JTA Articles

Unusual coalition gov’t leaves British Jews uncertain on policy

By Winston Pickett

LONDON (JTA) – With Britons uncertain of how the country’s first coalition government since World War II will go about governing, the country’s Jewish community appears to be taking a wait-and-see approach to the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government.

During the campaign, many Jews expressed alarm at Liberal Democratic positions on Israel.

Now party leader Nick Clegg, who last year called for a European arms boycott of Israel, is Britain’s deputy prime minister. And William Hague, the Conservative Party leader who during the 2006 Lebanon war called Israel’s military response to Hezbollah’s attack “disproportionate,” is the new foreign minister.

What influence that will have on British foreign policy is, like much about the new government, a political unknown.

The new prime minister, David Cameron of the Conservative Party, has been a strong backer of Israel. It is one of the many issues on which the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have fundamental philosophical differences. Others include how to trim the country’s deficit and bring spending under control.

“With so much on the government’s plate, Israel -- along with foreign policy in general -- will be put way on the back burner,” said Robin Shepherd, foreign policy director of the Henry Jackson Society think tank and author of “Beyond the Pale: Europe’s Problem with Israel.”

“Given that both parties in the coalition will be preoccupied with the economy and that the Conservative Party has shown no real interest in the Middle East anyway, the British Foreign Office will find itself in an immensely powerful position to influence the direction of policy,” Shepherd said. “In other words, the Arabist-oriented bureaucracy is likely to inherit a lot of power by default as top politicians attend to other matters.”

Candidates affiliated with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats said the Jews should not worry.
“I don’t think the Jewish community has anything to fear,” said Robert Halfon, a Jew and prominent figure in Conservative Friends of Israel who won a parliamentary seat last week for the Conservatives representing Harlow, north of London.

Matthew Harris, a Liberal Democratic candidate in Hendon who finished third in a race won by the Conservative candidate, said, “I think British Jewry will be pleasantly surprised by this government, and particularly by the quality of the five Lib-Dem Cabinet ministers that will be taking up their posts. Whether on faith schools, security and even Israel, I think people will find the Lib-Dems and this coalition to be broadly supportive of Jewish interests.”

For the time being, official Jewish bodies made do with issuing pro forma statements congratulating the new government.

The country’s Jewish umbrella group, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, put out a statement saying it “warmly welcomes the new prime minister, David Cameron, and his coalition Conservative/Liberal Democrat government” and that it “looks forward to a constructive, fruitful working relationship with Mr. Cameron, his Cabinet and his wider team together with a continued, regular dialogue with politicians of all parties and key civil servants.” 

Jeremy Newmark, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, had no comment.
“As a strategic body, it is not our role to provide a running commentary on a government that has yet to finalize its Cabinet and set out key policies,” he told JTA.

Leaders of various Jewish organizations are hoping the candidates’ pledges to the Jewish community, made in interviews with the country’s main Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, will hold fast.

Both Clegg and Cameron promised support for security for the community. Clegg pledged to put 3,000 more police officers on the streets, and Cameron backed the funding of security around Jewish institutions, including schools.

As for the faith schools themselves -- a major concern for many British Jews -- new Education Secretary Michael Gove is long considered a staunch advocate of Jewish communal interests, particularly in countering anti-Semitism. Gove, a former Times columnist and the author of "Celsius 7/7" critiquing what he deemed as the lax policies of Britain and the West toward terrorism, has publicly voiced his support of state-supported Jewish schools and pledged that the schools "will not have to pay for security" under a Tory government.

Both Cameron and Clegg said they backed changes to the current “universal jurisdiction” legislation, which allows British magistrates to issue arrest warrants for visiting foreign politicians and military staff. The law has been used to target Israeli officials and soldiers for alleged war crimes, in some cases scaring away Israeli officials from visiting Britain.

Cameron and Clegg also have spoken out forcefully against anti-Semitism.

As news of Britain’s new coalition government sank in, Jews also were trying to assess how the government’s priorities for cutting spending would affect domestic Jewish interests.

“It’s too early to know how a deficit reduction program will impact on funding for state-supported Jewish schools and social services,” said David Seidel, a community organizer in Brighton and a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. “Ditto for the final outcome of the new government’s policies generally, as well as whether the government can remain stable.”

In post-election analyses, it appeared that the Jewish community, like the rest of Britain, swung Conservative in last week’s vote.

In an analysis by the London Jewish Forum of 18 parliamentary constituencies, 40 percent of Jews voted Conservative, 37 percent voted Labor and 19 percent voted Liberal Democrat. That differed only slightly from the London-wide general vote, which went 34 percent Conservative, 37 percent Labor and 22 percent Liberal Democrat.

“This is a shift from a dominant Labor preference in years past and is something that is important to keep in mind on the local level where day-to-day Jewish interests are represented,” said the director of the London Jewish Forum, Alex Goldberg. “When faced with budgetary cutbacks promised by the new coalition government, grass-roots alliances are key." 

As Britain votes, Liberal Democrats’ record on Israel draws scrutiny

By Winston Pickett · April 27, 2010

LONDON (JTA) -- With Britain’s three-way race for prime minister entering the final lap, many Jews in Britain are wondering what Nick Clegg’s meteoric rise -- and the possibility of a “hung parliament” -- means for them.

The dark-horse candidate from the Liberal Democratic Party has upended British politics with a surge in the polls that has put him in a virtual dead heat with the two other hopefuls for Britain’s top office: the incumbent, Gordon Brown of the Labor Party, and David Cameron of the Conservative Party, who holds a slight edge in the polls.

As no single party is expected to capture a majority of Parliament’s 650 seats in the May 6 ballot -- known as a
hung parliament -- the office of prime minister may go to whichever party leader is able to secure a coalition deal or win the support of another party.

While Clegg, whose candidacy has drawn comparisons to that of Barack Obama, is unlikely to be that man, his party’s strength significantly increases the chances that the Liberal Democrats either will be a governing coalition partner, or that Clegg’s party will exact concessions in exchange for throwing its support behind a minority government of either the Conservatives or Labor.

“So many things are up in the air,” said Rosalind Preston, a vice president of the national Jewish umbrella body, the Board of Deputies of British Jews. “But one thing is certain: Whoever is elected will have to deal with some very real and pressing issues, not only on the national and international level, but as they affect British Jews on the home front.”

British Jews, she said, are concerned with “boycotts of Israeli goods, the spike of anti-Israeli resolutions and speakers on university campuses, and the impact of the economy on the social service sector.”

With the possibility looming that the ruling party will form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, British Jews are preoccupied with the party’s record on Israel.

During the 2009 war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, Clegg penned an Op-Ed in the Guardian newspaper calling on Labor to "condemn unambiguously Israel's tactics" and demanding an immediate arms boycott of Israel by Britain and the European Union. Last December he was the lead signatory of a letter claiming that Israel has 1.5 million Palestinian prisoners, and he wrote that the legacy of Israel’s operation in Gaza is a “living nightmare” for Gaza’s residents.

Clegg’s party also has come under fire in pro-Israel circles for the activities of Jenny Tonge, a former member of Parliament who became a member of the House of Lords in 2005. In 2004, Tonge said she would become a suicide bomber if she had to suffer the indignities of the Palestinians. In 2006 she suggested that the pro-Israel lobby had "financial grips" on Britain and on her party. Last March she met with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Syria.

The last straw came in February, when Tonge called for an inquiry into the far-fetched claim that Israel Defense Forces' earthquake relief teams in Haiti harvested the organs of quake victims. Tonge’s remark prompted Clegg to fire her as the party’s spokeswoman for health in the House of Lords. Critics said the move came too late.

It didn’t help the party’s reputation in pro-Israel circles when William Wallace, a deputy Liberal Democratic leader in the House of Lords, offered a politically tone-deaf address when he met with the Board of Deputies of British Jews on April 18. Wallace defended Tonge’s “over-emotional approach” to Palestinian rights, called Israel’s Likud government “very intolerant of all criticism” and said Israel’s blockade of Gaza constituted “collective punishment.” Several members of the Board of Deputies walked out of the meeting in protest.

Later, a Liberal Democratic spokesman denied that the speech was anti-Israel and told the Jewish Chronicle, “It was because we are friends of Israel that we will be candid and critical.”

Meanwhile, Clegg used the second of three U.S.-style national debates to slam the Conservative Party for making common cause with far rightists and anti-Semites in Europe. In the April 22 debate, Clegg said Cameron has aligned himself with "nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists and homophobes" in the European Parliament.

Clegg was referring to Cameron’s decision last year to ally the Conservative Party with right-wing nationalist parties in the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) grouping in Brussels.

Brown also criticized Cameron for his alliances.

“These are the friends David Cameron has chosen in order to satisfy the Euro-skeptic wing of his party,” Brown said. “I think that demonstrates poor judgment, and that British voters should understand the compromises to British values and British influence that the Tories are prepared to make in order to appease a significant section of their fanatical backbenchers.”

Cameron dismissed Brown’s charges as slurs, denied that the party is associated with anti-Semites and affirmed the Conservative Party’s pro-Israel record.
In such a closely contested and unpredictable national election, the three main parties are scrambling to chase every vote, including the Jewish ones.

While Jews traditionally have favored Labor over the Conservatives, Jews are upset with Labor’s failure to amend the universal jurisdiction law that permits private citizens to apply for the arrest of Israeli politicians for alleged war crimes while they are on British soil.

Cameron has said he would rescind the law.

As concerned as British Jews are with the party leadership race, because voters don’t vote directly for the prime minister, the race will be determined in large part by which way the votes go in local races, where bread-and-butter issues prevail. In Britain, the prime minister is determined as in Israel: by which party receives the most members in Parliament -- or, if there is no majority, which party can cobble together a coalition.

“It’s easy for the political leadership to make global pronouncements on issues like anti-Semitism, national security or the Mideast peace process,” said Alex Goldberg, chief executive of the London Jewish Forum, which acts as a conduit between the London Jewish community and local governmental bodies. “But on the day after the election it’s the elected MP that is going to have to find ways to maintain funding levels for Jewish old-age homes, state-supported schools and the whole panoply of social services that are still reeling from the current economic downturn.”

In the midst of this year’s extraordinarily tight race, candidates for prime minister and hopefuls in Jewish districts appear to be stepping up their pandering to Jewish voters.

Geoffrey Alderman, a historian of British Jewry, sees this as a positive development: It means that in the scramble for ethnic votes, Jewish concerns matter, he said.

“Appealing for a Jewish vote," Alderman said, "is a sign of a vibrant democratic state.”