HENDON - The three candidates were sitting up on the stage last Wednesday night: One wearing a skullcap (though he is not Jewish), the second waxing poetic about his trip to Israel, and the third furious about anti-Semitism in Europe and twice mentioning his personal role in getting Holocaust Remembrance Day put on the national calendar.
The venue: The Hendon United Synagogue - one of dozens of synagogues in the borough of Barnet, home to Britain's largest Jewish community.
According to the last census, done in 2001, no more than 0.5 percent of the general population call themselves Jews. But they are considered a strong voting bloc because they are mainly clustered in a few constituencies around London and Manchester.
According to the 2001 census, a full 17.6 percent of the Jewish UK population, or 46,686 Jews, live in Barnet.
Hendon, one of the three constituencies that make up Barnet, is considered an important marginal seat in the coming elections - held by Labour but coveted by the Tories.
"Do you support the terrorist organization Hamas?" an elderly gentleman asks, getting the debate going. The candidates practically fall over each other in their rush to answer in the negative.
"Look at what they have done to their own people!" begins Matthew Offord, the Tory contender. "Despicable," charges Matthew Harris, of the Liberal Democrats. "I am in despair what I see what they are doing in Gaza," pipes in Andrew Dismore, the current Hendon MP, a Labour man who has represented this constituency since 1997.
The questions come fast an furious: What about funding for Jewish schools? How do the candidates feel about the eruv (wire demarcation for Orthodox Jews to carry objects on Shabbat) in Hendon? What do they think about the university movements to boycott Israel? Universal jurisdiction?
They seem generally uninterested matters of community hospitals, transport or the like. Its all Israel and Jews, all the time. And the candidates have no choice but to oblige.
Looking to Downing
On a national level it is harder to get straight answers. In a country where popular opinion is increasingly critical of Israel, and there is nothing quite like the Jewish lobby in the United States for pro-Israel advocacy, Jewish and Israel-related questions are approached delicately by the leaders and top candidates.
As Ed Fordham, a Lib Dem candidate running in Hampstead and Kilburn, another heavily Jewish constituency not far from Hendon, puts it: "Everyone says 'don't touch the subject.' There is a nervousness." But, he continues, sometimes it is important and necessary to "be counted and to have this conversation."
Although things have changed over time, Jews in Britian have traditionally favored the Labour party, and prime minister and Labour leader Gordon Brown has, during his time in office, worked to strengthen this connection. He has weighed in on issues ranging from anti-Semitism and Islamic radicalism on campus to government funding of security for Jewish institutions.
Brown has often spoken of his belief in a two state solution, and confirmed his government's appreciation of Israel's right to protect itself. He was the first British prime minister to address a session of Knesset.
Brown has tried to walk a middle ground in two recent Anglo-Britian affairs: In the case of forged passports of Britons allegedly used in the assassination of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, he expelled the Israeli Mossad attache in London as a rebuke, even as he affirmed the close relationship with Israel. On universal jurisdiction, which has allowed courts to issue arrest warrants for Israeli leaders traveling in the U.K., he made much of his commitment to changing the law but then effectually deferred the problem to the next government.
That problem may well soon belong to Conservative leader David Cameron - who has criticized as 'feeble' the government's approach to the issue - and promised to do better to remedy the situation if elected on May 6.
On Jewish issues, Cameron pleased many in the community here by speaking of his delight upon learning of his Jewish ancestors, and with his pledges to tackle the rise in anti-Semitism in Britain, especially on college campuses. He has also stressed his commitment to faith-based education and vowed to block Muslim extremists from entering and living in the country.
During both the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead, the Conservatives criticized some of Israel's actions as "disproportionate," and "mistaken" but upheld throughout Israel's right to self defense, much as Labour did. Cameron has personally stressed that he "passionately" believes in the right of Israel to exist, defend itself and to live in peace and security, and supports a two-state solution.
The biggest gripe Jewish voters typically have with the Tories is that the Conservative party is allied in the EU with right-wing nationalist parties in Poland and Latvia.
As Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg put it, Cameron has aligned himself with "nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists and homophobes."
Of the three, Clegg has the most complicated relation with Jewish issues and Israel. During the 2009 Israeli operation in Gaza, he penned an op-ed in the Guardian newspaper calling on Labour to "condemn unambiguously Israel's tactics" and demanding an immediate arms boycott of Israel by Britain and the EU.
Last December he was the lead signatory of a letter claiming that Israel has 1.5 million Palestinian prisoners, and he wrote that the legacy of Israel's operation in Gaza is a "living nightmare" for Gaza's residents.
On the other hand, the Lib Dems are on the record as standing against boycotts of Israel, and against British participation in the Durban II conference.
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