Europe's Custodial Jewish Vote

Clear trends are emerging from Jews' participation in ballots in London and France.

Yesterday in London, more Jews than ever voted not only as Londoners, but as concerned Jews as well. On Sunday, throughout France, the same pattern will be repeated. That is, if the media hype is to be believed, and I think in this case it is.

Statistics on Jewish voting trends in Britain and France are hard to come by. The communities in both countries seem to have drifted rightward over the last few decades. In Britain, the shift in the Jewish vote has been less pronounced, with many Jews still voting Labour, particularly during the Tony Blair years, and the changes due less to communal concerns or the parties' Middle-East policy than to increased affluence and a growing distance from working-class roots.

A polling station in the 2012 French presidential election in Paris April 22, 2012.
A polling station in the first round of the 2012 French presidential election in Paris April 22, 2012.Reuters

Margaret Thatcher was considered a Judeophile not because of particular support for Israel, but the affinity between her Methodist values and the Jewish ideals of self-reliance and hard work, which was reflected in the large number of Jewish members in her cabinet. But even under Thatcher, many constituencies with large Jewish communities remained under Labour control. It is even harder to discern a clear trend in the London mayoral elections, as these have only taken place three times in the past.

In France, the swing has been much more drastic. Jews predominantly supported the left, voting mainly for the Socialist and even Communist parties until well into the 1980s, but the last two decades have seen a clear tilt rightward until in 2007, according to a report by polling organization IFOP, 45.7% of them voted for Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round of the presidential elections, compared to the 31.1% of the general population who voted for the candidate of the right.

This political trend mirrors the demographic change in the French community, which is increasingly comprised of Jews who emigrated from North Africa and whose passionate right-wing Zionism is matched only by their suspicion toward the Muslim communities who, like them, crossed the Mediterranean. Sarkozy as Monsieur Securite has proved adept at playing to their fears. A small number of Jews have even gone further to the right, voting for the Front National. The IFOP survey puts the number of Jewish FN voters in 2007 at 4.3% and according to some sources, two weeks ago the party under the new leadership of Marine Le Pen had doubled that.

There is no hard data as of yet regarding the Jewish support for Sarkozy in the first round - IFOP predicted that around 40% of the Jews would vote for him, certainly higher than the 27.2 he received from the general population. If it's any indication, 81 percent of French citizens who cast their ballots in Israel voted Sarko.

But while these trends give us some idea of how the Jewish vote is evolving, the striking phenomenon of this election season is how communal leaders on both sides of the Channel are prepared to openly admit that there is a specific Jewish preference. Not that long ago, admitting that Jews voted in a different way from their other countrymen, or vote as a bloc, would have been anathema in either country.

Jewish historian Geoffrey Alderman, writing a couple of years ago in the Guardian, recalled how as a young researcher in the 1970s, the Board of Deputies "ordered me - repeat, ordered - to cease forthwith my investigation of Jewish voting habits. Jews, I was told, voted just like everyone else. To poll a sample of Jews was to poll a sample of 'ordinary' voters - no more and no less." The very idea that there was a different Jewish voting trend would indicate, the community worthies feared, that there was something suspiciously foreign about the Jews and they were not fully integrated into British society.

What a contrast between the cautious approach of 40 years ago and the way that prominent Jewish figures in London have been taking on Labour's candidate, Ken Livingstone, in recent months, telling him with perfect frankness that the city's Jews have a problem with him, his grossly rude and insensitive remarks and his views on Israel. At the same time, Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson was given a hero's reception in every visit to the Jewish areas in North London, a cream-cheese bagel in hand and a black hat clamped precariously on his blond locks.

In France, CRIF President Richard Prasquier courted controversy last week when writing here in Haaretz: He warned of "a surge in leftist and Communist manifestations of anti-Zionism" should Socialist candidate Francois Hollande - currently the frontrunner in Sunday's second round - indeed become the next president of the republic. Hollande "has always been clearly friendly" toward Israel, wrote Prasquier, but there are other "socialist leaders who have negative views toward Israel's policies" and "beyond the socialists, but still in Hollande's camp, are the leftist parties and the Greens who express a deep hostility toward Israel and are at the forefront of every anti-Israel demonstration, declaration and petition."

Prasquier was pilloried by Jewish journalists and bloggers, who accused him of forsaking the proud tradition of alliance against racism with the left, and ignoring the xenophobia on the right and the rise of the Le Pen in favor of parochial interests. But the head of the Jewish umbrella organization was unrepentant: "We know that some of the parties who are supposed to be partners of the coalition in favor of Francois Hollande are not friends of Israel," he said on Monday. "It is clear that the Left Front has declared that they will vote for Francois Hollande. If Francois Hollande is elected president, I do not expect the far left would be given the position of foreign minister, but if they have more visibility there might be an increase in demonstrations against Israel in the public society - BDS and so on - and we will have to face them."

He played down fears of Le Pen, saying that "if Nicolas Sarkozy is elected, she will not have a voice because there are no relations between her and the president."

Politics in Europe have changed. Sarkozy and Livingstone may come from opposite poles of the political divide, but neither of them hesitates to play ethnic minorities and religious communities off each other, capitalizing on their phobias. Both are losing, at least in the polls, but this style of politicking by mainstream candidates is now legitimate. The Jews, along with other minority groups, have changed accordingly. They are no longer afraid to assert themselves both as fully integrated citizens, but as Jews as well, even at the ballot box.