Roger Helmer, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party in the European Parliament kept smiling throughout the interview. But the question of why UKIP is widely seen in Britain as a “white men’s party” obviously irritated him. He took a postcard-size business card from his blazer pocket and said “I wasn't going to do this but let me introduce you to my PA (personal assistant).” He pointed to the picture on one side of the card, featuring himself and party leader Nigel Farage flanked by two young women. “She works for me, she's Italian, she works for me she's English but she's black.” It was the classic “some of my best friends” maneuver but Helmer didn’t seem aware. Asides from that faux pas, throughout the interview, he presented, along with his colleague, UKIP deputy leader Paul Nuttall a very polished presentation.
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The far-right in Europe is on a mission to court Israel and the Jews. UKIP, like many other parties in Europe that oppose the European Union, immigration, and the growth of Muslim communities in the continent would object to being labelled far-right. Last week, they were in Jerusalem, along with like-minded European parliamentarians for the “International Leaders Jerusalem Conference” – an event sponsored by a number of right-wing conservative foundations and organizations.
Helmer and Nuttall are the most senior members of what is now the third most popular party in Britain to visit Israel. They enjoyed mixed success in Britain’s General Election in May, where they boosted their vote to nearly four million, or just less thirteen percent of the voters. But due to the local-election system and the wide geographical spread of their voters across much of Britain, they succeeded in winning only seat in parliament. They still play a significant role in British politics, particularly due to their clear positions on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and immigration which has helped them attract voters away from both major parties, the Conservatives and Labour.
The two visitors represent both electoral sections of UKIP. Nuttall, from Liverpool, spearheads the party’s attempt to gain more northern, white working-class voters, from traditional Labour-voting communities, who fear losing their jobs to immigrants and are prepared to work for low-wages. Helmer is a spokesman for an older, more middle-class generation, living in south England with a waxing nostalgic for a Britain of the days before multiculturalism.
Their visit to Israel and their eager support is seen by many in the Jewish community in Britain as an attempt by UKIP to project a more enlightened and non-racist image than it does in the media. They highlight their self-appointed role as Israel’s defenders in the European Parliament, where ironically, they have many more representatives than in Britain’s parliament.
Nuttall believes that “Israel’s main problem is its bad PR. "Those who would consider themselves to be pro-Palestine and anti-Israel are more vocal," he said. As far as he is concerned “Israel is a beacon of democracy in a region of undemocratic theocracies,"
Israel, he continued, is "surrounded by nations who despise you and plucky good old Israel stands alone for decent values and that's something we should support."
“It would be neocolonialism for us to go around the world telling people how to solve their problems,” Helmer said, dismissing those European politicians coming to Israel and giving advice to Israelis and Palestinians. “We want to understand your problems and see what we can do to assist which means making sure the case for Israel gets a decent hearing in the European parliament.”
“The European parliament is not a friend of Israel as a whole” Nuttall echoed.
Helmer says he personally supports Israel because of his “attachment to the country’s Judeo-Christian origins” and because “you have a plucky little country that is doing all the right things in the terms of free markets, property rights, and involving non-Jewish Israeli citizens in the economy and the governance of the country. The contrast is extraordinary - you've got many evil theocracies surrounding a brilliant modern economy.”
UKIP is typical of the main currents in the European right – antipathy towards the institutions of the European Union, resolute opposition to the arrival of more Muslim immigrants and a preference for foreign relations based on trade, rather than the human-rights situation in other countries. If such parties in the past were associated also with anti-semitism, some of them today are eager for respectability and one of the preferred routes is through improving relations with local Jewish communities and supporting Israel.
“The question we ask ourselves is do we want to change the nature of our society?” Helmer said. “What we're doing is importing very large numbers of people from very different cultures, a proportion of whom, we don't know how many but a very significant proportion, may be extreme Islamists. We're told by ISIS that they are infiltrating large numbers of their own people in this great movement of people that is going on - even those who are not of a terrorist inclination are of a fundamentally different character.”
He swiftly contrasted these Muslim immigrants with Jews who came to Britain in the early 20th century who “have always been prepared to become part of British society and have become a very important part. The Muslims however he insisted “don't want to adopt British values, don't want to be involved in British values and in fact they want the reverse - they want to try and impose their own values on our country they come to, not all of them. I'm not trying to tar all of them with the same brush, but many of them do.”
In every conversation with a Ukipper, from the leadership to the voters, you hear the refrain “we’re not racists.” Nuttall is proud that his party has “destroyed the BNP” – the racist British National Party which has been decimated in recent years, by what he claims is UKIP making the public debate over immigration “respectable.” UKIP treads a careful path between indulging the prejudices of many British against immigrants and remaining just within the limits of acceptable political discourse. Its leaders pride themselves on refusing to cooperate with France’s far-right Front National despite as Nuttall said “agreeing with them on quite a few things.” But the FN has too much “baggage” he said , particularly of its founder Jean Marie Le Pen’s holocaust-denial and fondness for fascism. Helmer says working with Front National in the European Parliament is a “red line” UKIP won’t cross.
This doesn’t totally allay the fears of some in the Jewish community. “I have a lot of concern over the success of UKIP,” a senior executive in a major British-Jewish organization said, “especially over the anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric which engenders wider xenophobia and racism. But so far they are working hard to play that down and Jews and Israel have no choice but to engage with them. But we must do so with care.”