Brexit and Us

Nearly two weeks since England sent shockwaves through the world by voting to leave the European Union, the dust is beginning to settle, and analysts are now taking a second look at what Brexit will really mean for Britain and the rest of the world.

International stock markets have now regained much of what they lost in the almost unprecedented spree of near-panic selling that wiped out $3-trillion from global markets, and a consensus among pundits is emerging that at least outside Britain and the euro zone, the economic damage will be contained.

For England, and to a lesser degree the EU, the projections are far less rosy. The British finance minister has warned that Brexit is “likely to lead to a significant negative shock for the British economy,” and experts are predicting that Britain will slide into recession in the second half of this year.

Along with the rest of the populace, the European Jewish community, which includes many individuals and mosdos already facing significant financial challenges, is anxious about the prospects of an economic downturn.

But wide-reaching worries about Brexit, its after-effects, and its connotations go well beyond the economic concerns.

The anti-immigration and anti-minority sentiments that fueled much of the “leave” campaign are deeply troubling. While much of the rhetoric was aimed primarily at the Muslim immigrants who have poured into European countries, invariably a victory for this stance adversely affects the rights of other religious minorities, including religious Jews.

European Jews face very real threats from both the extreme right and the extreme left. The former focuses on nationalism and opposing immigration; the latter uses animal-rights arguments to restrict religious rights.

While American Jews currently face an unprecedented challenge to our religious liberties, Jews on the other side of the Atlantic have been grappling with threats to fundamental rights such as shechitah and milah for generations. Shechitah is at present illegal in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and Iceland, and is under attack in Belgium and other countries. It is feared that Brexit will embolden all those who have no compunctions about restricting religious rights.

In addition, a strong EU with one central office enabled askanim to wage a war for religious freedom on behalf of numerous countries simultaneously. A weaker, fractured EU is likely to mean battling on numerous fronts.

Furthermore, British askanim have long played a key role in the battles for religious liberties. With London no longer part of the European Union, their ability to help other countries will be severely limited, especially in areas where the Jewish community is relatively small.

Finally, as Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, principal of Yesodey HaTorah Schools in London’s Stamford Hill and well-known askan, put it to Hamodia, “any political or economic instability is not good for the community. Living in unstable times has a negative impact…”

At the same time, it is important to point out that Brexit may have some positive aspects as well. Globalization by its very nature breaks down cultural barriers and destroys a sense of individuality. This in turn, increases pressure on Jews to integrate and assimilate into the greater society.

“Perhaps now there will be less pressure on the chareidi community to conform to the mainstream,” Rabbi Pinter says.

Chazal explain that it is in the merit of our Avos that Am Yisrael “is a nation that will dwell in solitude, and not be reckoned among the nations.” This isn’t merely a blessing, but a fundamental component of our ability to survive. Assimilation and intermarriage are among the greatest threats that the Jewish people face, and if a weaker EU will have even a slight impact on these grave spiritual dangers, that is something that we must take into serious consideration.

There is another factor to consider as well.

When used properly, unity is a powerful force for the greater good; but when misused, it is actually a force of destruction. While the European Union has been a stabilizing influence when it comes to security issues, in regard to numerous other issues the EU has taken positions that are at odds with both morality and common sense. One can only hope that this dramatic shake-up will have a positive influence on the direction that England — and the countries that thus far are staying in the EU — will take.

There is certainly ample reason to express unease about Brexit; but at the same time, there are valid reasons to be optimistic and view it in a positive light. We can only hope and daven that optimism and positive thinking will prove to have been warranted. n