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Thursday, June 4, 2020

On Brexit, a view from an American rabbi in London

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I awoke this morning in a different country. Yesterday I accompanied my wife (who holds UK citizenship) to vote on the ‘Brexit’ referendum.  She voted that the UK remain in the European Union, a position favored overwhelmingly by people in their 20s and 30s (as much as 75 percent).  Last night, we stayed up watching as the votes came in and the percentages on the referendum waffled, and with them the value of the British Pound.  Although the measure was predicted to fail by a margin of 4 percent or so, when we woke up this morning we were greeted by a country in chaos.

The measure passed.

The value of the British Pound dropped 10 percent (and with it the value of salaries, pensions, etc.), banks and industry might look to flee the country, the Prime Minister announced he will resign.  Huge numbers of EU migrant workers could face expulsion over the next few years, British citizens who live in Spain or France may face problems.  Scotland is suggesting a break from England.  Most important, the entire political structure of the European Union is undermined, as other countries could now call for referenda to opt out.

How did this happen?  The tropes should sound very familiar in the United States.  Xenophobia, racism, protectionism, a failing rural economy with high levels of wealth inequality.  Generational divides in wealth and success here in BritaÓin are some of the highest in the world.  Ultimately, all these factors led to a rise in far-right-wing politics and a rage-vote of no confidence in the EU.

Even within my own synagogue, admittedly a wealthy suburban congregation, we have had a number of people express anti-European sentiments.  Some of them are themselves immigrants who fled from the Nazis who now wish to pull up the ladder after them and leave Syrian refugees wallowing on the other side of the Channel in France.  Rural voters and those in towns where industry collapsed twinned with the wealthy conservative class to vote in what was presumed to be the self-interest of Britain at the expense of the EU. 

A few words on the EU — not only is the European Union an economic power, but it also has helped Europe function as a political unit since the last World War.  It allows for free movement of labor between its member states and encourages a common currency. 

The vote has been a disaster already and emerged from a country wracked with economic divisions between the super-wealthy and everyone else.  It should sound familiar, and if it doesn’t, Donald Trump’s statement in support of Brexit should clarify any possibility of misunderstanding.

In the U.S., fear of Mexican immigrants has prompted a case for building a new Great Wall of China.  We must not allow demagoguery to triumph; we must not allow rage to dictate the democratic process.  The consequences for Britain on Day 1 post-Brexit-vote have already been dramatic and unpleasant.  Predictions are that the Pound may continue to fall, the economy may collapse, the banking industry (the thing keeping the economy afloat) may flee to Dublin or Paris, and if this continues the future looks bleak.

We must not allow hatred, fear, and xenophobia to govern the democratic process.  Here in London the fear is the Syrian refugees and Muslim ‘terrorist’ migrants (if you want to know what this looks like, google “the Jungle” in Calais).  As Jews, the echoes should be obvious: a group of people fleeing an oppressive government, camped on one side of a narrow strait of water looking for a way to get across to safety.  If the Biblical echoes aren’t enough, we only need to reach back a few decades to see our own people fleeing from Iran, Ethiopia, and Poland.


Rabbi Jason S. Rosner (Wimbledon Synagogue, London), is a Reform Rabbi ordained by Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles (2015).  He lives with his wife Noemie in South West London.

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