Like the overwhelming majority of British Jews, I am the descendant of ancestors who fled countries where persecution and pogroms were the norm. Put simply, if they had failed to find a safe haven in Britain, their descendants would not be alive today.
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I find it hard to contain the shame that next Thursday, in the referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union, many Jews will vote to leave. For all the talk of sovereignty and democracy being used to justify the escape from the grasp of the venal, nonelected bureaucrats in Brussels, the real motive of those voting to leave will be a fear of immigrants.
It doesn’t matter if you’re black-hatted frum or a bacon-eater who hasn’t seen the inside of a shul for decades, and it’s got nothing to do with your politics or how supportive or critical you are of Israel. There can be no more complete betrayal of the fortunate legacy of British Jews than to leave Europe in the hope that this will deny other refugees of war and dictatorship the sanctuary our great-grandparents received. Any attempt to justify it is rank hypocrisy bordering on racism.
There is of course a legitimate concern over the fact that many of the potential immigrants today are Muslims, coming from countries where crude anti-Semitic propaganda is a major staple of the daily diet. It would be foolish to deny the need for vigilance by the security services and the media. Does that mean human beings who had the misfortune to be born in countries where despots use Israel and the Jews as scapegoats for their own crimes should be left to their fate?
Few of the millions of immigrants arriving in Britain over the last century came from model democracies. Our grandparents certainly didn’t. And yet Britain is a more tolerant and open society than ever and, thanks to this tolerance, no minority has prospered more than British Jews.
Double historical burden
And yet, according to a Jewish Chronicle poll conducted last month, over a third of the Jews in Britain are planning to turn their backs on their heritage and vote for a Brexit. Of course, about half are voting to remain (and 17 percent were still undecided), but it beggars belief that it’s not just a few misfits and oddballs – at least 34 percent have no shame.
Jews cannot afford the luxury of having short historical memories. British Jews bear a unique double historical burden. They’re members of the one European minority that suffered more than any other throughout two millennia of mass murder, systematic discrimination and forced conversion. And they’re citizens of the one country in the last century to fight the entire duration of two world wars and the Cold War to rid Europe of dictatorships – Nazism and Communism.
Many of the British complaints over the EU’s restrictions and flawed policies are fully justified, but for all its Francophone dysfunction, today’s Europe – which has enjoyed seven decades of peace and trades in one single market – is more than anything the victory of British values won through immense British sacrifice. And while many Jews justly feel that the EU’s diplomats unfairly focus on criticizing Israel (which in real terms enjoys the most EU trade and cooperation in investment and research among non-European countries), how can they ignore the work done by the Union’s institutions in both fighting anti-Semitism and safeguarding Jewish culture in Europe?
In the company of Le Pen and Putin
Look around; there are still people among us who were alive back when nearly the entire continent was a hunting ground for Jews. Seventy years later, Jews have never been such equal and even honored citizens of Europe as they are today in the EU.
But even those who can’t, or more likely don’t, want to think back to their grandparents’ salvation should ask themselves in what company they are when they vote to leave Europe. Who else wants to break up Europe? Racists, fascists, anti-Semites, Marxist throwbacks and the Kremlin. Marine Le Pen in France, Beppe Grillo in Italy and Vladimir Putin in Russia – to name just a few of the more prominent figures.
They’re people who want to turn back the clock and return Europe to its dark age of nationalist chauvinism. Jews always suffered in those times. There is nothing to suggest that it will better if Europe ever falls back into those shadows.
Of course, there are some honorable politicians in the leave camp; Justice Secretary Michael Gove for instance, who is a true and staunch ally of Britain’s Jews. But Mr. Gove, for all his intellectual seriousness, obviously lacks the historical perspective if he truly believes Britain should leave Europe.
Outside of Europe Britain may be able to insulate itself from the turbulence on the Continent, though this is of course very doubtful and once again defies all historical experience. But what about solidarity with the Jews of Europe who are facing much more difficult challenges than those fortunate enough to be living in Britain? Can British Jews let themselves stand aside while other Jews could in a few years face restrictions on their religious freedoms, growing racism from the radical left and neofascist right, and attacks by Islamist terrorists?
Ultimately, as citizens of a Western democracy, the foremost consideration when voting on Thursday should be what is best for Britain. But there can be no question that what is best for modern and democratic Britain has always been best for the Jews as well.
No other community has prospered more in the United Kingdom, and at the same time there are no truer Europeans than its Jews. Voting to close off Britain, to turn our backs on our brothers in Europe and our fellow refugees who not that long ago could have been us or our parents, is the most un-Jewish act imaginable.