There is indeed a Jewish angle to Thursday's UK general election. Come to that, there is a Jewish angle to most things of interest. But it is far from the most interesting feature of the election campaign. In their accounts of the election Colin Shindler (Can British Jews Still Vote Labour?) and Anshel Pfeffer (British Jewish Voters’ Choice: Anti-Semitism Today, or Tomorrow) manage both to mislead and confuse, and also to miss the big picture almost entirely.
- British Jewish Voters’ Choice: Anti-Semitism Today, or Tomorrow
- Can British Jews Still Vote Labour?
- In Defense of Ken Livingstone
Their portrayals are consistent - a caricature of the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn as a lover of dictators, leading a team of ex-communists and fellow travelers, at the head of a party engulfed by hard-left entryists and infiltrators. His followers have an anti-Semitic reflex, which Corbyn doesn’t ‘get’ as an issue.
All of which raises a big mystery – how is it that the more the British public gets to see Jeremy Corbyn relatively unmediated by the media and its commentators, the more they seem to like him?
The Labour Party was expected to crash and burn during this campaign. Instead, at the time of writing, it is higher in the polls than under its previous leader before the elections of 2015. Corbyn’s own ratings have risen from abysmal to at least middling. This development is presented by both Shindler and Pfeffer as presaging a possible disaster for British Jews.
The big story that explains the mystery is different.
Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party because he represented, and the Party’s manifesto now embodies, a commitment to social renewal rather than individual self-advancement and a shrinking public sphere.
The recruits who have flooded to the party, now the largest in Europe, are not orchestrated by conspiratorial Trotskyites. No one is typical – but in my own constituency Labour Party those who have joined since Corbyn include a mid-career actor, a local GP, a PhD student, the owner of a guitar shop, a trade union official, a charity worker. There are 1500 of them! I personally rejoined on the day that Corbyn was elected leader, after an absence of only 28 years, having never been in my life been in any other party.
Corbyn and the ‘Corbynistas’ have been portrayed in the media as an isolated phenomenon, walled in by a deeply hostile parliamentary party and a sceptical public. But now it seems that it is the irreconcilables of the Labour parliamentary party who are increasingly isolated between an enthusiastic party membership on one side, and on the other a public that is warming to a politics of the possible.
With that perspective, how do those stories of incipient tragedy for the UK’s Jewish population look?
Let's start with that Corbyn interview in which he couldn’t recall some financial numbers that were in the Labour Manifesto. The Conservative Manifesto , however, provides no costings at all for any of its policies. Furthermore the Conservative leader couldn’t be quizzed on this absence because she refused to appear for the planned matching interview, instead sending a minister not quite of the first rank. In fact Teresa May has dodged every such invitation to public debate since the campaign started.
I heard that Corbyn interview, carried out by Emma Barnett, whom I have subsequently learned is Jewish, on BBC Woman’s Hour. Woman’s Hour is usually a reflective and civilized programme. This interview however was relentlessly hostile and even insulting in tone. Barnett's rudeness and partiality certainly deserve excoriating criticism; but not of course the Twitter storm of anti-Semitic commentary that followed.
There is no way of knowing who those perpetrators are (that’s the nature of Twitter). Yet Anshel Pfeffer has no hesitation in saying that ‘loyal Corbyn supporters’ were to blame. How does he know? Certainly any Corbyn supporters who participated were entirely disloyal. There is absolutely no reason that the optimistic and, yes, idealistic mass of Corbyn supporters would take this low road. The explicit inference, that Corbyn "enables anti-Semitism today", is as outrageous as it is unsubstantiated.
I jointly moderate a Facebook page which covers Israel/Palestine issues. We do get postings with anti-Semitic undertones every day or two (and delete them as soon as they are spotted). Surprise - there are indeed anti-Semites out there.
But what we don’t have in the UK is an anti-Semitism crisis. Three-quarters of politically-based anti-Semitism, according to the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee, is not on the left but from the far right. But in any case anti-Semitic hate crime makes up only just over 1% of all hate crimes as recorded by the police (figures from 2015). That’s 1% too much – but no reason to whip up alarm, to use phraseology like ‘awful dilemma’ and ‘ominous’.
There does seem to be a wilful tendency across the media to portray Corbyn’s supporters, Corbyn himself and his policies as if they were mindless or worse. The job of commenters is, surely, to critique the actual policies they disagree with rather than conveniently misrepresent them.
One example of this is Shindler’s statement that Corbyn’s policies towards terror in the West reflect “his [critical] stance on Israeli military responses to Hamas rocket attacks”. Maybe Corbyn would put it a little differently – basing his argument rather on the 10-year blockade of and repeated military assaults on Gaza.
Or consider Corbyn’s opposition to liberal interventionism abroad. Certainly he would say, with Shindler, that “the war on terror isn’t working”. But his argument is more forensic than this – that the attacks by the West on Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya have opened up vast ungovernable spaces where the jihadis have organised and recruited. That is – it is the war on terror that has, paradoxically, brought terror to the streets of Manchester and London.
Corbyn doesn’t have the decades of front-line media experience that most top-level politicians have had. He is quite capable of fluffing his statistics because he hasn’t learned the manipulative skills of avoiding questions he doesn’t have an answer for. But he does have principles, and sticks to them, and builds policies based on them. But it is of course far easier to attack a straw person than to engage with the real one.
Jonathan Rosenhead is Emeritus Professor of Operational Research at the London School of Economics. He is chair of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine which supports the academic boycott of Israel, and Vice-Chair of Free Speech on Israel, a non-Zionist Jewish organization that believes anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism.