simple idea sprang the two most effective international organisations in history. The ECHR is a treaty drafted mostly by Conservative British politician David Maxwell-Fyfe, the UK’s prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. It contains a list of rights, such as free speech, freedom of religion and the right to privacy; a mirror image of the rights taken away by the Nazis. The ECHR isn’t just fancy words; anyone can apply to it to enforce his or her rights. In the UK, it has enforced press freedom, enshrined protection against child abuse and ensured equality for gay people, among many other things.
The EU grew from a different set of treaties, allowing Europeans to work and travel where they like, reducing economic protectionism between countries and introducing important basic standards for workers, such as laws protecting them from discrimination on grounds of race or religion, guaranteeing maternity leave and equal pay for workers of equal value.
So far, so idealistic. Of course, both institutions have problems. They are prone to empire-building and bureaucracy.
The ECHR is overstretched and some feel makes decisions which should be left to elected politicians.
It also makes controversial judgments, for example delaying the deportation of extremist cleric Abu Qatada until Jordan changed its laws on evidence obtained by torture.
Which brings me back to May and Gove. They pick on those relatively minor criticisms and amplify them.
They use phrases such as “restoring sovereignty” or freeing Britain from the “chains” of Europe so it can realise its potential. Let the lion roar, and so on.
The Jewish community needs to see this movement for what it is – nothing less than the re-emergence of British nationalism.
And it isn’t just happening in Britain. There is a worldwide trend to focus on national concerns at the expense of the international community. In the US, Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy is reminiscent of the policy of the same name used by Charles Lindbergh to whip up anti-Jewish prejudice in the 1930s.
The unifying cry of the neo-nationalist movement is to withdraw from, and possibly destroy, the institutions that have been central to maintaining peace and increasing prosperity in Europe for more than half
a century. May and Gove are at the respectable end of a dangerous coalition that includes little-Englanders such as UKIP and the likes of George Galloway.
Nationalism has never been good for Jews. Jewish communities have thrived in outward-looking liberal societies, which celebrate religious freedom and promote communities with links in other countries.
I am not arguing that if we undermine international organisations, the jackboot will immediately follow.
But as Pierre-Henri Teitgen, one of the ECHR’s founding fathers, eloquently said: “Democracies do not become Nazi countries in one day. Evil progresses cunningly… It is necessary to intervene before it is too late.”
The Jewish community should listen and intervene in this negative, narrow anti-European movement before it is too late.