Many young U.K. Jews who support the Labour Party on social issues and are against Brexit say they feel like they no longer have a political home as the rift between British Jews and the party led by Jeremy Corbyn deepends.
“The news just felt like a punch in the face every time I turned my phone on,” says Amitai Landau-Pope, an Oxford University student and an active member of the Oxford University Jewish Society, about the recent strings of scandals plaguing the political party he once called home.
Despite being an avowed socialist and having campaigned for Labour’s Sadiq Khan in the London mayoral elections, he recently cancelled his Labour Party membership. Corbyn’s Labour, he feels, is no longer a party where he, as a left wing British Jew, can feel a part of.
The left-wing leader, a long-time critic of Israel and supporter of the Palestinian cause, stands accused of anti-Semitism, or at least of tolerating it. In the latest spat, tensions have been further strained after the Labour party adopted what critics say is a watered-down version of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, specifically excluding portions that related to the ways anti-Israel activism can be seen as anti-Semitic.
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The controversy itself is less hurtful to Landau-Pope than the reaction to it: Jews who denounce anti-Semitism in the party are being accused of undermining Labour and acting on behalf of Israel or of the Conservative Party.
Only this week, the Jewish Labour Movement, a Jewish group affiliated with Labour, has accused party leaders of trying to “censor” material it had planned on presenting as part of a discussion on the ways in which party members had crossed the line between anti-Israel rhetoric and anti-Semitism.
Young Jewish supporters of Labour seem to echo the sentiment. Liron Velleman, the Student and Youth Councillor for the Jewish Labour Movement, ran in municipal elections in May 2018 as a Labour councillor in the Hendon area of London, which is 20 percent Jewish. “Every time we went campaigning, we were told by at least one Jewish family that they used to be Labour voters, but can’t while Jeremy Corbyn is leader.”
For Emily Otvos, her Jewish and Labour identities are intrinsically entwined: She is the daughter of a Labour councillor in North London, has been part of the Jewish youth movement since the age of 10. “I view supporting Labour of almost equal importance to my identity as being Jewish, and I find that the current situation forcing me to choose between these two parts deeply troubling and unfair.” She is still a member of the Labour party, albeit uneasily.
Jake Keisner, entering Cambridge in September and a camp leader in the Reform Youth Movement RSY-Netzer, agrees, noting that the situation leaves young British Jews without any real political options. The bungled Brexit negotiations and Islamophobia within the Conservative Party, he says, make it impossible for him to switch sides, but the inhospitable climate of Labour is equally problematic: “I’m squeezed into the middle, or a non-existent place.”
Others believe the controversy surrounding Corbyn has been blown out of proportion. Jacob Goodman, who studies at Leeds University, says that the decision by the three biggest Jewish newspapers in the U.K. to write a joint editorial branding Corbyn “an existential threat” to Jewish life in the country, was "an unbelievable overstatement. What that is saying is that if Corbyn gets into power they're going to start rounding up the Jews again.”
At the heart of the controversy regarding the definition of anti-Semitism is Labour’s choice to adopt a code that does not hold, for example, comparing Israeli policies to those of the Nazis, or calling the Israel a “racist endeavour” or claiming that Jews are more loyal to Israel than their home country, to be anti-Semitic.
Failure to adopt the full IHRA definition is, according to Velleman, a “clear red line” for most Jews, who have accepted the organization’s code as a working definition of anti-Semitism. Conversely, he says, Corbyn believes the clauses would have stifled debate on Israel.
According to Velleman, one of the most “offensive” aspects of Labour’s conduct is that the party has blown off criticism by British Jewry as an attempt to defend Israel, while failing to take action against those accused of anti-Semitism through the newly adopted code.
“This is something the Jewish community will not forgive him for. The point of adopting the definition is that you take action with it. So if we don’t see people who should be suspended having action taken against them under the premise of the [new] code, there’s no point in passing it in the first place.”
Rather than trying to block criticism of Israel, Otvos contends, young British Jews from Labour are at the forefront when it comes to holding the Israeli government accountable for its actions. “We have led campaigns against illegal settlements, have used our power in Jewish youth movements to mobilize and release statements condemning what’s going on in Israel.”
Goodman, on the other hand, thinks Labour was right not to adopt the clauses linking anti-Israel criticism to anti-Semitism because they could create the feeling the party is stifling open debate: “The examples will make people resent Israelis and Jews, and think that there is a blockade on what you can say and what you can't say. It’s more of a cliche, but it’s better to have an open conversation.”
Brexit, minorities and the future
The increasingly tense political climate in the U.K. following the Brexit referendum has also put local Jews on edge. The 2016 referendum and its aftermath have polarized British society and since the vote, reported hate crimes have risen by 29 percent.
While Muslims have borne the brunt of racism in the U.K, for Landau-Pope, this atmosphere means that Jews should not only watch their own backs, but support other minorities as well: “While calling out anti-Semitism in the Labour party, we should look to our Muslim brothers and sisters and stand in support.”
He also says the the tense political discourse around Brexit, which has seen politicians from both sides being accused of being “saboteurs”, will have a longstanding toxic effect on British politics. Recently Corbyn critics from within Labour were accused of “indulging in coups and smears” by one party lawmaker, who said: “If it were not for the serial saboteurs we would have won the last election.”
Keisner feels that his sense of belonging in the U.K. has been weakened in the aftermath of Brexit. In his view, those who support the Brexit are part of a movement that is aiming for an exclusionary, Anglo-centric Britain. It calls into question the meaning of what it means to be British, he says, a conversation from which all ethnic minorities will feel excluded, and at worst, targeted.
Overall, there is an overwhelming pessimism among young Labour-affiliated Jews. Whatever the outcome of Brexit, there will be huge discontent, to which many will find simple, populist solutions, says Velleman: “And that in history has never gone well for us.”
Keisner thinks the future of Britain looks bleak. He says it probably lies with anti-Semitism-tolerating socialists or conservative elitists “who play monkey to a crowd of racists” - a reference to Boris Johnson, the ex-Foreign Secretary, and a possible candidate for the next leader of the Conservative Party who has been accused of stoking racial tensions with allegedly Islamophobic statements.
Keisner muses wistfully of what might have been if Ed Miliband, the Jewish former Labour leader, would have won the general election of 2015 against David Cameron: “There wouldn’t be Brexit, there wouldn’t be Jeremy Corbyn, and we’d just have a lovely, socially-awkward, Jewish prime minister.”