British Prime Minister Tony Blair goes to the voters next week to seek a third term, following a brief but heated election campaign in which his most controversial decision, taking his nation to war in Iraq, hardly played a role.
But while the Middle East appears to have caused few problems for Blair during the campaign, it has generated some uncomfortable moments for Britain’s 270,000-member Jewish community.
A series of incidents have kept Jews on edge, including several violent assaults by local Muslim radicals against politicians identified with Blair and with his Iraq War policy. There also have been several highly charged anti-Israel actions by campus groups, including a vote last weekend by Britain’s largest union of university professors to boycott two Israeli universities.
The boycott vote came just days after a Jewish leader of the National Union of Students resigned from the union’s executive body, claiming that students had not done enough to oppose antisemitism on campus.
The incidents, while apparently unrelated, have served to remind British Jews of the growing influence of several groups viewed as potentially unfriendly, particularly Britain’s growing Muslim community and the increasingly vocal anti-Israel left.
Once Britain’s most visible religious minority, Jews are now outnumbered roughly 6-to-1 by Muslims, following three decades of steady immigration. Opposition to the Iraq War has forged new links between Muslim and leftist groups, to the alarm of some Jewish activists.
Blair’s war policy has not hurt him politically, because criticism of the war comes mainly from within his own left-leaning Labour Party. The oppositional Conservative Party largely supported Blair’s war policy, depriving it of an issue on which to run.
Blair plays a role similar to Ariel Sharon’s in Israel. He leads a party that dominates the political map. Yet he has alienated his own party by tacking to the center, but remains its standard-bearer.
The Conservatives, led by Jewish lawmaker Michael Howard, have attempted to make an issue of immigration, advocating stricter controls. The issue appears to have boomeranged, boosting Blair’s overall numbers and bringing Jewish groups closer to Muslim groups.
Still, a string of campaign-season events has strained Labour’s image among Jews. In late January, Conservatives accused Labour of using antisemitic imagery in a pair of campaign ads attacking Howard and his chief deputy, who is also Jewish. The ads were quickly withdrawn.
Days later, in mid-February, a new storm erupted after London’s left-wing mayor, Ken Livingstone, a longtime critic of Israel, compared a Jewish reporter to a Nazi concentration camp guard. Livingstone, noting the right-wing views of the reporter’s newspaper, refused to apologize despite weeks of protests.
Livingstone himself faced the fury of Muslim radicals when he went to London’s East End in April to campaign with a local Jewish Member of Parliament, Oona King. King is a Labourite who faces a challenge from a militantly antiwar leftist.
King’s challenger, George Galloway, was expelled from Labour for supporting Saddam Hussein. He is now running on his own ticket, Respect, seeking support from the district’s Muslim population.
King, whose father is African American, began campaigning under heavy police guard this month after reportedly having her tires slashed and her car pelted with eggs because of her support for the Iraq War. Livingstone told reporters after campaigning with King last week that the mood in the district was the most incendiary he had seen in 35 years in politics.
Galloway, too, was attacked, during an April 19 campaign meeting, by members of a Muslim radical group, who brought the meeting to a halt with shouts of “false prophet” and threats of “the gallows.” Members of the radical group, the so-called Saviour Sect, went on later that day to break up a get-out-the-vote meeting sponsored by the mainstream Muslim Council of Britain. The radicals oppose all Muslim participation in British elections.
Few commentators think that these incidents will tip the election, even among Jewish voters. As in America, the heads of both major British parties trumpet their support for Israel.
But the incidents are drawing anxious comments about a longer-term issue of antisemitism in the country. And the complaints have not come exclusively from the right.
Luciana Berger, the students’ union leader who resigned in mid-April to protest campus antisemitism, is a Jewish Labour activist. She has been linked romantically with Blair’s son, Euan.
Moreover, the most outspoken opponent of the professors’ Israel boycott is a former British spokesman for the left-wing group Peace Now, Shalom Lappin.
“These anti-Jewish sentiments have moved from an undercurrent at the margins into very much mainstream opinion,” Lappin told the Forward, explaining why he and a colleague resigned from the teachers’ union after the boycott vote. “There has been a steady erosion of the standing of the Jewish community in Britain since I came.” Lappin, a Canadian, has lived in Britain since 1993.
Despite the gloomy headlines, many observers inside the Jewish community insisted that the incidents do not represent a single pattern but rather separate trends, some of them election related.
Antisemitic sentiments are indeed spreading among Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims, said Jonathan Freedland, a columnist at the left-wing daily Guardian newspaper and the weekly Jewish Chronicle. But he also said that the issue on campuses is very separate.
“That’s not a Muslim issue,” Freedland said. “That’s a question of a naiveté, and a narcissism of the left — a certain kind of left that goes for shallow gestures.”
The Association of University Teachers voted last Friday to boycott all academics from two Israeli universities: Bar-Ilan, which has a branch in the West Bank, and Haifa, which the British union said was hampering the academic freedom of scholars critical of Israel.
British university administrators have said that the boycott probably will be legally unenforceable because of anti-discrimination rules.
Freedland called the boycott “outrageous,” but said that anti-Israel tensions on campus had been stronger when he was a student in the 1970s. At that time, Jewish student groups were actually banned from many British campuses because of pro-Israel sympathies.
The new boycott, he said, was approved only by a narrow majority vote, and the most vocal boycott supporters were a group of Jewish critics of Israel.
Tony Lerman, chief executive of the Hanadiv Charitable Foundation, one of Britain’s largest Jewish charities, said the events of the last month show that Jewish groups need to work with moderate Muslim groups to fight extremism. “The Jewish community is not really developing the right kind of links with Muslim groups in this country,” Lerman said.
The Community Security Trust, a Jewish group, reported that antisemitic incidents in 2004 were up 42% from the previous year.
A separate study from London’s Metropolitan Police Service reported in the Guardian, found that Jews were three times as likely as non-Jewish whites to be the victims of racially motivated crimes. But the same study found South Asians were 13 times as likely to be victims, and Arabs were 12 times as likely.
Among Jewish voters, there was talk that the Conservatives might draw a majority of Jewish voters for the first time after choosing Howard as their first Jewish leader. But many commentators say that Howard will win fewer Jewish votes than past Conservatives will, in part because of fears that a Jewish prime minister would feel compelled to pressure Israel.
Howard further alienated potential Jewish backers by proposing new restrictions on parochial schools that receive government funding. Both Muslim and Jewish schools receive such funding.
Blair scored points from the same groups when he rejected a proposal from an advisory board last year to ban Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter.
In the long term, many observers said, the issue of antisemitism among Britain’s growing Muslim population must be addressed more forcefully. But during this election, said veteran Jewish Labour leader Lord Greville Janner, most attention is going to short-term issues.
“People are voting on their stomachs and their pocket books,” Janner said.