Jews Were Europeans Even Before the EU. That's Why U.K. Jews Should Vote 'Remain'

Jews in Britain can only help build on a wider scale the kind of moral, social, economic and political solidarity central to a centuries-old Diaspora Jewish identity by declaring our commitment to Europe.

A photo of U.K. Independence Party Leader Nigel Farage alongside a poster campaign urging voters to vote 'Leave,' next to a photo of from a WW2 Nazi propaganda film about Jews.
Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP

On June 23, we in Britain will be going to the polls for a momentous vote that will decide both the future of the United Kingdom and its relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. As Jews, there are specific reasons why we should vote to remain in the European Union. And as Jews, we should be particularly concerned about the violent rhetoric that has defined the "leave" campaign.

The first of these reasons is about Jewish peoplehood. We are a people with a history and identity rooted in a worldwide diaspora. Many of us are immigrants (myself, my mother, three of my grandparents, and at least four of my great-grandparents included). Most of us are or feel connected in some way to Jews in other countries. The history of the Jewish people has been about encountering, traveling and settling throughout the world: 40 years in the desert, exile and dispersion, Babylon and the Talmud, philosophizing from Cairo through Fez to Mainz, Montreal and New York. 

We pioneered and practiced a commitment to internationalism in supporting Jewish communities in faraway countries, such as the French and British Jews who sent aid to the Damascus community in the 19th century. Our 19th century forbears, who developed the Jewish transnationalist tradition in Europe, teach us that we must value our neighbors, to work with them, and remain connected with them, and that this is not just a practical but also an ethical imperative. 

Second, a vote to leave will significantly weaken the U.K. government’s ability to support Israel. There are only two political and economic blocs in the world that Israel will listen to: the United States and the EU. The EU’s significance is because of the aid it provides to the Palestinians – 252 million euros ($285.7 million) committed this year – much of which the Israeli government would otherwise need to provide, according to the international law of military occupation. Israel needs the EU.

People place floral tributes and candles to slain Labour MP Jo Cox at a vigil in Parliament square in London, U.K., June 16, 2016.
Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP

The EU is propping up the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian economy. Regardless of your stance on the PA, it is vital to Israel’s interests that the Palestinian territories do not implode. Keeping the Palestinian economy afloat and maintaining at least a modicum of governance structures in the Palestinian territories are vital to Israel’s interests.

Indeed, even the Israeli government acknowledges the importance of sustaining the bare minimum of a Palestinian economy, sending resources into Gaza to assist in the postwar reconstruction efforts even when it suspects some of the aid will be diverted to rebuilding smuggling and military tunnels into Israel. 

Leaving the EU would mean the U.K. losing its ability to support Israel internationally through Europe. The U.K. would be relegated to the benches, able to watch but unable to lead, and unlikely to play. The U.K. is set to take up the presidency of the European Council in 2017. The opportunity to lead European policy will be lost if we leave.

A Brexit would also mean the loss of the U.K. Jewish community's ability to present and project its support for Israel within the EU. The U.K. has Europe’s second-largest Jewish population: If we leave, only France will have the Jewish population to support sustained international efforts within the EU in support of Israel. By ourselves, the U.K. Jewish voice won’t be heard, but as part of Europe it can be.  

Third, the "leave" campaign has unleashed violent, xenophobic and often racist arguments in support of its cause. It has stoked the fires of fear and hatred; the leader of the nationalist UKIP party, Nigel Farage, has used imagery reminiscent of Nazi propaganda.  

As Jews, we ought to be especially sensitive and aware of the dangers that lie ahead when politicians use fear of ethnic and minority groups to ground their cause. The "leave" campaign has, through mainstream surrogates such as senior Conservative Party figures (including former London Mayor Boris Johnson and U.K. Justice Secretary Michael Gove), legitimated a kind of language that was previously relegated to fringe extremists.

It has helped create a public atmosphere of distrust and fear, couched in a parochial nationalism, that has mutated the character of the public arena into one of prejudice, intolerance and distrust. The tragic murder of lawmaker Jo Cox is proof of what can happen when our public spaces become places where violent voices, ugly rhetoric and a divisive worldview become commonplace. 

In the 1840s, it was with French Jews, not alone, that British Jews went to the aid of Jews in Damascus. We can only help to build on a wider scale the kind of moral, social, economic and political solidarity that we've worked on for centuries by declaring in clear terms our commitment to Europe, and by voting to remain.

Dr. Ilan Zvi Baron is a senior lecturer in the School of Government and International Affairs, and the co-director of the Centre for the Study of Jewish Culture, Society and Politics at Durham University.