At Haaretz Conference, Leading British Thinkers Sharply Divided on Brexit's Impact on Jews

The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland and the Times' Melanie Phillips debate who is responsible for recent ultranationalism and racism, and whether the U.K's Jewish community has cause for concern in post-referendum Britain.

A demonstrator holds a placard that reads "So Long Great Britain" during a protest against the pro-Brexit outcome of the UK's referendum on the European Union (EU), in central London on June 25, 2016.
Justin Tallis, AFP

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With British Jewry still coping with the political aftershock of the Brexit vote, some of the most impassioned arguments at the Haaretz London conference revolved not around the situation in the Middle East, but in Europe. 

In a session entitled “Brexit and the Jews” two leading British Jewish pundits went head-to-head debating dueling visions of what the referendum vote meant for the United Kingdom and British Jewry.

Columnist Melanie Phillips of The Times, an outspoken advocate in favor of the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, confessed that recently she had thought that “the politics in Israel were the maddest in the world” but that England’s appear to have overtaken them. The Brexit debate, referendum and post-vote fallout “defies every law of political gravity and we have been living on a complete roller coaster for the past few months and certainly for the past week . There is no parallel in the world to what the British people have voted to do.”

She said the fear and uncertainty that those on both sides feel as a result, she argued, did not mean that it was mistake. “Freedom is frightening, freedom involves risk.”

She spoke angrily of the demonization of the pro-Brexit advocates by their opponents branding their cause as being rooted in xenophobia and racism in order to delegitimize their right to hold it. “For a number of people on the “remain” side, taking Britain out of the EU was associated with the darker side of human nature.” 

Jonathan Freedland, a columnist at The Guardian and outspoken Brexit opponent, responded that a state of mourning was appropriate in an atmosphere in which it seemed highly probable that Scotland would vote for independence in order to stay in the European Union. “Over the issue of British sovereignty, we are going to lose Britain,” Freedland said. 

He said he was deeply worried about racism, pointing to the surge in anti-immigrant sentiment that has followed the vote. ““The evidence is on the streets and people who made their homes here feel frightened.” 

“Look at what has just happened in the last week Melanie worries about those who voted leave being demonized the people who have been demonized are immigrants and minorities who look like they could be immigrants there are stories all over of children in playgrounds being bullied and told to go home.” 

On a wider scale, he said, Jews had historical reason to fear the weakening of pan-European ties. “How can any Jewish person look with equanimity on this continent that has seen bloodshed except for the 70 year period that there was a European Union?” he asked.

“Jews of all people should know that you must tread lightly on this continent,” he said, adding that “you do not run around with a pair of scissors” and slice it up. He said that “Jews in particular” were “trembling” over what the U.K. has done. “Like many Jews,” he said. “I don’t have a benign view of nationalism.”

Freedland noted that history suggets “when economic times are bad, it has not been good for the Jews," adding that “the EU played a useful role as a scapegoat with them gone, people will look for someone to blame.” Those who resent immigrants, he noted, “don’t have such a great view of Jews either.” 

Phillips argued in response that fascist and racist trends in Europe had been a function of nationalism and national pride being stigmatized and suppressed by the vision of Europe. “You cannot protect freedom and democracy by extinguishing freedom and democracy,” she said. 

Phillips said that “it was a matter of horror to me that anyone was branded a racist or xenophobe” for advocating Brexit, targeting Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer for writing that voting in the leadup to the vote that supporting Brexit did not reflect Jewish values. 

“For a Jewish writer to demonize other Jews for voting this way, turned my stomach,” she said.

She blamed much of modern British anti-Semitism on the demonization of Israel as “wanton child-killers” by the far left, with accompanying identification of British Jews who support the Jewish state. 

As far as Israel is concerned, Phillips contended that “Brexit could help in the sense that it is a vote for the nation, a vote for nations Israel is the quintessential nation, a western ethnic nation.” If Great Britain experiences a revival of a similar self-image of that of “a nation shaped by hundreds of years of history and which has a sense of itself” she said, it could improve the relationship between the two countries. 

That observation, however, did little to easy Freedland’s worry, saying that a strengthened view of British as a national identity would necessarily be a white Christian one and “Jews don’t have a place in that.”