Are we on the edge of an abyss or should we celebrate? British Jews react to Brexit vote
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'The collapse of the EU itself is a real possibility'

Are we on the edge of an abyss or should we celebrate? British Jews react to Brexit vote

Amid worries over rising nationalism and increased isolation from European Jewish communities, Jewish leaders call for an ‘inclusive’ UK

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

British Prime Minister David Cameron (C) speaks to the press in front of 10 Downing Street in central London on June 24, 2016 after the UK voted to leave the EU. (AFP Photo/Odd Andersen)
British Prime Minister David Cameron (C) speaks to the press in front of 10 Downing Street in central London on June 24, 2016 after the UK voted to leave the EU. (AFP Photo/Odd Andersen)

At Shabbat dinner this Friday night, many British Jewish households will be “having an extra l’chaim” to celebrate the results of Thursday’s Brexit poll, said 31-year-old Richard Verber, the senior vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

But many others are, as one British Jewish journalist put it, “appalled and very depressed. On the edge of an abyss.”

On Thursday, 51.9% of Britons voted to leave the European Union in a controversial referendum on whether to remain or exit the 28-nation bloc. On Friday morning, British Prime Minister David Cameron resigned, saying he does “not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination.”

What that destination is, however, is what worries many in the Jewish community.

According to political strategist Jeremy Newmark, chair of the Jewish Labour Movement and a firm proponent for Remain, the Leave decision “gives British Jewry and European Jewry huge cause for concern.”

A man takes a copy of the London Evening Standard with the front page reporting the resignation of British Prime Minister David Cameron and the vote to leave the EU in a referendum, showing a pictured of Cameron holding hands with his wife Samantha as they come out from 10 Downing Street, in London on June 24, 2016. (AFP / LEON NEAL)
A man takes a copy of the London Evening Standard with the front page reporting the resignation of British Prime Minister David Cameron and the vote to leave the EU in a referendum, showing a pictured of Cameron holding hands with his wife Samantha as they come out from 10 Downing Street, in London on June 24, 2016. (AFP/Leon Neal)

Newmark speculated that the result “is likely to act as a massive boost and a recruiting sergeant for racist and nationalist parties” throughout Britain and the EU. He added that it could also act as a catalyst for other member states to fortify borders and refuse to allow the entry of immigrants.

“The collapse of the EU itself is a real possibility on the table,” said Newmark from his London office where he works as a political consultant to clients including governments, NGOs and businesses. The vote, he said, “brings us very much into uncharted territory.”

Richard Verber speaks before his election as Senior Vice President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, May 17, 2015. (Board of Deputies/John Rifkin)
Richard Verber speaks before his election as senior vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, May 17, 2015. (Board of Deputies/John Rifkin)

In conversation with The Times of Israel a few hours after the people of Britain decided to leave the European Union, Jewish leaders are questioning what the loss of the UK, a stalwart friend of Israel, will mean for the EU’s relationship with Israel. And without the support of British Jewry, who will now champion European Jews’ basic religious rights of ritual slaughter and circumcision — two hot-button issues in the European bloc.

Verber said that ahead of Thursday’s vote, all of these issues had been discussed within the broader British Jewish leadership. However, with economic interests on both sides, “the British Jewish community wasn’t unanimous one way or another.”

Verber’s sense, after hearing a high-level debate last month with a British Member of Parliament on one side and a Member of the European Parliament arranged by the apolitical Board of Deputies, was that “in the room, there was a majority for Remain. I suspect that’s where the Jewish community is,” he said. But, he added, just as in broader Britain, without a substantial majority.

It is too early to fully siphon the voting statistics, but throughout the UK, youth and urban dwellers tended to vote Remain, whereas older voters and those who live outside urban areas voted to leave.

‘Given that, say 200,000 of the 300,000 Jews are in London, more London Jews were in favor of Remain’

“Given that, say 200,000 of the 300,000 Jews are in London, more London Jews were in favor of Remain,” said Verber.

Newmark agreed with Verber’s assessment, saying that “fundamentally, the nature of the exit campaign was a campaign rooted in the sort of dog whistle politics of hatred that we as a Jewish community have become particularly sensitive to. It will be evident that the vast majority of the Jewish community voted to remain.”

As seen by Friday’s huge downturn in the value of the British pound, there is cause for concern for an economic recession in light of the vote.

“The potential or the actual damage to the economy will perhaps disproportionately hit Jewish charity groups,” said Newmark. A report called “Faith Matters,” released on June 17, demonstrated the high level of British Jewish charity — over one billion pounds a year.

But there is a broader problem than a potential drop in donations, said Newmark. Many Jewish charities disperse their aid in Israel or other international causes, he explained. As the value of their money decreases, they will have less buying power.

Jeremy Newmark, former chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council (Courtesy)
Jeremy Newmark, chair of the Jewish Labour Movement (Courtesy)

Newmark fears for Britain’s lessened political power as well, especially vis-à-vis Israel. Without the voice of Britain, Israel will see even more restrictive EU policy, he claims.

“More parochially,” he said, with Israel tours for Jewish youth, the “prices might skyrocket,” which would make them and other Israel initiatives such as gap years, “unaffordable.”

“The cost of Jewish living might start to bite very hard,” said Newmark, referring to Jewish education and the affordability of kosher meats, which is largely imported to the UK.

While he is generally pessimistic following the Leave vote, Newmark is not certain whether exiting the EU will affect European Jewry’s religious rights.

“The model for defending brit mila [circumcision] and shechita [ritual slaughter] in the UK, has been taken and replicated in the EU,” he said. It is too early to say how the decision will affect British Jewish participation in European Jewry, but Newmark projected it would “down-grade” British Jewry’s influence in organizations such as the European Jewish Congress.

Ritually slaughtered meat being processed at the Zaklady Miesne Mokobody slaughterhouse near Warsaw in 2011. (photo credit: Courtesy of Zaklady Miesne Mokobody/JTA)
Ritually slaughtered meat being processed at the Zaklady Miesne Mokobody slaughterhouse near Warsaw in 2011. (Courtesy of Zaklady Miesne Mokobody/JTA)

Ritual slaughter may already be affected, however. Shimon Cohen, the campaign director of Shechita UK, said that as a UK-funded organization, “With Brexit, our interest in EU law ceases and we will have to focus on our own home challenges.”

“The reason why Shechita UK has helped in Europe for the last 14 years is because Shechita came within the EU legal framework rather than member states’ own legal framework. Helping Poland was helping the UK,” said Cohen.

“Through Shechita UK, the UK Jewish community has lobbied in Brussels extensively and successfully on behalf of all Europe’s Jewish communities. Shechita UK has also provided assistance and expertise to a number of Jewish communities who have faced problems with shechita in their own countries, including Ireland, Poland, Holland, Lithuania, Belgium, Denmark and France,” he said.

“Brexit means that Shechita UK will have now to focus its efforts on the challenges ahead in the UK,” said Cohen.

Jewish Labour Party MP Luciana Berger (left), British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and Sheikh Ibraham Mogra (right) participate in the UK's annual Mitzvah Day on November 22, 2015. (Yakir Zur)
Jewish Labour Party MP Luciana Berger (left), British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and Sheikh Ibraham Mogra (right) participate in the UK’s annual Mitzvah Day on November 22, 2015. (Yakir Zur)

And the UK is expected to have plenty of challenges.

‘It is my hope and prayer that the polarization of the national debate about Europe will now give way to a composed recognition of our common values of respect and responsibility’

Britain has spent the past many months in politically and nationalistically charged campaigning, which in its extreme led to the murder of British Labour MP Jo Cox.

The country, said Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis in a statement following the vote, is “sharply divided.”

“It is more essential than ever before that we unite so that the ensuing political upheaval does not adversely affect the most vulnerable in our society and that our moral leadership role in the world remains undiminished. It is my hope and prayer that the polarization of the national debate about Europe will now give way to a composed recognition of our common values of respect and responsibility,” said Mirvis.

From Jerusalem, where he is participating in a conference for young Jewish leaders, the Board of Deputies’ Verber echoed Mirvis’s sentiments. He said that for both sides of the argument, “this is clearly a time of uncertainty.”

Britain must unify, said Verber, to “address the causes of disenchantment and remain committed to being an inclusive and affirmative place for all parts of our society.”

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