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Boris Johnson – is he good for the Jews?

  • Paula
My grandmother had a very particular world view. For the 25 plus years I’ve been a journalist, regardless of what was happening in the world, she’d ask me, “Is it good for the Jews?”
by PAULA SLIER | Jul 25, 2019

Expand that to include Israel, and this is the fundamental question now being asked by British and diaspora Jewry and Israelis over the election of Boris Johnson as the new British Prime Minister.

A deeply divisive character, the answer is typically yes and no.

The official word from the Board of Deputies of British Jews has been to welcome him, and reflect on a “long and positive relationship” with the 55-year-old Oxford-educated, Conservative party politician.

However, the more left-leaning Liberal Judaism movement of the United Kingdom (UK) merely said it “looks forward to working with” him as it has “with Prime Ministers over the past decade”.

The fundamental appeal of Johnson is his perceived ability to prevent opposition Labour hard-left leader Jeremy Corbyn from getting to Downing Street. But it isn’t going to be easy.

Johnson succeeds Theresa May, who failed to deliver Britain’s departure from the European Union (EU). Like May, Johnson has committed himself to getting the UK out of the EU. But unlike May, who desperately tried to strike a deal, Johnson says he’ll leave with or without one. His chances, however, of negotiating a better deal than the one May secured before the 31 October deadline are slim.

A “no-deal” Brexit thus seems increasingly likely. Experts suggest this will probably slow down the economy, and assist Corbyn’s election prospects. For the Jews of Britain, Israel – and my grandmother – this is a nightmare scenario.

For now, though, Johnson still outpolls Corbyn. When asked to choose who they see as the most capable prime minister, 51% of Brits chose Johnson against 33% who picked the Labour leader. Johnson’s support base is hoping his appeal will extend to Labour backers, as it did when he twice clinched the London mayorship a decade ago in that heavily Labour city.

Three out of every five UK Jews live in greater London. Relations between the community and Johnson grew closer during his eight years as mayor, forged by a common enemy – previous London mayor Ken Livingstone.

The latter compared a British Jewish newspaper reporter to a Nazi concentration camp guard, and publicly embraced Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Muslim cleric who allegedly supports Palestinian suicide bombings. His comments that Hitler had an affinity for Zionism led to him being suspended from the Labour party three years ago.

Johnson has repeatedly attacked Corbyn for being anti-Semitic. During his campaign for the Tory leadership, he promised that government spending on security for communal buildings would “absolutely” remain at least the same levels as today, and that he would “continue to support” the planned Holocaust memorial and learning centre in Westminster. He also said “wild horses wouldn’t keep me away” from visiting Israel as prime minister.

He was the first British mayor to lead a London-Israel trade mission.

“I’m proud that the UK is now Israel’s biggest trading partner in Europe,” he recently said, “and we saw huge investments both ways, partly as a result of that trip. We did a lot of good business, but we want to step it up. There’s much, much more to be done, and I will be actively supporting trade and commercial engagements of all kinds.”

But it’s worth noting that throughout his tenure as mayor, he repeatedly ignored requests from Jewish groups to ban the infamous pro-Palestinian and anti-Semitic Al Quds Day marches through the city. It was only last year, for the first time, that protestors were banned from carrying the Hezbollah flag that had been a common sight in previous marches. The move came with Sadiq Khan, a Labour politician and practicing Muslim, as mayor.

Johnson’s maternal great-grandfather, Elias Avery Lowe, was Jewish, while his paternal great-grandfather was a Turkish-Muslim. Lowe was born into a Jewish Moscow family of textile merchants, prompting Johnson to tell the London-based Jewish weekly newspaper, The Jewish Chronicle, that, “I feel Jewish when I feel the Jewish people are threatened or under attack, that’s when it sort of comes out. When I suddenly get a whiff of anti-Semitism, it’s then that you feel angry and protective.”

And, to be fair, also when he’s on the election trail. While it’s rare for British politicians to call themselves Zionists, in part because of the actions of Zionist militants against British targets in pre-state Israel, Johnson had no problem earlier this month calling himself a “passionate Zionist” who “loves the great country” of Israel. No doubt he was trying to appeal to the large number of Jews who have left the Labour party.

In 2014, Johnson called Israel’s attack on Hamas in Gaza “disproportionate”, and “ugly and tragic”. This month he said, “It’s totally unacceptable that innocent Israeli civilians should face the threat of rocket fire and bombardment from Gaza.” So is he good for Israel? Yes and no.

In 2015, he was a supporter of the Iranian nuclear deal that Israel, from the beginning, was opposed to. But then he was the first UK foreign secretary to pledge to vote against a permanent United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council agenda item that singles out Israel for criticism. He has accused the UN of “disproportionate” bias against Israel. So, yes and no.

In December 2016, he pushed the UK to help draft and push through UN Security Council resolution 2334 against Israel’s settlement policy. Critics denounced the resolution’s wording as an attempt to delegitimise Israel’s claim to holy sites, and said it reflected an obsession with Israel while ignoring widespread slaughter in Iraq and Syria.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has congratulated Johnson on becoming prime minister.

American President Donald Trump called him a “good man” who is tough and smart. This, in spite of the fact that in the early days of Trump’s presidency, Johnson spoke dismissively about the American leader. The two have since developed a positive relationship.

Johnson is a supporter of the two-state solution, and has said he “could see the logic” in moving the British embassy to Jerusalem.

Like Trump, Johnson has made some derogatory remarks about Muslims. He’s mocked veiled Muslim women, saying that it’s “absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes”.

Many British Jews criticised his view, and the chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council, Jonathan Goldstein, wrote on Twitter that “Boris Johnson’s comments [were] totally disgraceful.”

“Extraordinary to think he was foreign secretary only a few weeks ago,” he tweeted.

For many, it’s even more extraordinary to think he’s prime minister today.

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