Opinion |

Would a Corbyn-led Labour Government Pose an Existential Threat to British Jews?

British Jews are certainly more apprehensive now. But if Corbyn comes to power, it won't just be the fear of a creeping, sanitized anti-Semitism that pushes UK Jews to leave

Colin Shindler
Colin Shindler
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Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival in Tolpuddle, England. July 22, 2018
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival in Tolpuddle, England. July 22, 2018Credit: Ben Birchall/AP
Colin Shindler
Colin Shindler

To what degree should U.K. Jews fear a Corbyn-led Labour government?

The most recent wave of anti-Semitism accusations against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has once more brought into sharp relief the claim that British Jews will leave for safer countries. This comes after a survey published last year, covered widely by the right-wing British press, found that almost one-third of British Jews are thinking about leaving.

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Recent political events have had a dramatic impact on British Jews, who fear the security that comes with life in the United Kingdom may elude them.

Earlier this month, the National Executive Committee of the Labour party refused to accept the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism – a definition accepted by the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs and peers, and a plethora of public bodies. In response, the formidable Labour stalwart Dame Margaret Hodge called her leader, Corbyn, "an anti-Semite and a racist" to his face. Meanwhile, the fractious debate over Brexit has inculcated fears of a precipitous economic decline.

Despite the otherworldly claims of American Jewish commentators and the breast-beating rhetoric of Israeli politicians that the 1930s are returning, British Jews are unlikely to leave en masse any time soon.

But British Jews are certainly more apprehensive – and given the lessons of Jewish history, they are taking precautions. This includes taking secondary citizenship from EU countries through parents and grandparents; law firms have been advertising their services in this regard in the British press, particularly the Jewish press.There has probably been an increase in part-time aliyah – people who are living, for the moment, in both Israel and the UK.

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In her book, "Where the Jews Aren’t," the Russian-American writer Masha Gessen asks when Jews should stay put and when should they run. She herself left Russia twice - first in the 1980s because she is Jewish, and again in 2013 because she is gay.

She writes that there is "only one right answer to any given question at any time. If you get it wrong, you may pay with your life." British Jews understand Gessen’s point only too well, but they also know that Britain is neither the USSR nor Nazi Germany.

British Jews are predominantly middle-class, owners of small businesses who have made good by their hard work. If Corbyn comes to power, it may be a change in their socio-economic status that pushes them to leave – not just the fear of a creeping, sanitized anti-Semitism.

When the Marxist Salvador Allende came to power in Chile in 1970, the Jewish business community by and large left, even though Allende’s election was welcomed by many Israelis. Allende’s death in the 1973 military coup led by Augusto Pinochet was strongly condemned by Israel’s then-Prime Minister Golda Meir; Allende had been due to visit Israel. Despite the ensuing brutality of Pinochet’s regime, many Jews returned to experience the bright uplands of a free-market economy.

U.K. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at an anti-Trump protest in London, Britain on July 13, 2018.Credit: \ PETER NICHOLLS/ REUTERS

Allende was no anti-Semite and certainly no Corbyn, but the Jewish exodus from Chile indicates that there are other reasons for packing up and leaving. Corbyn’s economic policies – as well as his empowerment of those who openly dislike Jews – create hostility on the Jewish right.

On the Jewish left, meanwhile, enmity is created by Corbyn’s inability to act as a mediator between Israelis and Palestinians and to comprehend that Jews possess an intuitive insight into displays of anti-Semitism – something Labour clearly understands when it comes to other ethnic groups.

Corbyn may inspire messianic visions among his supporters, but he leaves too many Jewish members of the Labour party stone cold. Entrapped in a far-left bubble and constrained by an ideological straightjacket, Corbyn’s relationship with the Jewish community has gone from bad to worse.

History demonstrates that a principled leader who understands and values the Jewish community - warts and all - is appreciated and will stem the urge to leave. In 1998 only 42% of South African Jews stated that they were likely to stay in the new South Africa. By 2006, after Mandela’s tenure as president, this figure was 79%.

Currently, many British Jews feel very strongly that they should stand up for a rules-based liberal democracy, an absence of authoritarianism and an independent judiciary. In this they join the majority of their American cousins who did not vote for U.S. President Donald Trump in 2016.

British Jews, living among non-Jews, understand that the values of a liberal democracy allow them to be different as Jews and to have freedom of expression as citizens. This understanding led Jews to be dissidents in the Soviet Union and to oppose apartheid in South Africa.

It is perhaps due to this innate sense of liberalism that there is still a stubborn rump of British Jews who remain in the Labour party and are determined to fight the ideological blindness of the Corbynistas. Moreover there is a large group of non-Jews within the Labour party whom many Jews feel should not be deserted. If the kitchen is on fire, the Jewish responsibility is to put out the fire, not flee.

Members of the Board of Deputies of British Jews (from left: Gillian Merron, Jonathan Arkush, Jonathan Goldstein, and Simon Johnson) following a meeting with Jeremy Corbyn, in London, April 24, 2018.Credit: Jonathan Brady/AP

Once, after the end of World War II, Zionist ideologues were the propagators of human rights legislation around the world, as James Loeffler’s recent book "Rooted Cosmopolitans" notes. They believed that "human rights precede human politics." Many British Jews bemoan the loss of such Zionist universalism in 2018. Such concerns, which are so important in the Diaspora, have been marginalized by the current Israeli government under the false flag of national interests.

If, as history sugests, Jews ultimately do feel they have to leave the U.K., will they come to Israel?

Since 1948, about 500-600 British Jews have immigrated to Israel annually - an immigration driven in recent years by religious considerations, rather than overt political ideology. Some 95% of British immigrants settled within the Green Line and not in West Bank settlements, as the October 2013 JPR report Immigration from the UK to Israel found. Meanwhile, the 2011 census suggested that there were 263,346 Jews in the U.K., with around 150,000 living in London.

While Israel itself is attractive, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel is not. Netanyahu’s illiberalism clashes with the core beliefs of too many British Jews – and indeed many Diaspora Jews. Only last week the Board of Deputies of British Jews released an unprecedented statement condemning the nation-state bill passed in the Knesset. Netanyahu’s leadership has proved to be the albatross around the neck of Diaspora Zionism.

The drama facing British politics is unfolding. The dilemmas facing British Jews are being defined. But one thing is certain: British Jews are neither naïve, hysterical nor unaware.

Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor in Israel Studies at SOAS, University of London

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