Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was met with predictable cheers and jeers as he arrived outside 10 Downing Street on Monday afternoon to meet his British counterpart, Theresa May.
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Protesters on both sides included the usual suspects: The Palestine Solidarity Campaign and other fellow travelers demonstrated against the visit, while a mostly elderly contingent rallied by the Zionist Federation and other pro-Israel bodies hailed the Israeli leader.
Jonathan Arkush, the president of Jewish umbrella body the Board of Deputies, tweeted that he was “very proud” to welcome Netanyahu to London, alongside a picture of him addressing the pro-Israel demonstration at Downing Street through a megaphone.
All in all however, Netanyahu’s arrival drew little fanfare. Indeed, some in the Jewish community might prefer the trip to pass without much comment. Netanyahu’s outspoken support for U.S. President Donald Trump doesn’t much chime with public opinion in the U.K., both within the Jewish community and beyond it.
Even Arkush – who caused communal outrage with his initial rush to congratulate Trump immediately after his election – has joined mainstream leaders condemning the president’s moves in his first fortnight in office. And he is not the only prominent British Jew voicing his opposition to Trump. Nobody less than British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis blasted Trump’s recently blocked move to ban visitors from seven Muslim majority states as “completely unacceptable.”
But even if Netanyahu’s heartfelt embrace of Trump embarrasses the majority of British Jews, the community has kept quiet.
“British Jewish leaders may well have countless concerns about Trump – who doesn't? But they wouldn't dream of admitting it publicly at this early stage,” said Richard Ferrer, editor of the U.K.’s Jewish News. “After all, on the surface, after the bitterly acrimonious Obama years, Israel has never had it so good, with Trump's UN envoy pledging Israel will never question America's support again and talk of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.”
And, continued Ferrer, British Jews were willing to give May the benefit of the doubt. With Netanyahu increasingly being seen as a valuable international ally in the diplomatic struggle to gain leverage with Trump, many judge that May is prioritizing bridge-building with Jerusalem.
May raised eyebrows last December when she pointedly criticized outgoing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for his speech decrying the “most right-wing coalition in Israeli history” and the rapid expansion of settlements. In her criticism, May stressed that the settlements were not the only reason for the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The U.K. also outwardly showed its displeasure with the French summit on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in January. Instead of sending its foreign minister, Britain sent a low-level functionary to the conference and refused to sign the summit's closing statement.
“The community sees Theresa May as an extremely safe pair of hands who fully grasps the fears and concerns of British Jews and Israel; perhaps even more than Cameron, who was held in high esteem,” Ferrer said.
“As Home Secretary, May spearheaded a government pledge of £11 million to safeguard the Jewish community. In the House of Commons last week she brought up the issue of Israelis being banned from Arab states in the wake of the Trump travel ban furor. She broadly has the community's trust and admiration.”
But others fear that British Jewry has been pushed further to the right by events over the last year or two, not least an exhausting sequence of anti-Semitism scandals on the left. Just last week, a report released by the Community Security Trust, a body that monitors threats to British Jewry, showed a record high of anti-Semitic incidents across the U.K. In 2016, Britain saw a total of 1,309 anti-Semitic incidents, a 36 percent increase from the 960 recorded in 2015.
A CST press release said that there was “no single explanation” for the spike, attributing it instead to “the cumulative effect of a series of events and factors that, taken together, created an atmosphere in which more anti-Semitic incidents occurred, and are also more likely to be reported to CST and the police.
“These factors included high profile allegations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party; a perceived increase in racism and xenophobia following the EU referendum, including an increase in recorded racial and religious hate crime; and regular, high-profile discussion of anti-Semitism, racism and hate crime in mainstream media, politics and on social media during the year.”
Sarah Sackman, vice-chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, said that “the community does feel less secure than it did a couple of years ago,” putting the development in the context of a wider threat to the international order heralded by Brexit and the Trump election.
“Some people will prefer safety first and the model of keeping their heads down rather than criticizing our government and the government of the U.S., which has historically been a haven for the Jews,” Sackman said.
Nonetheless, she added, “off the back of the Trump election and the events of the last couple of weeks, swathes of the progressive but mainstream [Jewish] community are deeply angered by the turn politics has taken in the U.S. and uncomfortable with the posture of the U.K. government and equally uncomfortable by the position of the Israeli government [to Trump].”
In his meeting with May however, Netanyahu emphasized the danger posed by Tehran, which Ferrer said would be viewed with sympathy by a community he described as “highly skeptical” about the Iran agreement.
“It's highly unlikely leading U.K. Jewish organizations would go on record calling for sanctions to be reinstated at this stage, but Iran's track record since the deal – testing ballistic missiles, operating in Yemen, Syria and of course Lebanon, and enthusiastically maintaining its hostile anti-Israel rhetoric – hardly breeds confidence that it is an honest partner,” he said. “A majority of British Jews would no doubt welcome a reappraisal by the Trump White House.”
Sackman said that it was regrettable how far issues of peace-building or the U.K.’s potential role in any progress toward a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had slipped off the agenda.
“Netanyahu wanted to discuss Iran, May made the de rigeur mention of the two-state solution but didn’t go beyond that. She wanted to discuss trade,” Sackman said, noting that this was now Britan’s primary foreign policy concern.
“Unfortunately, the Israeli-Palestinian question has fallen right down the list of priorities.”