For some British Jews, the positions on Israel of the parties and candidates in Thursday’s general election will greatly influence the way they intend to vote. I don’t know how wide that tendency is, but the candidates themselves seem to think it is significant. In their interviews with local Jewish media and appearances before Jewish audiences, they all speak extensively on the issue. This is sad because without exaggeration, this is the most important British election of a generation and the Jewish community has much more acute concerns closer to home.
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Deep divides over British (and English, Scottish and Welsh) identity are coming to the fore. The national attitude towards immigrants and minorities as well as Britain’s place, or lack of it, in Europe are all at stake here. All of these matters are of huge importance to the Jewish community. And I haven’t even mentioned the impact the parties’ radically different policies on economic and social matters will have on Jewish families and schools. On the other hand, the identity of the next man living in 10 Downing Street will have very little effect on Israel and the Middle East.
Britain is occupied with its internal turmoil, and despite the outsized role Israel often plays in its media, there is little a British prime minister will be able or interested to do in the region over the next five years. He will have too much on his plate between preserving the United Kingdom, the near certainty of another referendum on Scotland down the road, and keeping the U.K. a viable part of Europe.
That said, if some British readers are convinced that Israel should be part of their considerations when they arrive at the polling station, then the choice is clear. They have to vote Labour.
Why Miliband is better for Israel
I know, David Cameron is probably the most pro-Israel prime minister in history and he wears his admiration for the Jewish state and belief in the justice of its actions bravely on his sleeve. And yes, Ed Miliband is often so painfully awkward in coming to terms with his own Jewishness, so much more careful when endorsing Israel, and is openly critical of many of its policies. Every time I’ve heard the suave and urbane Cameron speak about Israel to a Jewish audience, I felt around me the warm and comfortable atmosphere spread throughout the room. Miliband on so many issues sounds anguished and conflicted; when it comes to Israel, too, he is much less reassuring. Which is exactly why he is ultimately the better friend for Israel.
Miliband is no closet anti-Zionist. When you hear him speak of the sanctuary Israel gave his grandmother after the Holocaust, there’s no doubting his sincerity. Yes, Cameron’s backing has been valuable in many ways, but Israel needs true, critical friends more than it needs another Western politician strengthening Benjamin Netanyahu’s resolve to continue doing nothing to end the moral rot of the occupation of another people.
It would be helpful if Miliband would speak out more forcefully and often against the creeping Judeophobia on the margins of the left-wing, masquerading as anti-Zionism. That doesn’t change the fact that British Jews, and Israelis as well, should be listening to his honest criticisms. Instead it seems some of them are intent on holding a pauper’s version of the sordid affair last weekend at the Venetian casino in Las Vegas. Prospective Republican candidates prostrated themselves at the feet of Sheldon Adelson and competed over who could utter the more unhinged expressions of support for the Jewish state, totally disregarding the real problems it faces.
If you want a good reason not to vote for Miliband, then his position on Israel certainly isn’t one. The real question mark looming over his strength of character as a leader is the disgraceful way he acted during the vote on Britain’s participation in the strike on Syria after the Assad regime gassed to death hundreds of its own citizens in September 2013.
Miliband talks proudly of his parents who found refuge from the Holocaust in Britain, and how the country offered them not just survival but an opportunity to succeed and prosper. He claims that his family’s experience has formed his views over how to preserve and build British society, and that is certainly commendable. But in defeating the government over the Syrian attack, he spurned another British legacy. One that was commemorated this week at Bergen-Belsen, the German concentration camp liberated 70 years ago by the only army that fought through the entire six years of the war. The doubt over Miliband’s strength of character to forego political considerations and confront totalitarianism – and, for that matter, the doubt over Cameron’s as well, since he has also ultimately abdicated British responsibility for the world’s troubles – is much more important for Jewish voters than their positions on Israel. Both men now face a greater test on home turf.
Of course, there is no moral equivalence between the mass-murderous tendencies of the Assad regime and the relatively genteel varieties of nationalism now competing on the right and left of British politics. But if there is a real long-term threat to the viability of the Jewish community in Britain, as well as that of other minorities, it is not a slightly less pro-Israel government in Westminster, or the occasional outbreak of low-level anti-Semitic incidents perpetrated by a small minority of Muslim citizens, worrying as those may be. The real threat is in the breaking up of Britain and its transformation into two parochial, xenophobic, insular societies, heralded by the rise of the Scottish National Party and the United Kingdom Independence Party. Jews have never prospered for long in such environments, and the fact that the SNP and UKIP are miles apart on just about every issue doesn’t mean they don’t pose a joint threat to British values of tolerance and openness, and to every minority community.
The shame of Jews voting UKIP
I doubt more than a tiny handful of Scottish Jews are even considering a vote for the SNP, especially considering that the majority of them, who live in the Glasgow suburbs represented by Labour’s embattled Jim Murphy, would never forsake such a true friend of the Jewish community in his hour of need. But south of the border, there is the shame of Jews planning to vote UKIP, under the deluded impression that a party which exudes open antipathy towards Muslims can somehow be an ally of the Jews. A poll carried out two weeks ago for the Jewish Chronicle suggests that less than 2 percent of British Jews will vote UKIP, which is bad enough. Hearsay and anecdotal experience suggest the numbers could be higher.
This fatal attraction, however, underlines how much the nationalism creeping over Britain should be the main concern of the overwhelming majority of Jewish voters, who would never dream of voting UKIP or SNP. There are reasons to doubt the resolve of both main candidates in facing this. Miliband is unlikely to be prime minister without the tacit support of the Scottish Nationalists. Cameron is flirting with UKIPpers, repeating his dangerous promise to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Which of these two will be capable of overcoming petty political considerations and keeping Britain together as the open, hospitable nation that became home to so many minorities, including one of the most successful Jewish communities in history? That should be the main question occupying the minds of British Jewish voters next week.