Theresa May has insisted that young community members should be encouraged to feel pride in their identity as “Jewish, British and Zionist” – as she took several side-swipes at Jeremy Corbyn without once mentioning his name.
In a wide-ranging speech that was greeted with a standing ovation from the 800 guests at the UJIA dinner, the prime minister pledged to build the “strongest and deepest possible relationship” with Israel.
Telling the audience she was speaking as the PM “for the whole country” in expressing solidarity amid current fears, the Conservative leader said she was “sickened” by at reports some British Jews would consider leaving the country if Corbyn became PM.
“I do not underestimate the threat posed by those who promote antisemitism, or hatred in any form,” she said. “Nor the pernicious nature of what those people say and what they stand for. But I do not believe those voices speak for the vast, overwhelming majority of people in our country…And most importantly, I do not believe that those voices will ever win. We will not let them win.”
To huge applause, she vowed to stand with the Jewish community like every community in tackling racism, adding: “Let me be clear: you cannot claim to be tackling racism, if you are not tackling antisemitism. And that mission begins by being clear about what antisemitism is.”
May referred to her government’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism in December 2016. Labour initially adopted it without four key examples of potential anti-Semitism – only reversing that decision this month following uproar.
She said: “Criticising the government of Israel is never – and can never be – an excuse for hatred against the Jewish people – any more than criticising the British government would be an excuse for hatred against the British people.
“There are no excuses for any kind of hatred towards the Jewish people. Just as there are no excuses for hatred towards any community of any race or religion. No excuses means no excuses.”
She spoke of her efforts as Home Secretary to exclude those espousing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia from Britain and, in a thinly-veiled reference to the recently-unearthed 2014 speech from Corbyn about British Zionists and irony, said: “Nothing excuses antisemitism – not comedy, not satire, not even irony.”
And echoing the words she uttered at a meeting of the Board of Deputies in the wake of the supermarket attack, May said: “In the face of any kind of hatred against the Jewish people – in any form and anywhere, whether overseas or right here in our own country – I say with that same defiance: “Je suis Juif.” But she pointed to causes for hope including the reach of the Holocaust Educational Trust.
She hailed the “vital” work of the UJIA in bringing together Jews and Arabs in Israel and deepening the connections between young Jews and the Jewish state, saying: “If we are to stand up for the values that we share – then one of the things we need to do is give young Jewish people the confidence to be proud of their identity – as British, Jewish and Zionist too.
“There is no contradiction between these identities – and we must never let anyone try to suggest that there should be. Indeed one of the most sickening aspects of the antisemitism that tries, abhorrently, to suggest Israel is a racist endeavour – is that those voices seek to separate the Jewish diaspora in our country from their connection with Israel.”
The historic visit of Prince William to Israel was a celebration of bilateral ties, she said, expressing her pride in Britain’s role in the state’s creation and looking forward to “an ambitious free trade deal between our countries”.
And when it comes to her commitment to Israel’s security, the PM insisted she could be counted on. She vowed to continue standing up for Israel “when it is treated unfairly” at the UN and said her government would have “no truck” with those that subscribe to the BDS campaign.
May said: “You can also count on me to defend Israel’s values – because Israel is a country like ours that believes in liberty, democracy and the rule of law.
“Under my leadership the UK will always be a real and trusted partner for Israel, supporting Israel’s security and prosperity, not just through our words but also through our actions.” This didn’t mean there weren’t disagreements with Israeli ministers, she said, calling for “courage and vision” on both sides to make progress for peace. To that end, she called for an end to settlement building and incitement from the Palestinian side.
In a video message for the event, President Reuven Rivlin hailed Israel’s triumphs against the odds. But, in a message that struck a particularly poignant note on light of the recent Nation State Law he has criticised, he said the country must face its challenges, including bringing together the “four tribes” of secular Jews, Arabs, charedim and the national religious.
UJIA chair Louise Jacobs hailed Israel’s head of state as a “president for all Israelis” and spoke of the role that must be played by the diaspora – “the fifth tribe” – in realising his vision of social cohesion.
She warned that the engagement of some young people with Israel was low, saying they would be lost as supporters if this phenomenon was not urgently addressed by the charity and others. In a stark message, she said: “The threat to our community’s relationship with Israel has never been greater.”
Jacobs said: “We must accept some young people are struggling with this relationship” and help them connect to the country beyond the headlines, she said. “We want our young people to look beyond social media and to be inspired by Israel and never to forget that she still represents the greatest inspiration. We need to do more than just educate – we in the diaspora need to actively participate.” A special video highlighted the charity’s work with all four components of Israeli society, helping to unite them.
Sir Mick Davis, UJIA’s former chair and the current CEO of the Conservatives, said his successors Bill Benjamin and Jacobs had “taken the charity to new heights”.
Introducing the PM, he said he had yet to see the “bloody difficult woman” May has previous described herald as, but rather “a remarkable resilience” in the face of political turmoil. Addressing the fears felt by many, he added: “I fear less because of her values, empathy, strength and leadership.” She, in turn, described Sir Mick as a mensch.