It was perhaps the most over-looked and important speech in recent British political history, and it was delivered in the United States, not Britain. The speech was given in March 2016. It was not reported at all in the British press, even though it involved both media magnate Rupert Murdoch tipping Michael Gove for prime minister, and then Gove himself advising British Jews to emigrate. The speech can be viewed here.
On a spring evening in New York, The Algemeiner, a right-wing American magazine with a strong focus on Israeli politics, hosted its third annual awards for those who champion the Israeli cause and Jewish human rights; what the magazine calls the “Jewish 100”.
There were two special prize winners this year, labelled — rather dramatically — “Warriors for Truth” by the selection panel. Lined up for special praise alongside the hundred other prize-winners, were the French neoconservative intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy, and the equally hawkish British Justice Secretary, Michael Gove. Together, they were praised for their work countering anti-Semitism and their public advocacy on behalf of Israel.
Gove’s views on Israel were described in previous “Jewish 100s” as, “More favourable than those of any other mainstream British politician, current or past.” This is a fair assessment; indeed, since 2013, when the claim was first made, Gove has led the way in making hyped comparisons between the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), to German Nazis. Anyone who followed his Brexit campaigning or has read his “deeply problematic” book “Celsius 7/7” knows well that this is a comparison that Gove makes frequently.
“Any country in which anti-Semitism is growing,” explained the Conservative minister in his well-delivered speech, “is a country that is moving into the dark.” That is undoubtedly true. Gove then argued that if there was one country in the world where Jews could feel safe, it was not Britain, but America. The presumptive point was that if the United Kingdom is “moving into the dark” then British Jews should leave it.
At this point it is worth keeping in mind that when Labour MP Naz Shah repeated the well-known satire that Israel should be re-located to the United States, she was labelled “simply appalling” and compared to mass murderer Adolf Eichmann by her fellow MPs. Yet when Gove made similar bizarre suggestions three months ago, not about foreign Israelis but about British Jews, he received no such opprobrium. Indeed, the UK media failed entirely to report that an exceptionally senior figure in the British government now believes that British Jews should consider leaving the country.
What was even more striking were the countries listed by Gove as once-safe havens for Jews — the Netherlands, for example, and the United Kingdom (a rather romantic view of our own exceptionally anti-Semitic past) — and, no, he did not mention Israel, founded in 1948 as a “national home” for Jews fleeing from European anti-Semitism in particular.
“For a thousand years the Jews have had no home,” Gove said almost three years previously, at a jubilant Israeli nationalist rally held in central London where, again, he was the keynote speaker. He told the considerably-sized crowd that, after sixty five years, “At last! The Jewish people have built a home!”
What happened to that home, Israel, when Gove was writing his speech for the Algemeiner gala? Israel, a country founded to keep Jews safe, was not, apparently, even worth a mention as he spoke about how to keep Jews safe. Did he forget about it? It seems unlikely.
However, Gove may have a point. Under the populist right-wing regime that now fully dominates Israel’s dysfunctional democracy, although the knife intifada is fading it stands as a terrifying precedent for the way that any slighted Palestinian can today become a feted murderer armed only with a kitchen knife and a smart phone.
Hamas also remains as resilient and popular as ever. Air raid sirens wail in southern Israel once more, despite the Israel Defence Forces “mowing the grass”, as its offensives into Gaza are known colloquially, only two years ago. The Israeli security services, meanwhile, are pursuing a dangerous collaboration with Al-Qaeda in Syria, in an effort to degrade Hezbollah. Digital technology means that more military human rights abuses are being recorded and publicised more easily. Each spectacular abuse of Palestinians and others by the IDF garners yet more violence against innocent Israeli citizens.
Perhaps Gove had a deeper thought on this, beyond Israel not being a particularly safe place for Jews. Perhaps he sees that the controversial new Israeli Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is a firm friend of Vladimir Putin, a nominal enemy of Britain, and that an increasingly close alliance between Britain’s ally Israel and Moscow is on the cards. This is ironic, given that Gove emphasised in his speech that Putin’s Russia in particular has become even more anti-Semitic; such complexities of foreign policy frequently elude the neoconservative view that Britain’s justice secretary epitomises. Only this week, Mossad Director Yossi Cohen visited Moscow and sat down with Putin’s national security adviser and the director of Russia’s foreign intelligence service for an amicable chat.
Indeed, if you were to apply the values-based idealism that is the Gove world view it would be a bizarre suggestion to ask British Jewish families to commit to a new life in the United States, as bizarre as it would be to suggest that they move to Israel. (I’ve never understood people who move to the Middle East in order to feel safer.) The Republican Party, which Gove loves even more than his own Conservatives in Britain, has just selected Donald Trump as its presidential candidate. Among his backers are hideous anti-Semites, and Trump’s own comments suggest that he may quietly share the same views.
While the fact that the United States is a curious choice for Jews to move to, and the early Murdoch endorsement of the justice secretary as Britain’s prime minister is fascinating, it is Gove’s omission of Israel as a potential migration destination for British Jews that is the most historic aspect of all of this. He is effectively suggesting that Aliyah (migration to Israel) is no longer a viable option for the Jewish diaspora to remain safe. Personally, I feel that Britain remains the safest place in Europe for Jews, and it is a shame that a potential future prime minister apparently no longer believes that this is the case.