Prime Minister David Cameron stands down…Conservative Party leadership battle hots up… “Labour Party imploding” - shadow cabinet coup against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn…Nicola Sturgeon Scotland’s First Minister says: “Scotland may veto Brexit.”
It’s been one upheaval after the next since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in the Brexit referendum late last week.
Being a liberal-minded, extremely pro-European Londoner, who lived for many years in France, I’ve been in a state of shock and dismay since the referendum results were announced. Would I now need a visa to visit my beloved Paris? French friends I saw over the weekend, who only moved to this country a few months ago, were already worrying what their status would be once the UK’s “divorce” from the EU is finalized.
To me, the Leave victory is representative of a disturbing reactionary trend, of a more insular, less tolerant, “small island” mentality prevailing. Leave supporters were shown on television news crying with emotion, saying: “We’ve got our country back.”
But what “country” have they “got back” exactly? Is this nostalgia for some mythical all-white, Anglo-Saxon, Christian utopia that maybe existed hundreds of years ago - if it ever existed?
As a British Jew - whose grandfathers came to this country in the 1930s from Germany and Hungary respectively to escape the Nazis - the kind of jingoistic, anti-immigrant rhetoric that has characterized some of the Leave campaigning has made me feel distinctly uneasy.
Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, the populist-right United Kingdom Independence Party, unveiled a huge poster during the campaign showing a large line of mainly non-white migrants and refugees, with the caption: “Breaking point: the EU has failed us all.” Although other political leaders condemned this poster as an incitement to racial hatred, the fact that Farage even felt comfortable enough to use this kind of racist publicity stunt speaks for itself.
The whole Brexit campaigning has clearly shown up bitter and divisive splits in the country, with the tragic low-point, the murder of a young, pro-Remain Labour member of parliament, Jo Cox, in broad daylight on the streets of her local constituency.
Mike Katz, National Vice-Chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, an affiliate of the Labour Party, argues that Remain is “the natural position” for progressive-minded Jews. He makes a strong pro-immigrant argument: “Immigrants are the essential glue of society. We understand the huge contribution that immigrants make to our life… we ourselves, our forefathers, benefited in the past from being able to make a life here.”
Katz foresees that British Jews, along with all other ethnic minorities, will be affected by the wave of racism that the Leave campaign seems to have unleashed.
There has already been a sharp spike in hate crimes against ethnic minorities reported since the Leave campaign triumphed. Just over the weekend, cards stating “No more Polish vermin,” and “Leave the EU” were distributed in homes and shops in Cambridgeshire.
Yet, as a Remain supporter, I cannot deny the black-and-white fact that 52% of the British population voted Leave, or dismissively label all 17 million-plus Leave voters as a bunch of fringe, far-right racists. Indeed, what about Jewish pro-Leave voters?
How did British Jews generally vote? Perhaps mistakenly, I assumed that most Jews were surely pro-Remain. Yet, according to one poll conducted by veteran pollster Lord Ashcroft, who surveyed some 12,500 voters on Referendum day, as many as 46% of Jews voted Leave.
No less than the editor of Britain’s most widely read Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, heralded the results as “a wonderful day for Britain - and its Jews”.
Pollard dismissed any claims that Brexit will affect British Jews detrimentally: “As for our place in British society as Jews and the threat of extremism: I have rarely read more rubbish than the idea we as Jews will suffer from Brexit…Our freedom from the EU will make extremism less, not more, likely, as the pressure cooker is released.”
Other commentators have also argued that Brexit will allow the country to take back control of its borders, thus preventing the apparent threat of radicalized Islamist migrants coming into the country, and so reducing the terror threat.
Nizza Fluss, a London-based Jewish company director and a vocal pro-Leave activist, is obviously delighted with the referendum results: “The UK should once again be a democratic self-governing nation. The EU is an unelected, unaccountable and unremoveable body.
“I firmly believe in democracy, and to get anything done in the EU, you need the agreement of 27 countries which all have different interests - so British interests can never be served.”
She also argues that European government policies have led to the rise in the far-right: “European governments have not listened to their own people. Merkel brought in 1.5 million immigrants - the majority Muslim - last year [without considering their integration]
“The Remain campaign are labelling people racist. They are not racist, they just want a normal life without their culture being overtaken.”
Ultimately, the United Kingdom is going to have to somehow heal its rifts after this bruising campaign. As British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said in a statement following the vote: “It is my hope and prayer that the polarization of the national debate about Europe will now give way to a composed recognition of our common values of respect and responsibility.”
Rebecca Schischa is a freelance journalist based in London.
UKIP’s designation as a “far right” party was changed on July 22, 2016, to “populist right” to reflect the usage of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.