When Tony Blair was elected prime minister of Great Britain a decade ago, he was thought to be a friend of working-class Britons. He soon proved himself also to be a friend of Jews and of Israel, a position that at times has caused him trouble within his own Labor Party.
Now, with Blair stepping down this week as prime minister, the question arises: Will his successor, Gordon Brown, be as solidly behind the Jewish state and the British Jewish community?
The transition comes as British Jews are feeling increasingly under attack. Several trade unions, long allied with the Labor Party, have spearheaded efforts to boycott Israel.
And a report in February published by the Community Security Trust, which represents the Jewish community on matters of anti-Semitism, terrorism, policing and security, showed anti-Semitic incidents in the United Kingdom at record levels since documentation began in 1984.
Despite the tense atmosphere, Jewish leaders here praise Blair for his commitment to their issues.
“Since becoming prime minister in 1997, the Jewish community has been able to look on Mr. Blair as a friend and ally, addressing our concerns and defending our interests both domestically and on the international stage,” the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Henry Grunwald, said in a statement.
Blair will continue to play a role in the international arena on Wednesday he will be named the special envoy to the Middle East for the Quartet, the diplomatic grouping of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
The Quartet is seeking to step up its role amid the split between Hamas and Fatah in the wake of the Hamas takeover of Gaza and the installation of a new emergency Cabinet under Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Beyond the Middle East, the Board of Deputies points to more than a dozen new state-aided Jewish schools, an increase in funding for Holocau! st educa tion and the establishment of Holocaust Memorial Day as examples of Blair’s positive record..
“The community trusts him to do the right thing, and there has been no equivocation on Blair’s part,” Alex Brummer, economics editor of the Daily Mail, told JTA.
Responding to a parliamentary inquiry into the rising tide of anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom, the British government made 35 recommendations to combat what one official called “the absolute scourge of our society.”
In 1997, during Blair’s first year in office, he made a clear statement on his friendly feelings toward British Jews by lighting a menorah at his constituent home in the north of England celebrating Chanukah and Israel’s 50th anniversary.
“The festival of Chanukah and the State of Israel embody the twin miracles of freedom the one spiritual, the other physical,” he said at the time.
Then in 2005, for the first time, a Chanukah menorah was lit at 10 Downing St., the prime minister’s parliamentary home and headquarters of the British government.
Last year, as Britain’s Jewish community celebrated its 350th anniversary, a yarmulke-clad Blair said at the service in Britain’s oldest operating synagogue, Bevis Marks in London, that the community demonstrates “how identity through faith can be combined with a deep loyalty to our nation.”
He has had opinion pieces printed in Israeli newspapers, such as The Jerusalem Post, and visited Israel several times a year in attempts to boost the peace process. He appointed Lord Levy, one of his inner circle advisers, as Middle East envoy.
A year ago, in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Blair proclaimed that “relations between Britain and Israel have never been better or deeper.”
While Blair’s unflagging support of Israel has produced accolades from the Jewish community, it has brought aggravation from his party. Some argue that his rigid support of Israel, along with the war in Iraq, cont! ributed to his increased unpopularity during his last two years in office.
Yet even during predictions of, and requests for, his departure largely over issues in the Middle East Blair offered the keynote address at Labor Friends of Israel’s annual conference in September. He addressed those gathered as “all of us who are friends of Israel.”
In his remarks, Blair said that Israel wants to know that “other countries in the region respect its desire to live in peace and are prepared to recognize the most basic and fundamental thing, which is its right to exist. And I believe that is a reasonable position for Israel to adopt.”
This understanding in the face of mounting opposition from party members and the public did not go unrecognized by supporters of the Jewish state.
Jane Kennedy, a member of Parliament and chair of Labor Friends of Israel, told JTA that Blair has had enormous success in terms of Britain’s relationship with Israel.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, he scores a 12,” she said.
Even some in the opposing party bestow accolades.
“There’s no doubt that Blair gets it in terms of Israel,” Stuart Polak, director of Conservative Friends of Israel, told JTA. “He understands and is a great supporter.”
Blair has cited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of the biggest challenges facing the international community, and last year he vowed publicly to use his final months in office to try to secure peace.
The post of special envoy for the Quartet has been vacant for more than a year, when James Wolfensohn, former head of the World Bank, resigned after Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006.
Blair’s new post will be based in Jerusalem, with a potential second office in the West Bank.
A major part of his new role will involve working with the Palestinians on security, the economy and governance.
The Israeli government apparently approves the idea of Blair as envoy.
“Olmert is very supportive of Prime Minister Blair and of his continuing involvement in the Middle East and the peace process,” Miri Eisen, the Israeli government spokeswoman, said.
As for Brown, who is taking over as head of the Labor Party, observers believe he will maintain his predecessor’s strong relationship with Israel and the Jewish community.
As chancellor of the Exchequer, or Treasury, Brown has consistently provided increased levels of funding for Holocaust education. In his keynote speech at a recent dinner of the Board of Deputies, he praised the Jewish community for overcoming challenges “from discrimination and racism to terrorism and security” and emerging stronger than ever “precisely because you are built on the greatest and strongest of foundations. Your ethos is the living embodiment of community in action.”
Brown reportedly is also a confidante of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a relationship that appeared to strengthen after their fathers died within a short period of each other. Brown’s father was apparently a strong influence in his connection to Jewish and Israeli issues.
In an interview with Time magazine in May, Brown said his father used to visit Israel twice a year, so I learned quite a lot about the Middle East.
The late John Brown was a minister for the Church of Scotland who reportedly spoke in admirable terms of the Jewish approach to charitable giving, and even used Hebrew and Yiddish words in the house.
All this left his son feeling “impressed and motivated by the struggles, the sacrifices and the great achievement of the ancient dream of the Jewish nation becoming reality in the modern State of Israel,” Brown said in his address to the Board of Deputies.
Brown already has visited the Middle East several times. And among the new Cabinet members he announced last week were prominent pro-Israel and pro-Jewish politicians.
Labor Friends of Israel, for one, has no fears about Brown repl! acing Bl air.
“As chancellor he hasn’t been able to emphasize his role as a friend to Israel because it would undermine the existing leadership,” Kennedy said. “But I have found him to be very well informed, personally committed to supporting Israel and very keen to help in bringing about the lasting settlement that we all want to see.”
And as the voice of Britain’s Jewish community, the leadership of the Board of Deputies is “delighted” by the prospect of Brown’s imminent prime ministership.
“We were delighted that when Gordon Brown spoke at the recent Board of Deputies President’s dinner, he reiterated his pledge to fight anti-Semitism,” Grunwald told JTA. He said they were encouraged by his comments that the Jewish community “does not cause anti-Semitism and it must not fall on them to have to defeat it.’ “
He also said, ‘I recoil in revulsion at the prospect of boycotts of Israel and the Israeli academic community.’ “