December 18, 2018

Is Brexit good, bad or irrelevant for the Jews?

Brexit is the topic everybody is talking about – a meaningful world event that we all strive to understand and interpret. And as we try to make sense of what happened, we also try to understand what it means for us, the Jews. But before we go deeper into the subject, we ought to ask: which Jews? In other words: will Brexit be good or bad in the same way for all Jews – or is it something that will be good for some Jews and bad for other Jews?

Take, for example, the possibility that Brexit is bad for Britain. A horde of experts is of this view, and in recent days they have been explaining with great detail how Brexit is going to disrupt Britain’s economy (the EU market will be less hospitable), complicate its domestic situation (what if Scotland leaves?) and so on. If all this is going to happen, it is quite easy to say that Brexit is bad for the Jews – of Britain. The success of Britain does not guarantee the success of Britain’s Jews, but it is surely an essential precondition for them to be able to succeed.

So if Brexit is bad for Britain (and this is not what everybody thinks – see George Will and Donald Trump), it is probably bad for the Jews of Britain. And what’s bad for the Jews of Britain is bad for all Jews in the sense that responsible Jews want other Jews to be safe and prosperous (that is one meaning of being a people). But what if Brexit is just a little inconvenient for the Jews of Britain while bettering the situation of other Jews significantly?

Several Israeli politicians and commentators on the right have argued in recent days that Brexit is good for Israel because it weakens the EU. It weakens it politically as one of its most powerful members is leaving, and it weakens it philosophically as the epitome of a supposedly post-national era in which states (such as Israel) should no longer insist on having a strong national identity and character. “The EU… betrayed our hopes that it would be the institution to keep the demons of Europe at bay. Even while Israel is technically an ‘associated state’ with Europe, the EU has been underwriting anti-Zionism,” argued Seth Lipsky. Author Melanie Phillips wrote: “I am in favor of Britain leaving the EU so that it can become once again a democratic, self-governing nation. I also believe it would be in the interests of the US, Israel and Europe itself if the EU were to break up.”

Of course, whether Israel will benefit from the Brexit is also something on which there is no agreement. British Prime Minister David Cameron said a few days ago the exact opposite: that Israel needs Britain to remain in the European Union, among other things because Britain within the EU is a force that fights against BDS (Jonathan Neumann wrote: “if the EU’s current policies toward the Jewish state are the outcome of Britain’s positive influence, one dreads to think what the EU might do were Britain to leave”). But this could be just a manifestation of the difference between taking a short view and taking a long view. Short view – Britain leaves, a relatively pro-Israel voice is no longer a part of the EU, the EU becomes even less friendly towards Israel. Net loss for the Jews. Long view – Britain leaves, igniting a gradual erosion of the EU that eventually leads to the implosion of the EU. A not-quite-friendly-towards-Israel behemoth disappears. Net gain for the Jews. Because the little inconvenience of Britain’s Jews is marginal compared to the great benefit for the Jewish State and its many Jews.

As you can see, there are many ifs and buts in all these scenarios. What if Britain leaves but the EU survives long term? What if Britain’s economy does not suffer as much as the experts think it will? What if the EU, busy with its own internal troubles, loses interest in harassing Israel? What if Britain becomes not just economically sluggish because of Brexit, but also toxic for its Jews – as nationalistic forces become more extreme? What if the EU disappears and Israel loses most of its economic market with it? What if as Europe becomes less stable the Jews once again become a scapegoat around which rival tribes are unified?

European Jews are right to dread instability, because, as a rule, instability is bad for the Jews. What prompted the great Mark Twain to write his well-known article Concerning the Jews, in which he tried to explain, among other things, why the Jew is the scapegoat of the world, was a previous article he wrote for Harper’s: Stirring Times in Austria (1898). Twain reported on instability in Europe and found a bizarre sentiment that was common among Europeans: “There are princes, counts, barons, priests, peasants, mechanics, laborers, lawyers, judges, physicians, professors, merchants, bankers, shopkeepers. They are religious men, they are earnest, sincere, devoted, and they hate the Jews.”

So Jews ought to be afraid of these tumultuous times, and on the other hand, European Jews also have reasons to dread the status quo of the EU. The mass immigration of Muslims has made life more complicated for EU Jewry (anti-Semitic incidents), and the universalistic ideals that the EU attempts to advance have also proved tricky for Jews to handle (restrictions on kosher slaughter and circumcision). The European status quo means that the trends threatening Jews’ ability to survive in Europe continue uninterrupted.

So how does one navigate the pluses and minuses of the status quo vs. the pluses and minuses of the clean slate?

One way is to declare neutrality.

Israel declared neutrality by claiming that “there is no direct effect on Israel, apart from the fact that we are part of the global economy.” If the world suffers, Israel suffers with it – and the Jews suffer too. If Brexit goes smoothly without much effect on other countries, then Israel has no special reason to worry. That is to say: Prime Minister Netanyahu does not accept David Cameron’s analysis according to which the EU without Britain means more trouble for Israel. Or maybe he does, but sees no point in saying this when the deed is already done.

Jews in Britain and elsewhere have declared neutrality by claiming – as the editor of the Jewish Chronicle did – that “whether you think, as I do, that today is a wonderful day, when our country has decided to return to self-government, or you think it a political and economic disaster, as many others do – the fact of our religion is entirely irrelevant.”

Nice try. But describing the Jews as members of a religion is a loaded decision in and of itself. Europe does not seem to subscribe to the notion that the Jews are merely a religion. And besides, “our religion” is indeed relevant as we ponder, for example, the impact of immigration on Europe – a main feature of the Brexit debate and decision.

Nice try. But contending that Jewishness is irrelevant when we consider Brexit is somewhat naïve. It is quite likely that Brexit will significantly impact the Jews, Europeans and Israelis. Only that we don’t yet know exactly how it will impact the Jews – and hence we do not yet know what to anticipate (as the battered saying goes: start worrying, details to follow).