Why British Jews Voted for Sadiq Khan Through Gritted Teeth

The party’s current anti-Semitism crisis and the collapse of community support means it’s easy to forget that decades ago most British Jews felt that Labour was their natural home. What happened?

Sadiq Khan and his wife Saadiya Khan pose for photographers after voting in London, May 5, 2016.
Sadiq Khan and his wife Saadiya Khan pose for photographers after voting in London, May 5, 2016. Simon Dawson, Bloomberg

Many Labour Jews voted for Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London with a heavy heart. Khan’s past association with unsavory Islamists who were not shy about peppering their views with anti-Semitic tropes undoubtedly jarred. Yet during the election campaign Khan went out of his way to court the Jewish community and instantly denounced the view of his predecessor, Ken Livingstone, that "Hitler supported Zionism."  However, the feeling lingers – if he changed his views once, could he now do it again when in office?

Fifty years ago, it was all very different. Most British Jews felt that Labour was their natural home. The Conservatives, it was argued, had a streak of snobbish English anti-Semitism running through their veins. As the Conservative prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, pointed out after Kristallnacht: “No doubt the Jews aren’t a loveable people. I don’t care about them myself, but that is not sufficient to explain the pogrom.” In contrast, the British Left, together with the Jews, fought the local fascists in London’s East End in the 1930s.

Labour leader Harold Wilson was regarded as "a friend of Israel" and even sent his son to Kibbutz Yagur to learn Hebrew. The parliamentary Labour Party boasted of between 30 and 40 Jewish members of the House of Commons – a hugely disproportionate number, given the small number of Jews in Britain (around 400,000, less than 1% of the population). Gerald Kaufman, currently "Father of the House of Commons" (its most veteran member) and now a virulent critic of Israel, was Wilson’s intermediary with the Israel Embassy, admirer of Ben-Gurion and all-round uber-Zionist.

Wilson had been a follower of Aneurin Bevan, the acknowledged leader of the Labour Left (but never PM) in post-war Britain and the revered founder of the National Health Service. Bevan was a dyed-in-the-wool Zionist and threatened to resign from Atlee’s government because of British policy in Mandate Palestine in the 1940s. Bevan’s wife, Jennie Lee, a politician in her right and founder of Britain’s Open University, wrote after their visit to Israel in 1954:

“They gather in their own from every kind of area, none so humble, so diseased, so illiterate, so despised and downtrodden that they are not welcome. This is the kind of passion that socialist workers everywhere who have had their own experience of victimization and of exile through poverty, should particularly understand.”

The further left that was travelled, the more sympathetic to the Zionist experiment. Labour politicians such as Tony Benn were enthralled at the prospect of building socialism in Israel. They were deeply aware that the Allies may have won the war, but the Jews had certainly lost it. The survivors had crawled out of the camps and were constructing something unique in a promised land.

Today’s Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and indeed Livingstone himself, were members of the succeeding generation. A "New Left" that had not experienced the Shoah or lived through the rise of Israel came of age during the post-war period of decolonization. They understood the nascent Palestinian national movement in the context of other national liberation movements – and this mindset was in place before Israel’s settlement drive after the Six-Day War. The establishment of West Bank settlements merely exacerbated this outlook. The New Left was often indifferent to the right of the Jews to national self-determination. For them, Zionism was wrong, not different.

Such a view of Israel has moved from the political periphery in the 1960s to the center of the Labour Party in 2016. Corbyn has not been a mediator in the past in bringing Israelis and Palestinians together, but a facilitator of Palestinian hasbara. Like Sadiq Khan, he has shared platforms with reactionaries and looked the other way when anti-Zionism has tipped over into anti-Semitism.

One feature that has gone largely unnoticed in this current controversy has been the willingness of many Jewish liberals to now publicly attack the Labour Party. This would have been unthinkable a short time ago.

While many on the Jewish Right would say "I told you so," it is clear that there have been profound changes in the Labour Party during the last five years. For example, the pejorative term "Zios" is a recent introduction. Yet the comprehensive academic survey of the attitudes of British Jews towards Israel a few months ago indicated that an overwhelming 93% identified in some fashion with Israel. Who then are the "Zios" if not practically every British Jew?

The Britain of 2016 is very much an operating multi-cultural society. Many of the post-war and newer immigrants identify with an anti-colonial ethos. Moreover, just as a majority of British Jews look to Israel, a majority of British Muslims identify with the Palestinians. The Muslim population of the UK is seven or eight times as large as the Jewish population and thus far more electorally significant. It’s no surprise that all political parties, especially during election campaigns, take note of this.

The trade unions (a faction of the party with significant voting power) parachuted Ed Miliband into the Labour leadership in 2010 over the wishes of both local constituencies and the parliamentary party (who preferred his brother David). His disastrous tenure was marked by a new system of party membership which enabled an influx of hundreds of thousands. Many were young people who wished to rid Labour of the men in blue suits and return the party to its traditional values on behalf of working people. For others, this was a subtle form of entryism such that many members of the far Left found a new home. The unlikely figure of Jeremy Corbyn on Labour’s most peripheral Left was carried on a wave of messianic fervor to the leadership. 

Operation Protective Edge in 2014 was a turning point. The large number of Palestinian civilian casualties blotted out any rational explanation of the conflict. It was accentuated by instant and blanket media coverage in Britain and became a cause célèbre on the Left. The election of Corbyn last year was a psychological green light to what had been bubbling up below to overflow publicly. Social media acted as a loudspeaker. Ken Livingstone’s outburst, reminiscent of the mutterings of the white working-class far-right, was the spark that ignited the fire – and persuaded many Jewish Labour supporters to think twice about voting for Sadiq Khan.

While undoubtedly Jews have moved to the Right as a result of a growing affluence, and the philo-Semitism of Margaret Thatcher’s long tenure, there is also a widening schism between Labour-voting Jews and the party. Anti-Semitism is a live issue now for British Jews and Jeremy Corbyn is seen as an albatross around Labour’s neck. Some two-thirds of Jewish Labour voters have deserted Labour since Tony Blair’s period in office. A Survation poll for the Jewish Chronicle which was conducted this week indicates that only 8.5 percent of British Jews would vote Labour if a general election was held tomorrow.

Accusations of anti-Semitism and covert racism are an ideological dagger pointed at Labour’s heart, and it shouldn’t be a problem only for British Jews. While some members are being suspended and an inquiry has been established, will this be successful? Is it a political environment that is the problem or simply the opinions of a few individual members?

Perhaps the victor in this controversy is the depth of ignorance about the Israel-Palestine conflict among party members and an indifference to inappropriate and racist language – when it’s targeted at Jews. Education doesn’t only start with the young, but also with the ignorant.

Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London. His book Israel and the European Left was published by Century/Bloomsbury.