The European elections taking place Thursday in Britain and over the next five days throughout the European Union "matter."
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I'm writing that they "matter" because that's what it says in a special "Jewish manifesto" for the elections published by the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The 15-page manifesto includes detailed policies for European politicians and areas of concern for the Jewish communities of Europe and touches on issues such as facing racism and anti-Semitism, protecting the right to ritual slaughter of animals (shechita) and Europe's relations with Israel. What it doesn't mention is the single most important issue of these elections in Britain - the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which has been riding on a sinister wave of xenophobia and fearmongering over millions upon millions of rapacious Eastern European immigrants about to descend upon Britain, snapping up all the jobs.
Of course this wave hasn't engulfed all of British society, but it's large enough to ensure UKIP in most polls at least a quarter of the votes and most likely the first place, overtaking the established parties of power and opposition.
Maybe a manifesto is not the right place to address specific parties, no matter how obnoxious they may seem. But as hard as I tried, I couldn't find anywhere else a response of any sort from a figure of authority in the British Jewish community to UKIP and its ugly scare campaign. Nothing from the Board of Deputies, its competition the Jewish Leadership Council, the Chief Rabbi or any other rabbi or lay-leader of any of the various religious denominations that comprise British Jewry.
Normally it wouldn't be the place of these worthies to weigh in on party-political issues. Jews in Britain support a wide range of parties and policies and the leadership is supposed to remain above the fray. But of course it does intervene- and quite often. When a politician utters a statement that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic, when religious freedom, particularly shechita and circumcision are under the slightest threat and when Israel is perceived as coming in for unfair criticism. These are "cross-communal" concerns after all. But when a party that is basing its entire campaign on stoking fears against immigration seems on the verge of winning these elections there is complete and utterly shameful silence.
It hardly needs reminding that every British-Jewish family has its own story of emigration. A select few are descendants of the grand old Portuguese, coming over as refugees of the Inquisition four centuries ago, but the great majority arrived from Eastern Europe in the last 150 years, fully aware of the tragic fate of relatives who remained behind. Such a heritage doesn't necessarily mean that British Jews should necessarily oppose controls on emigration and sensible policies in that regard. But to remain silent in the face of a successful party whipping up ordinary Britons into a frenzy against immigrants is a betrayal of our immigrant ancestors and the values of British society that allowed them to settle and flourish in its midst.
Founded in 1993, UKIP was originally a fringe party dedicated to taking Britain out of the EU. Like most splinter groups, it attracted more than its fair share of whackos, leading then-leader of the opposition, today Prime Minister David Cameron to call them, back in 2006, a "bunch of fruit-cakes, loonies and closet racists." But UKIP has since cleaned up its act, to a degree, and under its new leader Nigel Farage, with his folksy and bumbling faux-charisma, established itself as the party of the protest voters, mainly of the middle-class right, but also from the working-class left. Farage claims that under his leadership the party has made "herculean" efforts to weed out from among its ranks fascists and racists. But whatever the truth of that (and they keep coming out of the woodwork), the anti-immigrant rhetoric has become a much more central plank of the party's platform in recent years.
So far UKIP has no members in House of Commons in London, but in local and European elections, with their low turnouts and proportional systems, the party has been surging and it is certain to make a massive gain tomorrow. Cameron no longer calls them "closet racists," neither do any of the other leaders of mainstream parties. They are afraid of alienating their voters who have defected to UKIP. Instead, the Conservative Party attacks UKIP for not offering any real answers to Britain's problems and the Labour Party is trying to label it as "more Thatcherist" even than Thatcher's Tory heirs. The media in recent weeks has been less reticent but it has focused mainly on ferreting out obscure UKIP candidates for local council seats who posted on Facebook or Twitter (sometimes years ago) nasty views on blacks, gays, Jews and other assorted "foreigners." Or else they lie in wait for another inevitable gaffe by Farage in an interview. Last week, when asked whether he would feel the same way about a German family and a Romanian family moving in as his neighbors, he blurted "you know the difference" leading even the The Sun, hardly a newspaper noted for being immigrant-friendly to print a stinging editorial in which it wrote "It is racist to smear Romanians for being Romanian. Nigel Farage, UKIP leader, did just that." But while the media is pouncing on Farage for these misdemeanours, to a large degree they are missing the bigger picture.
It fell to a 21-year-old student, who joined UKIP three years ago believing in the party's policies on Europe and the minimising of governmental intervention in the economy, to point it out. Sanya-Jeet Thandi, a student of Indian descent who had served as one of UKIP's poster girls ("proving" that it wasn't racist or xenophobic) announced she was leaving UKIP because it was "playing the race card." She was referring specifically to an elections poster which said "26 million people in Europe are looking for work. And whose jobs are they after?" Thandi said that the "poster epitomises where the party is going wrong. This anti-immigrant campaign undermines UKIP's claim not to be a racist party. They are turning the election into a game of 'us' and 'them'. Well, I am with 'them'."
And in its silence over UKIP, the Jews of Britain are forgetting that they have always been "them" and indulging the illusion that they can afford to be "us."
There are a range of reasons for the Jewish leadership's not rejecting UKIP publicly. Despite the nearly weekly discovery of another unhinged local candidate, there are no grounds to believe that UKIP as a whole is racist or anti-Semitic. Neither is it anti-Israel, in fact; If it has a foreign policy at all, it's isolationism. Farage and other members have engaged with the community and promised not to support legislation against shechitah. He has also publicly disavowed any cooperation with far-right and neo-fascist parties in Europe such as France's Front National, despite the shared anti-EU outlook. Only the conspiracy-minded would see UKIP as a direct threat to the Jews of Britain- so why rock the boat and ruin relations with a party that has suddenly become so popular?
There are even a small number of Jewish UKIP members running for local councils, including a Chabad rabbi from Salford who is also competing for a seat in the European Parliament. Many fellow Jews privately express shame and dismay that a religious Jew could openly serve in such a party, but Chabad in its slavish loyalty to Russian President Vladimir Putin has hardly distinguished itself recently as a pro-democracy movement (Farage named Putin recently as the politician he most admires).
But the Jewish community in Britain, despite its relatively small size, has a voice that resonates way beyond its numbers. The Community Security Trust (CST) has become one of the main bodies monitoring racism and extremism in general, not just against Jews. The CST's warning to Jewish organizations not to cooperate under any circumstance with the English Defense League, an anti-Muslim group that insists it is Jew-friendly and even flew Israeli flags at some of its demonstrations, contributed hugely to the marginalization of the EDL. But now even the CST is silent over UKIP.
Only a tiny number of Jewish voices, such as the Conservative MP Robert Halfon- who bravely called one of the UKIP proposals regarding British Muslims "literally akin to the Nazis"- have spoken out.
Nick Lowles, the inspirational leader of anti-racism group Hope not Hate recently wrote that "we believe that UKIP is deliberately stoking up a hatred of foreigners for political gain. We recognise that not all UKIP supporters are racist and that they are supporting the party for number of reasons. But when a political party deliberately whips up an anti-immigrant frenzy by using provocative imagery and false claims, generating a climate of fear, then they must be challenged."
To Britain's shame, that party is now in ascendence, and the ranks of those truly challenging it are pitifully thin. And to the deep shame of Britain's Jews, they are almost entirely absent from those ranks.