The British elections, Jews and Israel

From a logical point of view Israel and the Jews shouldn’t be issues at all in the election. Yet when antisemitism is concerned rationality often evaporates.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May at 10 Downing Street, in London, February 6, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May at 10 Downing Street, in London, February 6, 2017
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Great Britain’s exit from the European Union, immigration problems and the National Health Service are key issues in the upcoming British general elections on June 8. Of these it seems that only immigration has aspects of specific importance to Jews. Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May has said that sustainable net immigration is in the tens of thousands, an estimate far lower than the present figure. Such a policy will affect the current mainly non-selective immigration from Muslim countries, where majorities or significant percentages of the population are antisemites.
From a logical point of view Israel and the Jews shouldn’t be issues at all in the election. Yet when antisemitism is concerned rationality often evaporates. Early in the campaign the Liberal Democrats suspended Ashuk Ahmed. This candidate in a Luton constituency was found to have made extreme antisemitic remarks in the past. For more than a year there has been a huge debate on antisemitism in the Labor Party. Each time it seems to be subdued it reemerges. Currently the main issue concerns former London mayor Ken Livingstone who continues to link Nazism and Zionism.
The 270,000 Jews in the UK account for about 0.4% of the overall British population. Thus the Jewish vote can influence the election outcome only in a few constituencies. The MPs in these areas are likely to run again. They are pro-Jewish and pro-Israel. Unless major swings happen most will be reelected.
The reelection of Jewish MPs is a different issue. In the past 12 months, some Jewish Labor MPs have been bombarded with large volumes of extreme hate mail. Luciana Berger has received thousands, among them some threatening her with rape or murder. All this in response to her criticism of the Labor Party’s refusal to condemn antisemitism. Another Jewish MP, Ruth Smeeth, received 25,000 abusive messages. Documents have revealed that the left-wing Momentum group has tried to recruit “radical” Muslims in order to de-select Jewish Labor MP Louise Ellman.
Due to the short timespan leading up to the election, Labor has decided that all current MPs can stand again if they wish. Thus local party de-selection efforts cannot play any role. Polls predict that Labor will lose tens of seats. These may include not only those of several Jewish MPs, but also those of a number of Labor MP friends of Israel. In the previous parliament one Labor Jewish MP, Gerald Kaufmann, was generally the most extreme anti-Israel hate monger. He died in February.
If antisemitism is used specifically against Jewish candidates some experts expect that this may help them to be elected as they will be seen as victims.
Another interesting issue from a Jewish point of view is what is going to happen in constituencies with large Muslim populations. The number of Muslims in the UK now exceeds three million. In the 2015 elections the think tank Henry Jackson Society stated that the Muslim vote could potentially decide the outcome in a quarter of the constituencies.
Some candidates may use anti-Israel arguments and support for the recognition of Palestine in the campaign even if this was not a major feature of the previous election. On the other hand, Muslims can also quietly let candidates know what is expected of them. Where there is a large Muslim population, candidates are likely to say what these voters wish to hear.
The Board of Deputies, the umbrella organization of British Jewry, has recently updated its Jewish Manifesto. This document presents the issues which government and parliamentarians are asked to understand and lists the causes it wants them to champion. “Ten commitments” summarize this 44-page document.
The first commitment requested in the Jewish Manifesto is to oppose “extremism and hate crime, including antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of hate.” One should remark here that the UK is the only country which has adopted a definition of antisemitism for domestic use, that of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. No accepted definition exists for Islamophobia. That term is often abused to include any criticism of Muslims and Islam including mentioning the problematic behavior and attitudes of substantial parts of Muslim populations.
The second point in the commitments is to “promote good relations, understanding and cooperation between all of the UK communities." One should mention here that last year the Campaign against Antisemitism published a document on this and concluded that “on every single count, British Muslims were more likely by far than the general British population to hold deeply antisemitic views.”
Another commitment concerns the defense of the right to a Jewish way of life, including kosher meat, religious clothing, circumcision and flexible working to accommodate Shabbat and holiday observance. Additional commitments include supporting efforts to remember and understand the Holocaust, advocate for a permanent and comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, promote uniting communities and resisting boycotts that divide communities, affirming the importance of faith, supporting the culture of religiously and culturally sensitive youth and social care services, promote a just and sustainable future, and celebrate and support Jewish heritage and cultural institutions.
It remains to be seen whether the Jewish Manifesto will be used and publicized by candidates. In any case having such a document could also be helpful to Jews in other countries.
The author is emeritus chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.