Boris Johnson has finally fulfilled his political ambitions by becoming the U.K.’s 77th Prime Minister. His biggest short-term priority will be ensuring that the U.K. leaves the European Union by October 31st in as orderly a fashion as possible. But it is a fair question to ask whether the new PM, who is an avowed philosemite and admirer of Jewish culture, will look equally with favour on Israel. When one looks back at Johnson’s record, one finds a rather mixed picture and one which reflects the inconsistencies for which he is sometimes accused.
Firstly, it is necessary to dispel a myth: that Boris Johnson is nothing but a British version of President Trump. Certainly, there are superficial similarities. Both have a somewhat maverick and ebullient style, and both are willing to ride a coach and horses through their respective political establishments. But the similarities mask obvious differences.
For one, Johnson is a classically trained scholar whose knowledge of modern history and culture is compelling. For another, he is an experienced politician, having served as an MP since 2001, Mayor of London for 8 years and, most recently, as Foreign Secretary. Moreover, Johnson’s occasionally offensive remarks mask the fact that, as a classical liberal, he champions individual freedom and liberty and has often been positive towards ethnic minorities and LGBT people. He specifically condemned President Trump’s Muslim migration ban. And as a journalist of 30 years standing, he has little time for the incessant attacks on the press which have become routine in Washington.
This makes a difference to the Jews in one important sense. Johnson is a Brexiteer because he believes that E.U. membership is anti-democratic and undermines Parliamentary sovereignty. He champions liberalism, openness and democratic institutions, the kind of political environment in which Jews traditionally thrive and to which they make the most positive contribution. It helps that he is proud of his Jewish maternal great grandfather, a Lithuanian rabbi.
In the past, Johnson has lauded Israel as a ‘great country’ and described himself as a ‘passionate Zionist’. He visited the country as a university student in 1984 and spent some time volunteering on Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi in northern Israel. He would later speak of the ‘bonds of hard work, self-reliance and audacious and relentless energy’ holding together ‘a remarkable country’ and, in a comparison of Israel with Churchill, praised the ‘daring, audacity, derring-do and indomitability’ of the Jewish state. As Mayor of London, he arrived in Israel for a three-day trade mission in November 2015 with a team of high tech entrepreneurs. He later said that London was the ‘natural tech partner for Israeli firms.’ This extensive economic and technological collaboration is likely to increase now that Johnson is Prime Minister.
Johnson has also condemned the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in the strongest terms, describing it as a ‘completely crazy’ campaign led by ‘ridiculous, snuggle-toothed, corduroy-wearing lefty academics.’ Those comments, made in 2015, led to a series of meetings in Ramallah being cancelled. He has also understood the endemic anti-Israel bias found within the U.N. In a visit to the U.N. Human Rights Council in its first session of 2018, he urged the body to ditch Item 7 (which singles out Israel for criticism) as it was ‘disproportionate and damaging to the cause of peace.’
But at times, he has said things that have offended supporters of Israel. In 2014, at the height of Israel’s war with Hamas, Johnson deprecated Israel’s actions as ‘disproportionate, ugly and tragic’ and described the war as ‘utterly horrifying and unacceptable.’ He has condemned ‘incitement and rocket fire against Israel’ but also called for an ‘independent inquiry’ over 120 Palestinian deaths on the Gaza border. Johnson was also seen as playing an important role in drafting U.N. Security Council resolution 2334, which said that all settlements established since 1967, including in East Jerusalem, ‘were a flagrant violation under international law.’
The resolution was widely condemned within the U.K. Jewish community, whose representatives considered it a betrayal and disgrace. He is a strong supporter of the two-state solution, which marks him out as having a thoroughly conventional perspective on the conflict. But this led to a somewhat nuanced celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, in which he lamented that the Arab population had been denied self determination, even though the declaration did not speak of the ‘national rights’ of the Arab population.
On Iran, it is hard to read the exact contours of a foreign policy. In the past, he has expressed support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Deal, which was signed in 2015. He rallied round the E.U. in rejecting Trump’s decision to leave the agreement. In 2018, he said that Britain had ‘no intention of walking away’ from the nuclear deal and as recently as July 2019, urged Iran not to abandon the JCPOA. In a recent interview with the U.K.-based Jewish News, Johnson continued to defend the agreement but hinted that if there was evidence of Iranian non-compliance, Britain stood ready to re-impose sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Yet this can only mean that, contrary to all previous positions, the U.K. would be abandoning the JCPOA. Now that tensions between Iran and the West have ramped up in recent months, it remains to be seen whether Johnson’s government will pivot more towards Europe or the USA.
When it comes to terror groups, his record is again inconsistent. He rejected calls consistently to ban Al Quds Day marches in London or to prevent the Hezbollah flag from flying, despite the raucous antisemitic rhetoric on display. Yet when the Muslim Home Secretary did proscribe Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation, Boris Johnson tweeted his congratulations.
What are we to make of all this? It is fair to conclude that Johnson is a friend of Israel and a man committed to its peace, security and prosperity. But in his views on settlements, Gaza and Iran, his perspective is largely aligned with that of the Foreign Office.
Jeremy Havardi is a historian and journalist based in London. He has written four books, including ‘The Greatest Briton’, a volume of essays on Churchill’s life and political philosophy, ‘Projecting Britain at war’, a study of British war films and, most recently, ‘Refuting the anti-Israel narrative.’ He is currently working on a project that examines the Jewish contribution to modern civilisation. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Nearly four years ago, at around the time that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or as it more commonly known, “the Iran deal”) was reached, I wrote a post for this blog on the “snapback sanctions” part of the deal. The biting U.N. Security Council sanctions—which had brought Iran to the table in the first place—were supposed to be snapped back into place if Iran was not living up to the deal. The snapback sanctions were meant to mollify critics and skeptics who questioned the wisdom of so quickly reversing sanctions on a country that had been found to be cheating on numerous commitments.
My original post went into the cumbersome bureaucratic hurdles that would be necessary before the sanctions could be reinstated. This is the key paragraph:
“Aside from unnecessary bureaucracy, the more serious problem is that the language in the nuclear deal and in the subsequent U.N. Security Council resolution state that it must be a ‘significant’ compliance issue. This is vague—what exactly constitutes ‘significant non-compliance?’ The fear is that the tendency of the world powers will be to minimize or ignore non-compliance issues as not ‘significant’ enough to rise to the level that would require ‘snapback’ sanctions. Why? Because once the U.N. sanctions are re-introduced, the U.N. Security Council resolution ‘noted’ Iran’s stated position that Iran would stop living up to its commitments in the nuclear deal in full. Essentially, the Security Council resolution allowed the ‘snapback’ sanctions to be held hostage by the deal. “
Much has happened in the meantime. The U.S., led by a new administration, pulled out of the JCPOA and re-imposed U.S. sanctions (which are extremely tough, but not as far-reaching as Security Council sanctions could be) and added new sanctions as well. The Europeans have been trying to get around the U.S. sanctions by creating a loophole for companies to do business with Iran. Iran, feeling the bite of the U.S. sanctions on its weak economy, has been trying to extort the Europeans—who are desperate to save the JCPOA—into giving it more money through nuclear blackmail. Iran has already exceeded the limit of enriched uranium allowed under the deal and is increasing the percentage of enrichment on its stockpile of uranium, two steps on the road towards building nuclear weapons. Iran has also been trying to wreak havoc in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, threatening the oil supply from some of the world’s most productive oil fields.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bombshell news conference displaying evidence seized by the Mossad in a daring raid on the Iranian regime’s clandestine atomic archive in Tehran, which showed that Iran had deceived the international community by not declaring the true extent of their advanced nuclear weapons program, was greeted with a shrug by the international community. We were told that everyone knew that Iran had a nuclear program, that this was the point of the JCPOA—to stop it. But Iran’s declarations to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were to be the baseline of the deal. If the international community is so willing to accept a lie as the baseline to the deal, what else will Iran be allowed to get away with?
Following the press conference, Netanyahu presented at the U.N. General Assembly evidence of a secret Iranian nuclear warehouse in Tehran. As this, too, was undeclared to the IAEA, it would also be a breach of the deal, and a grave one at that. The international community initially shrugged this off as well. However, months later, the IAEA inspected the warehouse and reportedly found radioactive traces. If the reports are true, this is yet another undeclared violation, to go along with the declared violations that Iran has now begun to openly tout.
In the face of Iran’s breaches of the JCPOA, the countries party to the deal (minus the U.S., of course) met to discuss the violations. The verdict? Iranian non-compliance was not “significant” enough to warrant even starting the bureaucratic complaint process.
The fears that many Iran deal skeptics had regarding the JCPOA—that the deal itself would end up becoming more precious than the goal of a de-nuclearized Iran—are sadly being borne out by the behavior of the countries party to the deal. What does Iran have to do before the international community will decide that a “significant” breach of its nuclear commitments has been made?
Oren Drori is the Program Officer for United Nations Affairs at B’nai B’rith International where he supports advocacy and programming efforts that advance B’nai B’rith’s goals at the U.N., which include: defending Israel, combating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and promoting global human rights and humanitarian concerns. He received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota in 2004 and an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago in 2006. Click here to view more of his additional content.
As everyone is aware from the news, student loan debt is an enormous problem in this country. A whopping 44 million people have incurred a total of $1.5 trillion in debt. And yes, you read correctly, that’s trillion with a T! Most people associate this crisis with young people in their 20s and 30s. However, there is a rapidly growing population of older Americans who are being crippled by student loan debt. Surprising as it may sound, student loan debt is hurting seniors at an alarming rate.
Now, you are probably saying to yourself, how can that be? How is it possible that people 60+ have not paid back debt incurred in their 20s? First, the student loan debt drowning older Americans was not incurred during their 20s. Seniors with debt tend to be:
1) individuals who took out or cosigned loans to help finance their child or grandchild’s college education, or
2) people who went back to school during the Great Recession in 2008 to improve their marketability for future employers.
These two factors have led to financial hardship on senior citizens.
For example, the Wall Street Journal reported that people age 60+ owe $86 billion in student loan debt, and that between 2010 and 2017, this group’s student loan debt rose by 161 percent. Richard Cordray, former director of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB), said, “It is alarming that older Americans [age 60+] are the fastest growing segment of student loan borrowers…We are concerned that student loans are contributing to financial insecurity for many older Americans.” According to a report issued by CFPB during the Obama administration, an increasing number of seniors are seeing their Social Security benefits taken to pay back student loan debts, despite this being their only income every month. In addition, the report states that the increasing debt on the backs of older Americans has caused them to save less for retirement.
Recently, the American Association of Retired People (AARP) reported about Kevin and Tonya Bower from Kelso, Washington. They took out $75,000 in student loans to pay for their daughter’s college education, as well as their own. They both returned to college during their 40s because of the negative impact the Great Recession had on their careers. Kevin returned to public school to get a bachelor’s degree in business, organizational management and leadership, while Tonya returned to school for a two-year degree in web and graphic design. Although the couple refinanced their loans, they have been forced to reduce their 401(k) contributions due to their $700 monthly loan payments.
Obviously, the government’s ability to garnish your Social Security if you are delinquent on your federal student loans is problematic for seniors who are financially struggling. Thankfully, Senators Rob Wyden and Sherrod Brown have introduced legislation that would end the federal government’s practice of taking away Social Security benefits to pay back student loan debt. They feel that Social Security should not be used as a vehicle to pay back student loans. Senator Brown said, “Americans work hard to earn their Social Security and we cannot allow it to be stolen away by student debt…instead of going after seniors and the disabled, the government should be working to address the skyrocketing cost of higher education and provide Americans with relief from the crushing levels of student debt.” When a senior’s Social Security benefits are partially seized by the government, the effect can be particularly painful if the senior was unable to personally save for retirement.
Some people might argue that older Americans shouldn’t be taking out loans for their children and grandchildren to attend college. Why can’t these kids just attend public school? Unfortunately, according to U.S. News & World Report, even public colleges for in-state residents cost around $40,000 for a four-year education. For families living paycheck to paycheck, saving up for even state school can be a daunting challenge.
Education, no matter the age of the student, should not come with debt that makes a real retirement unattainable. Government at all levels should be doing more to ensure that older Americans can provide education for themselves and their family without risking their golden years.
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Assistant Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School. Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
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