By Cnaan Liphshiz
(JTA) – If you’re a Jewish-American liberal who believes that Donald Trump could never become president, British Jews have one word of warning: Brexit.
Following the shocking referendum vote in June favoring a British exit from the European Union, many British Jews now believe that their liberal circles and cosmopolitan lifestyles had left them largely insulated from a disgruntled majority responsible for an outcome that was neither predicted by polls nor thought likely — until it happened.
So despite predictions in most major polls of a Trump defeat, London-area Jewish sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris said he believes that “Trump can be elected president and I would prepare for that outcome.”
David Hirsh, another British-Jewish sociologist from the London area, used sharper language to express a similar thought.
“America. Please worry about Trump before it’s too late. You don’t want to feel like this on 9 November,” he wrote on Facebook after the Brexit vote.
The lessons drawn by British Jews from the Brexit vote, many of them say, are relevant to Jewish-American voters because of the demographic and social similarities between the two communities. British liberals see the campaign for the Brexit and Republican presidential candidate’s campaign as toxic, and say both have torn at the fabric of their respective societies, unleashing massive animosity and polarization.
“I was very surprised, like so many others,” said Laura Marks, a recent vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and a prominent interfaith activist from London in recalling the day after the June 23 referendum in Britain. “I was gobsmacked. I just couldn’t believe it.”
Over dinner on the day of the vote, Marks and some friends had assured one another that “it would be OK,” she said. “In the morning my husband told me ‘we’ve Brexited.’ There was a massive sense of disbelief among most people I know.”
Some British Jews who supported Brexit also were surprised, including Geoffrey Alderman, a historian and former member of the Board of Deputies.
Based on voting patterns, Alderman had predicted that British voters would vote “no” and maintain course. In retrospect, he says he failed to foresee the change also because he, like most British Jews, lives in London, where 75 percent of voters elected to stay in the European Union.
Alderman began doubting only upon leaving London, where he saw passers-by “harangue activists for the Bremain camp” at a shopping center in northeast England, where he was with his wife on a holiday trip on the eve of the referendum, he said.
“I thought that if there’s such hostility in a comfortable Labour seat, the vote might pass after all,” Alderman recalled.
The demographics of American Jews , who tend to live in or near big cities cities where Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton enjoys wide support, mean they, too, are at risk of failing to predict how the rest of the nation will vote, said Kahn-Harris.
“Both in America and Britain, Jews are overwhelmingly concentrated in large urban areas,” the sociologist said. Combined with the echo-chamber effects of social media, ”this can have a powerful distorting effect,” he warned.
Ultimately, though, Marks and Alderman both agree that they had viewed the referendum mostly through the narrow prism of the topic at hand – namely whether Britain should remain in the European Union. To many other voters it was an opportunity to voice their desire for more general change in a society where they feel disenfranchised or downtrodden.
“Only after the result we really understood that the debate wasn’t really just on Brexit,” Marks said. “It was on much wider areas of discontent.”
From a referendum on whether to end what is essentially Britain’s membership in an international body, the Brexit vote ballooned into a passionate zero-sum decision on key questions. They included the very definition of what it means to be British; the place of immigrants in society; taxation; the aloofness of an elite detested by countless disaffected voters, and even what many perceived as U.S. interference in British affairs.
“The whole Brexit campaigning has clearly shown up bitter and divisive splits in the country, with the tragic lowpoint, the murder of a young, pro-Remain Labour member of Parliament, Jo Cox,” Rebecca Schischa, a British-Jewish journalist, wrote in a column for the Forward.
Cox, 41, a fervent supporter of remaining in the EU, was stabbed to death on June 16 by a 52-year-old loner with a history of mental illness.
Trump himself was quick to play up the similarities between the Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election.
Billing himself as “Mr. Brexit,” the billionaire real estate magnate has predicted in several campaign speeches an electoral upset that he boasted will amount to “Brexit times 10.” Nigel Farage, the former head of the UK Independence Party and a leading proponent of Brexit, has appeared at Trump rallies.
Marks, a self-described optimist, said the Brexit vote’s silver lining has been that it reminded her of how many of her countrymen feel “left behind and afraid” of the open, diverse and cosmopolitan society she wishes for Britain.
“It’s a wake-up call, a reminder of social gaps we need to address, and in that sense it’s a good thing,” she said.
But some British Jews challenge Marks’ analysis, which views Trump’s success as a protest vote born of socioeconomic distress.
The journalist David Aaronovich opined that it is “paradoxically comforting to liberals” to blame poverty because it gives them the illusion of having economic solutions. In a column published last month in The Times of London titled “Ugly truth about rise of Trump and Brexit,” Aaronovich cited studies refuting the correlation between socioeconomics and Brexit voters.
“It’s hard to couch this in neutral language, but it suggests that authoritarianism versus liberalism is a far better way of understanding this than ‘the elite versus the people’ or ‘the left-behind versus the comfortable,’” he said. “They embody different ideas about how to live.”