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The following article was posted in Jerusalem Post´s Internet edition, dated May 11th, 1997. Emphasis in underlined text, added by Radio Islam.

 

British Jews set to back Blair

By DOUGLAS DAVIS

(May 1) British Labor Party leader Tony Blair has assiduously courted the Jewish community, Douglas Davis reports from London

British Prime Minister John Major never tires of repeating the mantra that relations between Britain and Israel are closer than ever. And he is right.

Scientific and cultural agreements have been signed, tourism is booming, bilateral trade is burgeoning and there is a regular two-way flow of of visits by top government officials, which culminated in a formal state visit to Britain by President Weizman in February.

But after 18 years of unremitting Conservative government - first under Margaret Thatcher and, for the past six years, under John Major - the British Jewish community appears ready to join the stampede and sweep the Labor Party's Tony Blair to power.

They will be turning their backs on an administration that is committed to the enterprising, up-by-your- bootstraps, family-centered values which are widely perceived to characterize the Jewish community and which smelted the heart of the "Iron Lady."

At the same time they will be embracing a largely unknown quantity in Tony Blair, who has followed Conservative leaders in assiduously courting the Jewish community, not necessarily for its votes or even its money, but for the power and influence it is perceived to exercise within the elites of the scientific, artistic, media, business and industrial communities.

Blair has repeatedly pledged that he would "not repeat the mistakes of previous Labor leaders during the Eighties," who were regarded as insensitive, if not antipathetic, to Jewish causes, notably Israel.

Blair has been well rewarded: When the media revealed last year that a secret fund had been set up to finance his office, it was also revealed that the architect of the fund was a prominent Jewish accounting firm in London and that the major donors included leading members of the Jewish community.

Since assuming the Labor leadership three years ago, the solidly middle-class Blair has shaken out many of the old working-class dinosaurs, silenced the acerbic New Left and loosened his party's ties to the trade unions, all of which had rendered Labor unelectable in post-Thatcherite Britain.

Then he sat back and watched with evident pleasure as Major, operating with a deeply divided party and an eroding parliamentary majority (which had disappeared altogether by the time the election was called two months ago), appeared to be driven even further to the right by the growing band of Eurosceptical Conservative colleagues.

Blair, a lawyer by training and by instinct, moved in for the kill. He seized not only the moral high ground but also the political center ground, positioning his modernized, born-again New Labor at the heart of the political landscape, traditional preserve of the Conservatives.

By the time Major called the election, Blair had established New Labor as the natural (albeit caring) inheritor of a free-enterprise, free-market Britain that had been the clarion call of the Conservatives.

Blair's message appears to be playing well among the Jewish community, which is liberal on social issues, conservative on economic issues and views the institutions of the European Union as a safeguard against xenophobia and future outbursts of antisemitism.

And, like much of the British voting public, it is troubled by the perception of an increasingly dysfunctional Conservative Party.

British Jews are bothered by the Conservative malaise: by charges of a declining commitment to publicly provided health and education, allegations of fiscal and sexual impropriety, and the anti-European sentiments of many Conservative candidates.

They have become so accustomed to "Jews in high places" that they appear unmoved even when the Conservative banner is carried by such prominent figures - and "friends" - as Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind and Home Secretary Michael Howard, both of whom are Jewish.

In truth, Blair is unlikely to produce any substantial improvements on the bedrock health and education issues, which polls have shown to be of particular concern to British Jews; nor is he likely to keep the lid on his own Euroskeptics after the election, whether in or out of government.

"The two leaders are fiddling at the fringes," said one political commentator. "Both promise not to raise taxes while both say they will improve public services. The truth is that both are dancing on the same pocket handkerchief."

The critical difference is that while Major is viewed as a weak leader unable to keep his fractious followers in order, Blair had succeeded in imposing discipline on Labor candidates and muzzling his malcontents. There is a perception, inside and outside the Jewish community, that Blair leads a united party; that he has a sharper vision and a more defined sense of purpose.

So far. What worries many doubters is that Old Labor is merely biding its time, allowing Blair - whose boyish face, toothy smile and prominent ears earned him the unkind nickname "Bambi" - to win the election before they emerge from the bunkers, push him aside and re-embrace the old discredited ideologies.

As it is, there is little to separate the two major parties on ideological grounds, and what differences remain are almost too esoteric to bother most voters. It is even a matter of pride that there is almost total consensus on foreign issues.

On Israel, that means support for the peace process (with a strong emphasis on "Palestinian rights"), no recognition of Israel's claim to any part of eastern Jerusalem or the West Bank and vigorous opposition to "illegal Jewish settlements." Sources close to Blair say the Jewish community has nothing to fear from New Labor.

A Blair administration, they say, will focus on domestic issues, and what time is left for foreign affairs will be devoted mainly to Europe.

That, however, does little to mollify those who remember the unreconstructed Old Labor and New Left "Israel-haters." They have been silenced for the time being, but some retain substantial grass-roots support within the party and a few will certainly occupy seats on the front bench of a new Labor administration.

There is also concern that while the Major administration has actively engaged French ambitions and blunted President Jacques Chirac's quest for influence in the Middle East, Blair may be anxious to demonstrate his team-playing skills to his European partners and permit Paris to take a lead.

SIGNIFICANTLY, though, Middle East issues seem almost to have dropped off the agenda of the British Jewish community, which had always prided itself on its unparalleled links with Israel, a function of Britain's relatively close proximity to Israel, the large number of British Jews who visit Israel, family links that result from a high level of aliya and the hitherto traditional nature of the community.

All that, however, might be changing. According to Antony Lerman, director of the London-based Jewish Policy Research think-tank, British Jews are three times more likely to believe charity money should go to domestic Jewish causes than to Israel.

And although more than three-quarters of British Jews have visited Israel at least once, other information collected by the think-tank in a major recent survey of British Jews suggests that their identification with Israel is eroding.

"It is clear that the closeness of British Jews to Israel cannot be taken for granted," says Lerman.

The natural, sentimental, core supporters - older, Orthodox members of British Jewry - remain firm, "but the younger generation needs to have a social attachment," he said. "There will be a much more pragmatic relationship between younger Jews and Israel." Analysts speculate widely on the reasons for the apparent decline in concern for Israel among the 350,000-strong community that takes a position on the left of the Israeli political spectrum.

"If British Jews had been asked to decide the outcome of the last Israeli election," said one community leader, "Shimon Peres would have won by a landslide." Some argue that the current downturn in attachment to Israel is a "blip" caused by the advent of the Likud and the complications that have snagged the peace process.

They say that the network of familial and emotional links that have bound British Jews and Israel for the past half-century is just too strong and complex to untangle; that the level of concern has not fallen, only the sense of urgency. Israel, they contend, is simply no longer perceived to be confronting an immediate military or economic threat.

Others, like Lerman, believe the change is part of a more profound, systemic shift in attitudes: British Jews, particularly since the Thatcher era, have become comfortable and confident in their British skins. They have achieved influence in an environment that is tolerant and largely devoid of the sort of street antisemitism encountered in other European states, such as France.

Moreover, the proliferation of Jewish politicians at the most senior levels in British politics - five in Thatcher's cabinet; two in Major's - served to reinforce an assertive self-confidence that has loosened the community's bonds with Israel.

A future Labor government is unlikely to provide that level of representation for the Jewish community, but the party is at least expected to be represented in parliament by a member who has been described as the "mother of all candidates" - Oona King, a 30-year-old, right-wing, black, Jewish, woman candidate.

King, who is standing in the London constituency of Tower Hamlets, is the descendant of Black American slaves on her father's side and Holocaust survivors on her mother's. She is, she tells her predominantly Bangladeshi constituents, well qualified to deal with questions of racism. 

 






 


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