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Royal Navy’s First Standoff since Battle of Trafalgar

Not since Napoleon’s defeat by Admiral Nelson have the cross-channel neighbors come so close to a dust-up



As a former journalist with an eye for a catchy phrase and an ear for history, British prime minister Boris Johnson would doubtless be pleased with the above (slightly dramatized) headline. Barring the World War II sinking of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir to prevent it falling into German hands, Boris’s dispatching of Royal Navy ships to keep a watchful eye on French fishing vessels is a first.

Not since Napoleon’s defeat by Admiral Nelson, a one-eyed, one-armed British naval hero, have the cross-channel neighbors come so close to a dust-up. But given the underlying tension caused by Brexit, the standoff points to a fault line in Europe that is likely to widen.

The showdown at sea was triggered by the so-called Brexit “fish wars.” Until the UK left its jurisdiction, the EU’s law permitted French fishermen to ply their trade in fish-rich British waters. The new post-Brexit fishing regulations issued by Jersey, a British crown dependency, have angered French fishermen, who accuse the British of violating the Brexit deal. Weeks ago, French authorities took a page out of Vladimir Putin’s Crimean playbook by threatening to cut off electricity to the islands, which are only 14 kilometers off the French coast.

When dozens of French fishing vessels threatened to blockade St. Helier, the island’s main port, Boris Johnson reacted by sending Royal Navy patrol vessels to the scene. That in turn drew nautical condemnation from the EU’s former Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, who accused Britain of acting “like buccaneers” in the dispute.

The issue of fisheries — with its overtones of sovereignty — has provided a steady diet of marine-themed news copy (“In cod we trust”; “Brexit talks flounder”). But while the fishing trawlers and patrol boats have headed back to port, the standoff points to the return of an old geopolitical rivalry.

The raison d’être of the European Union, to use an appropriately Gallic expression, has been to keep a lid on Europe’s ancient conflicts. For a thousand years, Britain fought France, who battled Germany. The European Coal and Steel Community, a forerunner of the EU, was founded in 1951 to use pan-European trade links to make war “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.” In that sense, the EU has worked. War between France and Germany is now unthinkable.

And that’s why Brexit has rocked Europe. Because by throwing up the old hard border between Britain and France, instead of the freedom of movement offered by EU membership, all the lurking old questions of sovereignty have resurfaced. By reversing some of Europe’s ever-closer integration, Brexit revived the specter of intra-European rivalry.

Almost four years ago, I interviewed Dr. Ian Kearns, who described himself as “passionately pro-European,” but had written a book describing how the European Union could unravel. What would a post-EU Europe look like, I asked?

“Europe would go back to looking much like the old balance of power that used to exist,” was his response. “You’ll have the UK off the northwest coast of Europe, Germany in the center with a number of central European countries staying close to it, perhaps in a Deutschmark zone. France may try to lead a ‘Club Med’ of southern European states.”

Britain’s patrol boats have returned to port, France hasn’t cut off the electricity to Jersey, and fishy puns have left the headlines. But in the recent spat at sea, Europe got a reminder that post-Brexit, geopolitics is back.


Religion and power, Israel’s new map

With the giant, years-long game of musical chairs going on its flat-roofed precincts, even Knesset watchers have despaired of keeping up with the latest changes of personnel in the MK roster.

But the fresh crop of newly-minted parliamentarians who sprouted after Israel’s fourth elections are worth paying attention to, even though they aren’t doing much lawmaking. Because Israel’s hyper-democracy, where small groupings can put an MK in the Knesset, has responded to ideological shifts across society, especially on the thorny issues of religion and state. Here are four takeaways:

  1. Labor is Reform

In the same way the Reform movement in America is now an adjunct of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, Israel’s Labor Party has officially completed its alignment with Reform as well. Long in the making, the election of MK Gilad Kariv, the head of Reform’s Israel branch, is just one sign of Labor’s transformation. Another is party boss Merav Michaeli’s adoption of the whole raft of gender pronouns in every communication.

  1. The new religious right

The final parting of ways between Naftali Bennett and most of Religious Zionism is a major part of the last election’s story, because it exposes the divergence of different streams within that world. The religiously liberal wing has gone with Bennett, leaving Bezalel Smotrich to take the so-called “Chardal” (not mustard, but National-Chareidi) wing to the right.

  1. Anti-post-modernists

While the most visible symbol of that shift is Kahanist MK Itamar Ben-Gvir, the entry of Noam party MK Avi Maoz is perhaps even more interesting. His faction represents Yeshivat Har Hamor, the most conservative strain of Chardalism, headed by Rav Tzvi Tau. With an entire internal set of references (“post-modernism” figures prominently as a critique of modern Israel’s direction), Noam is determined to push back aggressively on the left’s advocation of so-called “alternative lifestyles” in the public square.

  1. 1976 and all that

The last puzzle piece is that on these issues, chareidi politicians have gone AWOL. Yaakov Litzman has been the most determined advocate of Shabbos in public life over the past few years, but his repeated resignations over building work carried out on Shabbos had little effect. MKs have quietly prioritized their essential work of keeping the lights on in chareidi schools. All of which raises the possibility that for the first time since 1976, when the Mafdal party — Smotrich’s predecessor — brought down the Rabin government over F-15 jets landing on Shabbos, the battle for Israel’s religious soul has new champions.

  1. Fault lines

As ever, all roads in Israeli politics lead to Bibi. The constituent parts of the anti-Netanyahu “change bloc” have very little in common with each other, except the wish to undo Israel’s 75-year-old religious status quo (as detailed in these pages last week). So while Left and Right are still relevant terms in Israel, a new political fault line has emerged over religion in Israel.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 862)

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