News Analysis: British Jewish Vote Undergoes Shift As Labor Party Modifies Israel Stance

Prime Minister Tony Blair has announced that Britain’s next parliamentary elections will take place June 7, but as campaigning begins in earnest, no party is chasing the Jewish vote. The reason is simple: There isn’t one in Britain.

“There is no reason to believe there will be a Jewish vote in this election,” said Ivor Crewe, a political scientist and vice-chancellor of the University of Essex. “They vote like other British citizens.”

That hasn’t always been the case.

From the 1940s until the 1970s, Jews overwhelmingly supported the left-of-center Labor Party.

“They were demographically poor, and looking for political reform and emancipation,” said Daniel Finkelstein, a senior analyst for the opposition Conservative Party.

There was a sharp shift to the right in the 1970s and 1980s.

Under the influence of radical leftist intellectuals, the Labor Party shifted from being pro-Israel to pro-Arab.

At the same time, the Conservative Party came under the dominance of Margaret Thatcher, who herself represented a heavily Jewish district in north London.

“It was obvious that she had huge respect for Jews,” Finkelstein said. “The Conservatives became the main pro-Israel party.”

The rise of Tony Blair to the head of the Labor Party changed the equation yet again.

“Blair has attacked the anti-Israelism that had existed in the Labor Party,” said Jon Mendelson, of the Labor Friends of Israel lobby group.

“Old Labor was cowboys-and-Indians politics, picking underdogs” to support, Mendelson said, referring to the time before Blair rebranded his party as “New Labor” in the 1990s.

“The milieu has changed. Zionism is pervasive in New Labor. It is automatic that Blair will come to Labor Friends of Israel meetings,” Mendelson said.

The result is that the Jewish community is now fairly evenly split between the Conservatives and Labor, with some support for the Liberal Democrats, a small third party.

Barry Kosmin, director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London, said there are two ways to look at the roughly 50-50 split among Jews.

Given that Labor has a large majority in Parliament and leads by huge margins in the polls, the Jewish community could be seen as more Conservative than the country as a whole.

But given that the Jewish community is overwhelmingly middle and upper class, it could be considered disproportionately Labor.

Jews are generally “to the left of people of the same socioeconomic group,” the University of Essex’s Crewe said.

Both parties have significant Jewish financial support.

In fact, Labor recently found itself in a minor political crisis over a huge contribution from a Jewish donor.

On New Year’s Eve 2001, the Sunday Telegraph newspaper revealed that Labor had received a $2.8 million contribution — the largest political donation ever made in Britain to date.

Under rules in operation at the time, Labor did not have to reveal who the donor was — but a Labor-backed law had already been passed saying that, from mid-February, parties would have to list major donors publicly.

The party came under fire from both the opposition and some of its own members before it announced two days later that the unprecedented gift had come from Lord Paul Hamlyn, a multimillionaire publisher whose family had come to London from Berlin in 1933, fleeing the Nazis.

Labor’s chief fund raiser is another Jew, Lord Michael Levy, who also serves as Blair’s special Middle East envoy.

The Conservatives, for their part, include Sir Stanley Kalms, head of the electronics retailer Dixons, among their major backers.

Conservative Party leader William Hague is trying to reach out to religious communities in general, including Jews, in an effort to mimic U.S. President Bush’s campaign strategy.

But political scientist Crewe does not think the strategy is having much impact.

“I don’t think it’s resonating with anyone. It’s too new and hasn’t had sufficient time to influence anyone,” he said.

Meanwhile, each of the main parties claims it is the natural home of Jewish voters.

“The Jewish agenda fits extremely well with the Conservatives: strongly family-oriented, respect for tradition, emphasis on education, dynamic and entrepreneurial,” said Finkelstein.

Mendelson, on the other hand, points to Labor’s record after four years in office.

“It’s hard to see how the government could have been any more supportive of the community,” he said, pointing to the creation of Holocaust Memorial Day and the passage of a new anti-terrorism bill aimed at groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

While the politicians work to woo voters, Kosmin of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research says there are few specifically Jewish issues at stake in this election.

“When Israel and the Middle East are not a division, and there are no anti-Semitic figures on either side, the gap between the parties on Jewish issues is incredibly narrow.”

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