Opinion

'Anyone but Corbyn': For Britain's Jews, Fear of a Labour Government Is Now Overwhelming

A 'poison…has taken root in the Labour Party': If you’re shocked at the Chief Rabbi’s tone, you haven’t been listening to UK Jews. But what to do when his opponent is a racist narcissist like Boris Johnson?

Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks during the launch of the Labour party election manifesto in Birmingham, northwest England on November 21, 2019
AFP

In that very British polite yet passive aggressive way, UK newspapers have recently been inundated with letters offering quietly strident opinions about the Jews.

One group of showbiz and arts luminaries wrote they would not be voting Labour because of its failure to grapple with anti-Semitism; a letter in response by different showbiz and arts luminaries declared Corbyn and Labour had done more than any party or leader at any time to address anti-Semitism

And now the UK’s Chief Rabbi has intervened, an unprecedented act by a faith leader before national elections, warning that "a new poison – sanctioned from the very top – has taken root in the Labour Party…[Jews] have been treated by many as an irritant, as opposed to a minority community with genuine concerns…It is not my place to anyone how they should vote. I regret being in this situation at all. I simply pose the question: what will the result of this election say about the moral compass of our country?"

It seems almost unbelievable, not least for members of the UK's tiny and historically timid Jewish community, that in the lead up to general elections on December 12th, "the Jews" are everywhere. 

In newspaper and magazine articles, in online arguments, on television screens – nonstop vocal rows about Jews. Supporting them, smearing them. Turning them into metaphors and political bullets. As subjects of solidarity, and as targets of conspiratorial theories about their "real" motives. As objects of reasoned political discourse – and of unmeasured hate. As triggers to call others liars, racists and apartheid-lovers. To slap them down and shut them up.

And then there are the threats which, in contrast to a lot of the noise, is careful to individualize the Jewish subject, like the warning I received, which read: "The Jews are bringing this upon themselves. History repeats. Be very careful or you’ll regret your words." 

In these cold, dark and damp days, in the run up to the worst and most frightening election of my lifetime, this British Jew would quite like to hide from the world under my duvet. How nice it would be if I would then wake up and see this had all been a dark nightmare. 

The experience of anti-Semitism is hell - and so is being constantly talked about, dissected, scrutinized - our faith and our politics and our preferences being tossed around as if we were a rugby ball.

We British Jews aren’t like our American cousins. We aren’t loud and proud, brash and boisterous about our religion and cultural identity. In general, we keep our heads down, knowing that we’ve already been thrown out of here once, that we live in the country that first devised the blood libel. Keep quiet and life will continue to be good. 

But none of us know whether that is true anymore. 

Britain is going to the polls in a few weeks to decide which of two deeply unpopular and unpleasant leaders should be our new Prime Minister. A feeling of dark gloom has settled over the entire country, Jew and gentile alike; we know that whatever we vote for, things are likely to get worse. One non-Jewish friend described the choice before us: "I’ll be voting for the guy I hate, to keep out the guy I really, really, REALLY hate." 

On the one hand you’ve got Jeremy Corbyn :an extreme left-winger who’s never met a Jew hater he didn’t love. He hasn’t just allowed anti-Semitism to go unpunished; under his leadership, it has flourished. 

Every other day there’s a story about one or other of his potential MPs or party officials sharing Klu Klux Klan material, calling Jewish members "Shylock," saying Jews should complain about anti-Semitism "more quietly" and trotting out the constant accusation that Jewish victims are motivated by a "Tory-Blairite-Zionist plot."

67 out of Labour’s own 179 lawmakers in the House of Lords even co-signed a letter declaring Corbyn has "failed to defend our party’s anti-racist values," and that a truer slogan would be "The Labour Party welcomes everyone*…(*except, it seems, Jews)." 

Corbyn has a penchant for terrorists, including those who bombed Britain during the Northern Ireland Troubles, thrives on a platform of envy and hate, and is a life-long ideological Brexiteer whose public position about Brexit, and a repeat referendum, is to pretend to sit on the fence. 

And on the other hand, you’ve got the equally dangerous and narcissistic Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose lies fuelled the pro-Brexit vote, who thrives on anti-immigrant rhetoric, who has a revolting habit of racist tropes and leads a party edging ever further towards the hard right.

Over the last decade, under Conservative rule, the poor have got poorer, the National Health Service is on its knees and schools have resorted to begging parents for money to fund core expenses. 

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a bull in the show ring while visiting the Royal Welsh Winter Fair during an election campaign event in Llanelwedd in north Wales on November 25, 2019
AFP

And at the center of so many of these political discussions, and not willingly at all, are Jews. The issue of anti-Semitism, and what constitutes an inclusive political system, allyship and solidarity, what voting ethically really means, has become a litmus test. 

Is hatred of Jews enough reason not to vote Labour? Are we prioritizing Labour anti-Semitism above the Conservatives’ racism and Islamophobia problem? How should you weigh saving the NHS, or confronting rising nationalism, with the palpable fear of a small minority community? 

I have lots of Jewish-born friends who grew up with Labour as their family religion. A few still favor voting Labour: they don’t believe Johnson is more dangerous, they want healthcare to be prioritized, they are deeply concerned his Brexit policy could lead to chaos, exclusion and even deaths. 

But almost all of the rest staunchly prefer ABC – Anyone But Corbyn. 

One, the daughter of a former senior Labour party official, is now out canvassing for Luciana Berger, the MP whom anti-Semites bullied out of Labour, and is now a candidate for Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats. This friend, who grew up campaigning for Labour, feels bereft. "There’s this feeling of not really belonging, which I can’t shift," she says. "I didn’t feel like I belonged in Labour towards the end, and now I don’t feel like I belong anywhere."

Between Jewish voters, the back and forth is endless and painful: If our core beliefs are about helping others, how can we put ourselves first? If we feel we are danger, can’t we put ourselves first? More often than not, it’s my non-Jewish Labour and ex-Labour friends who make me realise that asking people not to vote for an anti-Semite is not wrong

And that’s also because what has become an institutionalized racism is also a symptom of so much else that is wrong in the Corbyn project. 

A friend who works for the Labour party freely admits: "The idea of Corbyn as PM is horrifying. The leadership is unquestionably the reason for the rise in anti-Semitism in Labour, and I dread to think what would happen if he was PM. He is a disaster for everyone who needs Labour - which is why I don’t want Labour under Corbyn to get into government. I am staying only because I need to support sensible candidates getting on the ballot for the next leadership election." 

That same feeling, that an antidiluvian far left with baked-in prejudices has taken over, is echoed by my friend Kirstie, who was a Labour member but left over anti-Semitism: "One of the most disappointing things is that people whom I respected previously as anti-racists have not stood up for the Jewish community. Corbyn has brought his brand of crank politics into the mainstream."

Another pal, who was a member of Labour since the age of 14 and worked for the party all her professional life, adds: "I knew there was a filthy anti-Semitic stain on the Hard Left, but initially I believed that fundamentally the party wouldn’t allow that to hold. I started to notice the odd comment, a sly aside here and there about the Rothschilds, and soon after anyone who called it out was accused of 'smearing' and 'undermining Jeremy.' 

"The extent of it shocked me, and in the same way I wouldn’t share the company of people who are Islamophobic or chuck the n-word about, I couldn’t sanction it anymore, and I left the party. I am not prepared to throw Jews under the bus 'because Labour.' Labour doesn’t exist anymore if it turns a blind eye to racism."

Jews are often called the "canary in the coal mine" for the health of an open society. Canaries, as birds particularly susceptible to toxic gases, were sent down mines first to ensure they were safe for humans to work in. The theory goes that spiking anti-Semitism is an early warning system for a wider sickness in society.

In the UK, we’re far past the initial warning stages - but the system isn’t working. Not only is anti-Semitism being denied, it’s being weaponized and thrown back in our faces.

If you’re shocked at the rising tone of concern from British Jews, by the Chief Rabbi’s intervention, about what kind of society we are becoming, you haven’t been listening – but don’t be shocked that British Jews are refusing to be the passive, caged canaries of a wild political experiment any more.

Nicole Lampert is a London-based journalist who has written for the Daily Mail, The Spectator, The Independent and The Sun. Twitter: @nicolelampert