The Board of Deputies will snub a landmark meeting between community leaders and UKIP MP Douglas Carswell over the party’s controversial new alliance in Europe - but the Jewish Leadership Council has vowed to press ahead with the talks, writes Justin Cohen.
The meeting was initiated by the JLC weeks ago after the former Tory politician became the Euro-sceptic party’s first elected MP this month and comes as polls point to growing support nationally.
Simon Johnson, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council which had contacts with Carswell before his defection said it was “an opportunity to engage with a Member of Parliament with whom we already had a relationship.
“People have been watching political developments with interest and no doubt UKIP is playing a role in political discourse so it is right and appropriate to engage with them as a party.”
But the Board of Deputies condemned the plans as “wrong time, wrong person, wrong message” in the wake of UKIP’s recruitment of a Polish MEP, whose party leader talks of a “Holocaust industry”, to join its Euro-sceptic group in the European Parliament.
A party spokesman stressed that the party and the group “abhors and rejects any scent of anti-Semitism” and added that all European Parliament groups have “odd bedfellows”.
But, the explanation failed to placate the Board, which has made clear it will not be joining December¹s meeting with the JLC and representatives of the CST.
Jonathan Arkush, vice-president of the Board, which met UKIP’s deputy leader for talks on the communities European manifesto last year, said: “As with all minor political parties, we have engaged with UKIP in the past, but it is wrong to do so just when it has made bed-fellows with the anti-Semitic Polish Congress of the New Right. We must avoid providing political cover for UKIP at a time when its decisions should be put in the spotlight.”
Stressing that Carswell does not hold a post within the party, he added: “He has already publicly stated that the new alliance is a matter for the party’s MEPs. To meet with him now sends a message of ‘business as usual’, when in fact UKIP needs to know this is an unacceptable political partnership for a party which wishes to be considered as part of the British political mainstream.”
Face-to-face talks between the UKIP hierarchy and the leadership of the Jewish community have been rare and prospects of such meetings treated with caution amid concern about the number of figures in the party with a history of links to extremist politics. On a European level, however, Shechita UK has successfully engaged with senior figures including Nigel Farage for years.
Johnson said he would be “very surprised” if the issue of UKIP’s new alliance wasn’t raised at the meeting.
He said last week: “If the community is not to judge UKIP by the company that it keeps, then it needs to clarify urgently its position on Holocaust denial. Having stated that it wholeheartedly rejects anti-Semitism within its own party, UKIP should state clearly that it will hold its partners to the same position.”
But he insisted UKIP’s move didn’t cause him to rethink the meeting. “We consider it our responsibility to ensure the community has good relations with all policy-makers and anyone able to influence discourse,” he told Jewish News before the Board made its position clear.
“I take the view it’s always better to have constructive relationships than to engage in grandstanding.”
He added that the Carswell meeting will “provide an opportunity to see how the community and UKIP can have the kind of regular constructive dialogue that we have with other parties”.
However, he acknowledged he had “no idea if the first UKIP MP was someone else we’d be in the same position. It just so happens we have that relationship”.
Arkush said the Board would raise concerns over its move in Europe directly with Farage and the party leadership as in the past. But UKIP had much work to do to reassure the community “it is truly resilient to anti-Semitism, racism and other forms of prejudice,” he insisted.
Carswell told Jewish News he believed he could act as a bridge in relations between the party and leaders. “I hold the JLC in very high regard and it is important to me personally that I carry on working with it. I might have changed parties, but my regard for the JLC remains as great as ever.”
He added: “In my election acceptance speech, I talked about UKIP being a party for all Britain and all Britons. That inclusive approach to politics is very important to me.”