LONDON - These are heady days for the anti-immigration and Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party. What was not so long ago seen as a party of assorted misfits, xenophobes and borderline fascists is now poised to receive the third highest-number of votes in the May General Elections - and perhaps even hold the balance of power in a hung parliament.
Earlier this month UKIP won its first by election and now has an elected member of parliament. Britain's first-past-the-post regional system of elections will still make it hard for the party to win many seats - but it's aiming high, planning to field candidates in each of the 650 constituencies, pouring resources into a hundred of them it believes are realistic targets.
On Sunday, a survey commissioned by The Observer indicated that no less than 31 percent of voters in Britain would vote for UKIP if they thought the party had a chance of winning in their constituency.
This may just be a polling blip, and UKIP is certainly riding high on a wave of antipathy to the European Union (EU) - which only last week demanded Britain pay an extra 2 billion Euros due to the unexpected growth of the British economy; support for the party may have peaked too early. But there is no question that this is UKIP's moment and its populist agenda of unilaterally pulling out of the EU and closing Britain to immigration along with its aura of hostility to the entire political establishment, is attracting many voters away from the mainstream parties.
Whether or not it is a passing trend, this means that all parts of British society have to address the rise of UKIP- and this includes the Jewish community. Until now, nearly the entire Jewish leadership has preferred to remain silent regarding the party's agenda. While in private some Jewish leaders have voiced concern over the presence of former members of far-right and racist parties among UKIP's ranks and the hostility of many of its members towards minority and immigrant groups (though relatively rarely towards Jews), nearly all of them have refrained from speaking out in public.
"Everyone is afraid to speak out against UKIP despite serious problems with some of the party's members" says one official in a British Jewish organization. "They are concerned that it could cause a backlash." Another senior member in a major Jewish organization admitted that "there are serious misgivings about UKIP's attitude towards minority groups, but the Jewish establishment can't be seen as interfering in the political process by criticizing an entire party which is no longer on the fringes."
So far, there has only been criticism of individual UKIP members and candidates who have veered into anti-Semitic language, as there would have been towards members of the mainstream parties.
Last week however, UKIP for the first time incurred public censure from the Jewish establishment, when it emerged that the party's members in the European Parliament have joined up with a member of a Polish far-right party in its parliamentary group, Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group. UKIP needed an extra MEP to cross the minimum threshold of 25 members from seven different countries that make it eligible for receiving significant funding, about 2 million Euros annually.
But this wasn't a mere formality, as their new ally Robert Iwaszkiewicz belongs to the Congress of the New Right- a party lead by Janusz Korwin-Mikke a notorious racist, Holocaust skeptic and apologist for Hitler, who once said that Jews are "our worst enemies, because they are talented communists." UKIP claimed that they had only recruited one member of the party and that Iwaszkiewicz had not made any racist statements (though he has recently joked about wife-beating).
UKIP leader Nigel Farage tried to explain that he had to make a "difficult" compromise and that he was simply fulfilling his role to ensure that the voters who supported his party earlier this year in the European elections (where UKIP came first in Britain) "have a voice in this parliamentary assembly." Farage indeed found himself in a difficult position, cooperating with a party ostracized even by France's far-right Front National, a party UKIP refuses to work with in the European Parliament.
This time, the Jewish leadership could not remain silent. Jonathan Arkush, the vice president of British Jewry's representative body, the Board of Deputies said in a statement that the board is "gravely concerned by reports that Ukip may sit in the same parliamentary grouping as a far-right Polish MEP in a bid save its funding." He added that choosing such "a bedfellow, apparently for money, is beyond belief. Nigel Farage now has some very serious questions to answer. He has placed in issue the credibility of UKIP."
So far there have been no other condemnations, and UKIP is unapologetically sticking to its questionable Polish alliance. If the polls are anything to go by, it doesn't seem to be denting the party's appeal. "At this point, there is little we can do to protest against UKIP" admitted one veteran Jewish activist. "I doubt it would have changed anything if we had spoken out against them earlier. This is the anti-immigrant wave going on throughout Europe."
Mark Gardner, communications director of the Community Security Trust, the Jewish organization which monitors racism and anti-Semitism, issued a measured warning saying that "UKIP benefits from populist emotions and anti-establishment trends that can carry dangers for Jews. So, it is important that UKIP’s leadership ensure any issues of anti-Semitism and racism are strongly dealt with."
It remains to see whether the Jewish leadership will be there to make sure that happens.
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