I renewed my British passport this week. As I ripped open the yellow envelope holding the new and old passports, I had a very brief moment of warm nostalgia. I’d been expecting to receive the new, non-European, dark blue, old-style British passport, that Brexiteers seem so fond of. Instead, rejoice! My new travel document was exactly the same shape and color of my old burgundy one.
But looking more closely, it wasn't an exact copy at all. A closer examination revealed that the words “European Union,” which had once been embossed above “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” have now been removed.
I was surprised how much those two missing words saddened me.
I’m Jewish and British, Israeli and European, and I’ve never felt any part of my identity needs clash with another. These are my roots, my family, my history, and now the hidden hand of a government has tried to erase a section of my identity.
The fear among British Jews that a government would be elected, lead by a politician whose party – once the political home for many of them – had, under his leadership, transformed into an institutionally anti-Semitic environment, has overshadowed what is now Britain’s imminent departure from the European Union.
But the relief at Jeremy Corbyn’s downfall last week in the General Election, with the Labour party’s worst result since 1935, and the vindication of those who warned that a man who had throughout his career had rubbed shoulders with terrorists, blood libelers and Holocaust deniers should never be allowed close to the levers of power, has quickly been replaced with the dreary certainty that the reelected Conservative government is indeed going to “get Brexit done,” by the end of next month.
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There are many ways to view the advantages and drawbacks of belonging to the EU, and the British Isles’ uneasy relationship with the adjacent continent goes back millennia. Brexit will not change that. But since we hear a lot of bad things about the EU, especially in Israel, some of them even justified, it’s important to remind ourselves that the EU has achieved something that Jewish communities, above all, have dreamt of for so many centuries. In the continent which saw more persecution and bloodshed of Jews, including the industrial genocide of our grandparents within living memory, the EU has achieved an unparalleled period of peace and prosperity.
No matter how much many of us may resent the intrusiveness and self-importance of the grandiose Eurocrats, the founders of the EU (backed by the military alliance of NATO) ushered in the most peaceful seven decades in Europe’s history – and that meant also an end to the persecution and murder of Jews. It meant also a supranational commitment to upholding the fight against anti-Semitism, not just of the physical and violent kind, but also in any rhetorical or legal form.
A Europe in which no country discriminates against Jews, how unthinkable that would have been only 75 years ago, and in Communist Eastern Europe, only thirty years ago. And yet today it is a basic requirement of any nation wishing to belong to the EU.
Formal discrimination against Jews by government in today’s Europe is unthinkable.
No, of course I don’t think that the rolling back of Europe’s borders from Britain means that Jews will be discriminated there. Britain, after all, was the one European country where Jews were free and equal citizens throughout the entire 20th century, but it is an ominous development for Jews nonetheless.
While many British voters chose to leave Europe from perfectly understandable, if misjudged, reasons of repatriating control of internal affairs from Brussels, it is impossible to overlook that there was a distinctly xenophobic tone to the reasoning behind Brexit. At the moment this may not directly impact on Jews, but any turn toward nativism and hostility toward immigrants will ultimately also result in an increase in attacks on Jews. Whether or not this is comparable in the long-run to a government led by Corbynists, who have normalized anti-Semitism in entire sections of the British public, is impossible to say, and theoretical anyway. But it is a reason for concern.
But beyond Britain, Jews have an obligation of solidarity elsewhere, and weakening the EU, which is what Brexit is doing, will also weaken the protection of Jewish communities in other countries.
Just look at who is in favor of Brexit. It’s main non-British cheerleaders are Donald Trump, a man who can’t address a Jewish audience without resorting to crude anti-Semitic stereotypes, and Vladimir Putin, whose Kremlin bankrolls propaganda channels where various conspiracy theorists and Holocaust deniers are regular guests - and even hosts. And within Britain itself, Brexit’s supporters are not just on the right. Notorious left-wing Jew-baiter George Galloway (another host on the Kremlin’s Russia Today) hates the EU, and was a loud backer of Brexit.
And then of course Corbyn himself, before becoming Labour leader, was an outspoken opponent of the EU as well. During the 2016 referendum, it was his unwillingness to campaign for “remain” that greatly contributed to the narrow win for “leave.” It’s a wonderful irony that as leader, he was forced to support a second referendum in this election, greatly contributing to Labour’s defeat.
In the referendum, Jews instinctively understood where their interests lay; about two-thirds voted to remain, a much higher proportion than the national vote of 48 percent, and a fact that gives the lie to the claim that British Jews are overwhelmingly right-wing.
Maybe it shouldn’t matter as much anymore. After all, the past 130 years have seen the European Jewish communities go from being nearly 90 percent of the entire global Jewish population to barely ten percent today, perhaps less. Diminished first by mass emigration to American and then decimated by the Holocaust.
But even in their shrunken size today, there are still proud Jewish communities across Europe and those of us who live elsewhere are still connected to the continent by centuries of glorious Jewish tradition and heritage. We mustn’t ignore the fact that the enemies of the EU, on the far-right and far-left, see Jews as their enemies as well. Whatever it says on our passports, we can’t escape our European roots.