Dr.Gerstenfeld’s article was originally published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), and republished here with the author’s consent.
HOW LABOUR’S ANTISEMITISM CHANGED BRITISH JEWRY’S ATTITUDES
With almost 60% of the votes, Jeremy Corbyn was elected chairman of the Brirish Labour party in September 2015.1 Since then, the public attitudes of many British Jews and their leaders have greatly changed. This was due to the reported range of antsemitic expressions from a number of the party’s elected representatives
Corbyn is an extreme left sympathizer of the genocidal antisemitic terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah. Many in Labour consider him largely responsible for the party’s resounding defeat in the December 12th parliamentary elections. Corbyn has announced that he will resign as party leader in the near future. This is an appropriate occasion to assess the important changes in British Jewry’s public attitudes over the past four years. Traditionally, the Jewish leaders maintained a rather low public profile. This made sense as Jews represent only about 0.4% of the country’s population. On issues of communal interests, Jewish leaders approached the authorities directly to obtain their support.
According to former Labour officials who dealt with complaints in the party, antisemitism was rarely, if ever, a topic before Corbyn’s chairmanship.2 Yet, later research found that there had been some extreme antisemitic remarks under Corbyn’s predecessor, Ed Miliband, These mainly came from Muslim officials.3 Extreme attacks on Israel were more common. John Prescott, a former Deputy Chairman of the Party, wrote in 2014 in the Daily Mirror that Israel “is acting as judge, jury and executioner in the concentration camp that is Gaza.”4
The first public complaints about Labour antisemitism after Corbyn’s election came in early 2016 and concerned a small group – the Oxford’s University Labour Club (OULC).5 6 Only key conclusions of the investigation of this body by non-Jewish Labour peer, Baroness Royall, were published.7 8 9 The full, initially covered up report was leaked a few months later, probably by Baroness Royall.10
In 2016, the public disclosure of cases of antisemitism in Labour gradually started to pile up. At that point, Corbyn charged the non-Jewish human rights expert, Shami Chakrabarti, with investigating it.11 Her report, published on June 30, 2016, was poorly composed and unprofessional. She also showed major ignorance about the nature of antisemitism.12 Shortly thereafter, upon Corbyn’s recommendation, she became Baroness Chakrabarti.13 It remains unclear when that peerage was promised to her.
The reaction of the Board of Deputies of British Jews—the official umbrella body and representative of the community – to the botched report was moderate.14 Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis had however, already in May 2016, said that the crisis engulfing Labour had “lifted the lid on bigotry.”15 After Corbyn’s conference on the Chakrabarti report on July 1, Rabbi Mirvis said that the chairman had caused “greater concern rather than rebuilding trust with the Jewish community.”16 Former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks called Corbyn’s words there “dehumanization of the highest order, an outrage and unacceptable.”17
Rabbis continued to play a significant role in the public opposition to Corbyn. In July 2018, sixty-eight Rabbis signed a letter urging Labour to listen to the Jewish community and adapt the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.18 This was an unprecedented step also because of the pluralistic character of the signatories. These included senior rabbis of Orthodox, Reform, Masorti and Liberal Judaism as well as Rabbi Avraham Pinter of the Ultra-Orthodox community. The letter was published in The Guardian.19
In August 2018, Rabbi Sachs gave an interview to the New Statesman in which he said: “We can only judge Jeremy Corbyn by his words and his actions. He has given support to racists, terrorists and dealers of hate who want to kill Jews and remove from Israel from the map. When he implies that however long they have lived here, Jews are not fully British, he is using the language of classic pre-war European antisemitism. When challenged with such facts, the evidence for which is before our eyes, first he denies, then he equivocates, then he obfuscates. This is low, dishonest and dangerous. He has legitimized the public expression of hate, and where he leads, others will follow.”20
Prior to the December 2019 parliamentary election, the former Chair of the Movement for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Romain, wrote to his congregation urging them to vote for whatever political party stands the best chance of beating Labour candidates in the election. This was highly unusual as the common practice is that Rabbis should refrain from suggesting how to vote.21
Many of the early strongest attacks on Labour antisemitism came from individuals. David Collier wrote that it was clear that Corbyn’s issue with antisemitism “runs far deeper than a few counsellors and MP’s.”22 Another person who spoke out against Corbyn was David Hirsh, a sociology lecturer.23 In 2018, he published a book titled Contemporary Left Antisemitism.24 In September 2016, the small organization, Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA), filed a formal complaint against Corbyn. It accused him and his allies of having a long association with antisemites.25 In March 2019, Labour member and scholar, Alan Johnson, published a document titled Institutionally Antisemitic. Contemporary Left Antisemitism and the Crisis in the British Labour Party. It details why Labour currently is an institutionally antisemitic party.26
Some Jewish Labour MP’s also started to gradually expose the party’s antisemitism. MP Ruth Smeeth walked out of Corbyn’s press conference on the Chakrabarti report after she was insulted by a reporter.27 Smeeth claimed that Corbyn had failed to intervene when antisemitic slurs were directed toward her in front of him. Smeeth later that year still defined herself as: “British first: ‘British, Labour, socialist, Jewish, woman.’”28
The Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) was established in 1901. It has been affiliated with the Labour Party for about 100 years. Initially, when the party’s antisemitism came in the open, it tried to muddle through. In later years, it became a very tenacious anti-Corbyn force.
Over the years, many Jews who traditionally voted Labour deserted the party. In April 2019, a survey by the Jewish advocacy group, Jewish Leadership Council, found that 87% of British Jews believed Corbyn to be antisemitic. Rather suddenly, many British Jews began speaking about possibly emigrating if Corbyn were elected prime minister. The survey reported the number as 47%. Even if one doubts that many Jews would actually leave the U.K in case of a Labour victory, talking about emigration was a radical departure from previous attitudes.29
A meeting with Corbyn by leaders of the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council in April 2018 concluded that Corbyn’s proposals “fell short of the minimum levels of action.”30 A few weeks earlier the two Jewish organizations wrote in an open letter: “Again and again Jeremy Corbyn has sided with antisemites rather than Jews.” On March 26, the Board of Deputies organized a demonstration outside parliament in London.31 In May 2018, the outgoing president of the Board of Deputies, Jonathan Arkush, said that Jeremy Corbyn holds antisemitic views. He added that British Jews were for the first time asking, “Do we have a future here?”32
In July 2018, the Jewish Chronicle, the Jewish News and the Jewish Telegraph, all rivals, took the unprecedented step of publishing the same front page. It stated that this step was motivated by the “existential threat to Jewish life in this country that would be posed by a Jeremy Corbyn-led government.”33
Others including Jewish personalities outside politics, Jewish leadership or activism came out against the antisemitism. British TV presenter, Rachel Riley, spoke out in September 2018 against Corbyn. Her mother is Jewish. She gave an interview after which she received much hate mail. This in turn caused her to begin thinking more about her Jewish roots while she confirmed that she is an atheist. She remarked that when people voiced support for Israel they were abused by antisemitic messages Riley mentioned that she knew of an unpublished instance of violence against a supporter of Israel as well as a suicide attempt resulting from antisemitic abuse.34 Tracy-Ann Oberman, a Jewish actress and Labour supporter who also came out against antisemitism in the party said: “We all get the death threats, the sex threats, the body comments.”35
The heaviest price for Jewish opposition against Corbyn has been paid by several Jewish MPs. Smeeth was not re-elected in the recent parliamentary elections. At Labour’s annual party conference as early as September 2016 she had to arrive with a bodyguard after receiving 25,000 abusive messages.36 MP Luciana Berger received thousands of hate e-mails by April 2016, some of which threatened her with rape or murder.37 In September 2018, she attended the Liverpool conference of Labour flanked by police protection.38 In February 2019, she quit Labour due to the institutional antisemitism.39 Afterwards she was defeated standing as a Liberal-Democrat parliamentary candidate. In April 2018, Smeeth succedded Berger as Parliamentary Chair of the JLM .A third Jewish MP, Louisa Ellman, left the party in October 2019.40 The only remaining Jewish female Labour MP is Dame Margaret Hodge. In 2018, she called Corbyn a racist and antisemite in the parliament’s lobby.41 In December 2018, MP Ivan Lewis, who had been suspended by Labour, left the party.42
The first parliamentarian to leave Labour due the antisemitism issue was Lord Parry Mitchell in September 2016. He said about Corbyn: “Jeremy has no leadership qualities whatsoever, his little group like him and they think he’s the Messiah, but he will never become the leader and Prime Minister of this country.” Lord Mitchell added: “I’m Jewish and I’m very strongly Jewish and I make no bones about it and there’s no doubt in my mind that Jeremy himself is very lukewarm on this subject, he’s never been as vociferous in condemning antisemitism as he should be. I think it’s very difficult if you are Jewish and you support Israel to be a member of the Labour Party.”43
In July 2019, the former general secretary of Labour, Lord Triesman wrote that the Labour party was “no longer a safe political environment for Jewish people or others who opposed antisemitism.” He added: “We may one day be the party of anti-racism once again but it certainly isn’t today. My sad conclusion is that the Labour party is very plainly institutionally antisemitic, and its leader and his circle are antisemitic having never once made the right judgment call about an issue reflecting deep prejudice. The number of examples is shocking.” Together with Triesman, a second Jewish peer, Lord Turnberg, resigned. 44
Soon Corbyn will resign. Chief Rabbi Mirvis has stated that antisemitism is there to stay.45 In the process, British Jewry’s public attitudes have greatly changed. What came out of the bottle cannot be pushed back in.
22 //david-collier.com/antisemitism-root-laboboduguardur-party/ from 10 May 2016