Hellen Joanne Cox, pro-European MP and human rights activist, one of the rising stars of British Labour, was murdered by an assassin shouting anti-European slogans on 16 June, 2016. I dedicate my article to her memory.
With seven days to go to the decision of whether the UK stays in the Union, Jewish observers ask what a “Brexit” would mean for the Jewish community in Europe. Besides that, what does it mean for Israel if Britain leaves Europe? Many years ago it was Winston Churchill who, in a historic speech calling for reconciliation after (and in spite of) the Second World War and the atrocities perpetrated by Nazi Germany, called out to his fellow-countrymen: “Let Europe arise!” Some years later, when the European Economic Community was formed, France, under de Gaulle, went out of her way to bar Britain from joining. In the end, Britain did join Europe. But with anti-European resentment in the UK growing and nationalism on the rise everywhere in Europe, it is not unlikely that the popular vote on 23 June might be “Leave”.
Dissent between those against and those in favour of “Remain” has grown and become fiercer over the past weeks. On 16 June, pro-EU Labour MP Jo Cox was shot and stabbed in the street after a constituency meeting in the small Northern English town of Birstall. The assailant had shouted “Britain first” before his deadly attack put the 42 y-o mother of two to the ground.
No doubt leaving the EU would have devastating political and economic consequences for Britain. Most of the continental EU members as well as the United States have come out in favour of continued British membership. But what is the Jewish position on the issue?
A “Brexit” could have a detrimental effect on the fate of the Jewish community in Europe. Rising numbers of Muslim immigrants, especially in the Southern and Western member states, have accompanied, and probably strengthened, an upsurge of anti-Semitism during recent years. Blatant anti-Semitism is widespread among Muslims in Europe, in particular Muslim youth, and is displayed by them with a gross frankness. Unrestrained by historical reservations usually encountered in Western Europeans, many Muslims in Europe seem to be convinced that anti-Semitism is a natural fact. It is not uncommon for a German, when introduced to an individual with Arab background, to be “complimented” with side remarks on how Hitler was a “good man”. It is so absurd, one might feel an impulse to laugh it off. But it has to be seen in the context of nationalism (and anti-Semitism) on the rise in quite a few member states. Europe needs British liberalism and humanism to continue to be factors in shaping European political and cultural developments, and so do European Jews.
Alliances of European democrats and human rights activists cannot afford to lose their British allies. They have an important role to play in the struggle to keep Europe an open pluralist society. It is not a coincidence that right wing populists and outright nationalists form a large proportion within the anti-European movement. For European Jewry, no hopeful vision can emanate from this constellation.
Looking at Israel, there should be more than just vague concerns about the prospect of the UK opting out of the EU. Without the mitigating influence of Britain on EU policies critical of the Jewish state, advocates of the Boycott might be strengthened. While the European attitude towards Israel has hardened during recent years, traditionally liberal UK negotiators have often argued for more empathy with Israel’s security interests in Brussels and Strasbourg. Economically, the EU is Israel’s most important partner. European investors stand for a strong section of foreign capital in Israel. There is a good deal of cooperation in scientific fields, as well. European tourism to Israel is still flourishing. Tel Aviv ranks alongside Berlin as a destination for young travelers in search of sizzling urban culture. Against this background, Israel’s position in Europe may be weakened by the loss of a friend in the sphere of European decision-making. At the same time, Israel’s interests in Britain will suffer from the decline forecast for British economy in case of a “Brexit”. Even now, British assets are at risk of stumbling, as many investors get prepared for a negative outcome of the referendum. A considerable number of Israeli companies are listed in the City.