by Justin Cohen

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TWO SENIOR cabinet ministers on either side of the Brexit debate this week fired the starting gun on the campaign to persuade Jewish voters to back their case in the European referendum.

In articles in today’s Jewish News, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and minister without portfolio Rob Halfon clash on whether Britain’s security is best served in or out of the EU and whether Israel would be best supported by a vote to remain.

Halfon said he felt fear as a Briton and a Jew in the face of world events and would think of “ever increasing threats to our security in the UK, the continued existential threat to Israel and whether the world will be strong enough to combat extremist Islam” when he votes to stay in the “imperfect” union.

Writing in today’s Jewish News, three months ahead of the biggest vote on Britain’s status for a generation, he said: “To those who worry about the stance of some European countries on Israel or issues like shechita and circumcision, ask yourself this question: is it not better for Britain to be part of this alliance, having some influence? We know our country is a beacon of tolerance for Jews and – when it counts – a friend of Israel. The blacklisting in 2013 of the military wing of Hezbollah, from a campaign led by the British government, is an example of the role the UK plays in supporting Israel’s fight against terror.”

But Villiers, whose Chipping Barnet constituency includes a sizeable Jewish community, insists there is “no reason why security cooperation cannot continue between the UK and EU countries after a vote to leave. It is perfectly possible to make such arrangements without subjecting ourselves to the requirements of EU membership”.

On Israel, she claims: “One of the EU’s cherished ambitions is to replace individual member states on crucial international bodies. If it succeeds in doing that the EU will have a new set of opportunities to heap criticism on Israel, as it has done on many occasions.”

While representations from supporters of Israel have an impact on voting decisions, she said there would be no such line of accountability “if some distant EU high representative for foreign policy took over” – continuing a theme of democratic accountability that forms a central plank of her case.

When it comes to domestic issues, the secretary of state said she didn’t believe a ban on circumcision would be introduced by the UK Parliament but, if we remain a member of the union, “there is a danger that support could be built with enough EU member states for a ban to be imposed on us”.