I doubt I will have a more significant vote to cast in my lifetime than the one taking place this Thursday, 23 June.
As a UK citizen, as a European Jew, and as an advocate for Palestinian rights, this vote matters.
Here in Britain the debate has become polarised between those who fear the economic consequences of leaving and those who fear the immigration consequences of staying.
In the last few days of the campaign, the inspiring life and violent death of Jo Cox MP could turn out to be decisive. Solidarity with a politician who refused to accept the xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric of the ‘Leave’ camp may just be enough to make up the mind of the still undecided.
Good or bad for the Jews?
There’s a tradition in my community of asking on any major national question whether a particular outcome will be ‘good or bad for Jews’. It’s not as selfish as it sounds. It comes of being a minority group, wary of change and always on the look out for potential threats. It’s not the most healthy mindset psychologically, but it’s there none the less.
According to polling by the Jewish Chronicle taken in May the Jewish community is slightly more in favour of Britain remaining in the EU than the general population.
Asked how they would vote in the referendum, 49% said they would prefer to stay in. But just over a third – 34% – back Brexit. That leaves 17% still unsure.
The Jewish polling surprised me. I expected to see a more emphatic support for staying in the EU based on the reasons I set out for my own thinking below.
The explanation for the ambivalent attitude to the EU may be found in the opinion of Jewish Chronicle columnist Geoffrey Alderman. Here’s what he wrote back in March when the referendum date was announced.
“I’ve heard it argued that the British voice in Europe is on the whole a voice sympathetic to Israel; that as a member state of the EU the UK is automatically a party to various agreements between the EU and Israel (covering not merely trade but also scientific and technological co-operation), and that Brexit would bring this sympathetic voice and these agreements to an end.”
In Alderman’s world view it looks like “What’s good for the Jews?” has been overtaken by “What’s good for Israel?” in the mistaken idea that the two are synonymous.
Alderman’s only hesitation about leaving is that the UK has ‘Israel’s back’ if it comes under fire from critics in Brussels. In the end though, he’s content that other states can take care of that role.
For Alderman it’s all about British sovereignty and ideas of independence and self-determination. That fits neatly with his views on Israel too. Nobody should be putting outside pressure on the Jewish State.
He ends his column by putting Judaism at the service of Boris Johnson and the ‘Leave’ brigade.
“But, at the end of the day, Brexit comes down to a question of sovereignty. As a religious Jew, I pray for the welfare of the nation. And that is why I shall be voting for Brexit on June 23.”
Well, I’ll be praying too because I don’t believe that ‘as a religious Jew’ Alderman has the Almighty’s insight into what’s good for the Jews. I’ll be praying that Little Englander Jews like Alderman start to see the bigger picture before we get to 10pm on Thursday night.
I suspect supporters of ‘Leave’, have an over inflated, and over optimistic, view of what Britain can achieve by itself.
It’s true we are economically strong with a skilled, innovative and talented workforce. We have a proud history. And we have given the world, Shakespeare, the Beatles and Tim Berners-Lee. That’s good. But it’s not good enough.
If I think about the major issues that will dominate the rest of my life, and the lives of my children, then working collectively and collaboratively starts to look far more important than maintaining a mostly fictional idea of Westminster ‘sovereignty’.
After all, we don’t have sovereignty over climate change. We don’t have sovereignty over global capitalism or global migration. We certainly don’t have sovereignty over the consequences of religious radicalism, be it the Jewish, Christian or Islamic variety. As for sovereignty over the World Wide Web, well, ask Tim Berners-Lee what he thinks. There’s a reason Tim didn’t try and stick a UK copyright label on it.
British national interests, including the interests of British Jews, don’t stop at the white cliffs of Dover. Only geography teachers need to insist on calling us an island nation. On every other measure we’re not.
In the final days before Thursday, I’m amazed by how many of my fellow Brits are still in denial over just how wired together the world has become. In truth, there is no such thing as ‘national independence’. International co-dependency is what exists in every field of human endeavour.
Younger voters seem to understand this intuitively. My own teenage children see across borders and beyond divisions. They are far less distracted by race, nation or gender than I am. They see the EU in terms of ‘level playing fields’ not ‘red tape’. They are digital not analog. We really should have lowered the voting age to 16 for this one. Let’s just hope the first time voters get themselves down to the polling stations.
And what about the other big issue that’s dominated the campaign – immigration?
As a descendant of 19th century refugees and economic migrants, I’m predisposed to seeing the positive side of welcoming newcomers. New blood and new thinking always strengthens communities in the long term. That’s an outlook I thought most British Jews still shared based on our family histories. Perhaps we’re starting to suffer from selective memory loss.
In the short term, integration on the scale we now face causes real stresses for local communities and resources. That needs to be managed far better for the good of immigrants and those already here. The Jewish experience in Britain is an example of what good can look like in terms of maintaining religion, culture and identity while also integrating with the wider community. Leaving the EU is no substitute for fostering good community relations creating jobs and investing in the health service and housing.
To return to the possible legacy of Jo Cox, I hope many people have been reading or watching her maiden speech in Parliament last year after winning her West Yorkshire seat at the General Election:
“Batley and Spen is a gathering of typically independent, no-nonsense and proud Yorkshire towns and villages. Our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration, be it of Irish Catholics across the constituency or of Muslims from Gujarat in India or from Pakistan, principally from Kashmir. While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
If ‘Remain’ wins on Thursday Jo Cox’s death may yet have some lasting meaning.
As a Jew living in Europe I owe thanks and loyalty to the European project.
The Post War ambition to create an economically interdependent continent has brought peace, stability and personal safety to Jews like at no other time in our history.
Recent upsurges in antisemitic attacks across the continent need to be placed in that perspective.
Hard to believe, but the most popular destination for young Jews wishing to leave Israel and make a new, less claustrophobic, less racist Jewish life for themselves is now Germany. More precisely, Berlin.
Europe is, for the most part, open-minded and tolerant. The very conditions that historically have always enabled Jews to thrive. Those values of tolerance, equality and the consistent application of the rule of law have turned out to be far more significant for Jews than exclusive rights to territory. I recognise that religious extremists are now taking advantage of our European tolerance but that’s a problem that again needs a joined-up collective response. There are no draw-bridges to be pulled up on this issue.
‘Leave’ advocates seem to have taken for granted the peace dividend that has come about by marrying our European fortunes together. It’s not perfect and it gets complicated as more countries join the EU. But don’t underestimate (or plain forget) the enormity of what has been achieved in a part of the world dominated by war for hundreds of years. As a 21st century Jew I’ve been a great beneficiary of the European project. Unlike Geoffrey Alderman, I have no interest in undermining it by taking Britain out.
And what about the EU dimension to Israel/Palestine?
Since there is no balance in the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian people there’s no chance of them agreeing a fair and just settlement just by locking them together in a room for a year.
To have any hope of an even partially just peace, an international dimension will be needed.
Today, the EU is a major trading partner for Israel. Israel is not a full member of the EU but it has negotiated a whole raft of preferential trading agreements.
And that means the EU has an opportunity to use that trade relationship as leverage for the restoration of Palestinian rights and a just settlement in Israel/Palestine.
It won’t be easy but at least EU politicians are not at the mercy of US Christian Zionists (surely the biggest antisemites around today) or well-funded Pro-Israel lobbyists (surely the most shortsighted Jews around today).
No nation has ever voluntarily given up power without external pressure. And Israel will be no different. The EU is well placed to take on that role. Especially if European public sympathy towards the Palestinians continues to grow.
The UK needs to bring its weight to that EU dimension to peace making. After all we have considerable responsibility for what’s taken place in that much too Promised Land.
The Balfour Declaration, a hundred years old next year, was the moment when one people (the British) promised a land they didn’t own to another people (the Jews) who didn’t live there, while ignoring a third people (the Palestinians) who did. Through our membership of the EU we may finally be able to atone for our sins of past diplomacy.
So far the EU has failed to make Israel incur any economic penalty for its actions in Gaza and the West Bank over the last fifty years. But change is in the air.
Last November the European Union issued new guidelines for labelling products made in Israeli settlements on occupied land. The EU has been consistent in saying that the Israeli Jewish settlements constitute an obstacle to peace.
It might seem like a small step to insist on labels but the Jewish reaction in Jerusalem was apoplectic, not just from Netanyahu and the pro-Settler right wing but from those who consider themselves centre-left and ‘moderate’ too. Actions like insisting on labels start to change the dynamic. And that’s important when neither of the front running candidates for the White House in November look remotely interested in forcing Israel’s hand.
So I’ve made up my mind.
What will always be good for the Jews – whether in Britain, Europe or Israel – turns out to be the same things that are always good for everyone…including Palestinians. Not nationalism, not religious chauvinism, not a fortress mentality. But equal rights protected and upheld, level economic playing fields, tolerance, compassion, co-operation, collaboration, social stability and peace.
For me remaining in the EU takes us closer to those ideals than leaving.