Opinion

This Week British Jews Bravely Stood Up to Labour's anti-Semitism. It Was a Tragic Failure

British Jews are U.S. Jews' poor kid brother. But I have never seen my Jewish community so assertive and united against Jeremy Corbyn’s normalization of anti-Semitism; I have also never seen Jews so powerless

British Jews at a protest against Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and anti-Semitism in the party, outside the Houses of Parliament, London, March 26, 2018.
Tolga Akmen/AFP

I joined the Labour Party under Ed Miliband. I have campaigned in two general elections, in dozens of local elections and leafletting drives and have been active in my university Labour club since I joined the party in 2013. I was confident in my Jewish identity, and my Labour values. But I have handed in my membership card.

I left Labour, not because my values or ideology changed. Rather, my Jewishness is an important part of my identity. It would be intellectually dishonest to encourage strangers to vote in Jeremy Corbyn as Britain’s next prime minister, when I would be deeply uneasy about a Corbyn premiership and its ramifications for the country's Jews.

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British Jewry is a modest community, and it has much to be modest about. It has never been as intellectually creative as American Jewry, nor as assertive as French Jewry. As the poorer kid brother of American Jews, Britain’s Jews’ achievements can be embodied, rather tragically, in Ed Miliband and Oliver Letwin. Rabbi Johnathan Wittenberg, the senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism in Britain, notes with regret that, “Labour has traditionally held socialist values, and these are values that Jews empathize with.”

Yet, in the last two years, as Anglo-Saxon Jewry has been hit by a wave of conspiracy theories, British Jewry has been brave. It has undergone a renaissance of sorts. More assertive, British Jews have united and stood up for themselves in a way that our American cousins have not. The fact that roughly one in every 200 British Jews turned out, with less than 24 hours’ notice, on Monday evening to stand against the rise in anti-Semitism in the Labour Party is perhaps a sign of the changing times.

This low-key watershed on an overcast Monday evening was triggered by what seemed to be, yet again, the yet another round in an ever-increasing list of either anti-Semitic developments or blindness to anti-Semitism from the Labour membership and leadership.

A screenshot of Jeremy Corbyn commenting on a mural deemed to be anti-Semitic.

The case at issue was a Facebook comment by Jeremy Corbyn in 2012, opposing the removal of a mural depicting "Protocols of the Elders of Zion"-style Jewish financiers playing chess on the backs of naked workers. However, said one protester on Monday, “There could have been other catalysts. It’s an accumulation of events and events.”

In response, Britain’s largest and most respected Jewish institutions, the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council, published an open letter, alleging that “again and again, Jeremy Corbyn has sided with anti-Semites” and called for a demonstration. Never before have Jewish institutions called for demonstrations against a major political party, never in my, or my parents’ lifetimes has anti-Semitism been such a pressing issue for British Jews. Never before have I felt that British Jews have to reassess their place in British society.

There was something tragic about this bravery, tinged with a low-hanging sense of unease. British Jews charged Lancelot-like into the indifference of the British public, accompanied by a pat on the back by some 60 ostensibly virtuous MPs who, having shown their faces crossed the street back to Parliament fully expecting nothing to change.

Protesters hold placards and flags during a demonstration, organised by the British Board of Jewish Deputies for those who oppose anti-Semitism, in Parliament Square in London, Britain, March 26, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
\ HENRY NICHOLLS/ REUTERS

This collective shrug is what has made me anxious. Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-Semitism has normalized anti-Semitism and discussion of it in British society to the extent that it barely registers. On Sunday, the BBC’s "News at Ten" led with an Australian cricket scandal.

A refrain heard among those on Parliament Square was the degree to which this was perceived as a Jewish-only issue. The perception of the virtue fest by Labour MPs, keen to highlight their moral uprightness, underlines the degree to which the concerns of Labour MPs and the Jewish community have drifted apart. I don’t need more solidarity. Solidarity without gestures is meaningless.

This demonstration was a sublime failure. I have never seen my Jewish community so assertive and united; I have also never seen Jews so powerless. This protest was an admission of failure – an admission that Jews have failed to influence, not been listened to and failed to make a difference on the left. How had we come to this?

At the small pro-Corbyn counter-protest, one woman told me that the #EnoughisEnough protest was “riddled with Tories,” and that, “this is not a conspiracy theory, but it is no coincidence that this protest is happening just before an election” – notwithstanding the fact that it has been less than 10 months since the last election.

From the inside, I have witnessed the tragedy of some parts of the Corbyn movement – which has so many positive facets – as they were taken into a leader cult, built on populist rhetoric and conspiracy theories.

Leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn at a regional conference at Newcastle University, Britain March 17, 2018
\ SCOTT HEPPELL/ REUTERS

Debate is structured around dangerously vague, conspiratorial ideas of “the establishment,” media control and the banking system. Anti-Semitism is more than just personal, base, a matter of dislike. There is less of a focus on the theory-grounded materialist thinking of previous generations of Labour politicians, which ascribed behaviors and power positions more to the dynamics and dictates of a capitalist system.

It doesn’t have to be like this. In the hour before the protest began, a promising third statement dealing with the mural and its fallout was released. In it, Corbyn addressed and debunked directly some of the old and new anti-Semitic conspiracies that have found a seam in some parts of the Labour Party. There is much to be admired in the Corbyn movement, in the engagement that it has created, its breaking of the intellectual mould of the stultified debates, and the revitalization of British politics that it has bought with it.

Corbyn must speak to the Jewish community, he should refine and give the promising statement that was released just before the protest in the form of a speech. Corbyn is respected, and people on all sides will listen to what he has to say.

The bridge between the Jewish community and Labour is on fire. If Labour cares about British Jewry, it must do its best to put it out. Only then will Britain’s Jews consider returning.

Jacob Judah is a freelance journalist and student at the London School of Economics.