British Jewry Gives Strong Support to 'Remain' Camp

High support among Jews for the remain camp reflects latent fears of far-right extremism in Europe that will be boosted if Britain does vote to leave the EU. However, on the part of the Jewish 'establishment' there has been a reluctance to take sides openly.

Campaigners from the "Vote Remain" group hand out stickers, flyers and posters in Oxford Circus, central London on 21 June 2016.
Leon Neal, AFP

LONDON – On Tuesday night, Prime Minister David Cameron made a brief stop at a Jewish charity event in London, where he made a brief but passionate speech on why he is campaigning for Britain to remain in the European Union.

The audience repeatedly interrupted him with applause as he said that Israel also needs Britain in the EU to help fight against the BDS movement, and that “our amazing Jewish community” is “a model of integration in modern Britain.” His rapturous reception wasn’t just a sign of the close relationship Cameron has long enjoyed with Britain’s Jews, but also of the instinctive support of many British Jews for remaining in the EU.

On Wednesday a popular political blogger in London tweeted a mocking photograph of Lloyd Blankfein, chairman of investment bank Goldman Sachs, which is in favor of Britain remaining in the EU, under the headline, “Vote Remain you Schmucks.” Some on social media viewed the meme, which used a Yiddish slur, mocked a Jewish businessman and seemed to perpetuate the myth of global bankers trying to subvert democracy, as borderline anti-Semitic. Whatever the blogger’s true intention, it received little attention and failed to disturb what one Jewish leader in London called “a well-earned reprieve.”

There was plenty of racism and xenophobia in the campaign leading up to Thursday’s referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union, mainly aimed at Muslim immigrants. This time at least, little if any of it was directed at Jews (or “bankers,” one of the age-old veiled references to Jews).

“Occasionally you may have seen an edge of something vaguely anti-Jewish, but nothing that made us sit up and protest,” says Dave Rich, deputy director of communications at the Community Security Trust, the organization that monitors anti-Semitism and provides security for Jewish community events in Britain.

A poll commissioned last month by the Jewish Chronicle showed that Jews were highly likely to vote in favor of staying in the EU. This is hardly surprising, seeing that the majority of British Jews belong to the more well-educated and high-earning classes, who the polls show are in favor of remaining. It also reflects latent fears of far-right extremism in Europe that will be boosted if Britain does vote to leave the EU.

While there is a small number of Jewish MPs and pundits who have come out in favor of leaving, most prominent Jewish voices in public life are firmly in the Remain camp.

However, on the part of the Jewish “establishment” – the main representative bodies – there has been a reluctance to take sides openly.

Jeremy Newmark, former CEO of the Jewish Leadership Council and chairman of the Jewish Labour Movement, said, “I struggle to see a Jewish aspect to the referendum.”

Part of this reluctance is due to growing fatigue in the community from the way the leadership battle in the Labour Party and the continued disquiet in Britain’s main opposition party has focused on “the Jewish issue” – namely party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s ties to anti-Semitic forces such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Holocaust-deniers, and the growing list of party activists who have made anti-Jewish comments on social media.

Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn wipes his eye at the launch of 'Labour In for Britain', London, U.K., May 10, 2016.
Kirsty Wigglesworth, AP

That’s why it’s a reprieve to have had for a few weeks a major political controversy that didn’t involve the Jews. As it is, next week a major Labour Party report on the accusations of anti-Semitism is due to be published, so the reprieve will have been brief.

While the mainstream leadership has remained silent, religious ones have eagerly jumped in. A number of progressive rabbis from the Reform and Liberal movements joined leaders of other British faith groups in signing a letter in favor of remaining in the EU.

The letter called on “our co-religionists and others to think about the implications of a Leave vote for the things about which we are most passionate.”

They emphasized, “The past 70 years have been the longest period of peace in Europe’s history. Institutions that enable us to work together and understand both our differences and what we share in common contribute to our increased security and sense of collective endeavor.”