Opinion

The Great British Disenfranchisement of the Jews

Pushed out of the anti-Semitic left and repelled by the nativist right, Jews are now at a unique political disadvantage among U.K. minorities

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn walk through the Commons Members Lobby in Parliament, London. Oct. 14, 2019
Kirsty Wigglesworth,AP

Choose your poison. The anti-Semitic populist left or the racist, illiberal populist right?

You’re a British Jew. Who would you choose between a political camp which consistently dismisses and delegitimizes complaints of anti-Semitism and actively interferes with official investigations into them, or a political camp which glorified a crude, nostalgic nationalism, whose leader ridicules minorities?

If you had to choose between the mainstream left party leader who doubted whether Jews could be sufficiently culturally acclimatized to appreciate Britain’s tradition of irony, or the mainstream right-wing politician who accused the Illuminati and George Soros of interfering in U.K. politics, which way would you go?

Women covered with prayer shawls pray at the Western Wall, 2013.

If you had to choose between a leadership circle soaked in the foundational anti-Semitism of the U.K.’s militant left, whose revolutionary ardor embraces Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Putin and Assad, or a leadership circle running after the votes of the U.K.’s anti-immigrant nativist nationalists, playing footsie with mentors of the U.S. alt-right, what would you do?

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What if you, like two thirds of U.K. Jews, voted against an isolationist Brexit, but had to choose between a Conservative administration determined to leave the EU at any cost, and a Labour party led by an ideological opponent of the EU, whose Brexit policies have been a stammering joke? 

Soon, British Jews will face an unprecedented political quandary. For the first time in modern history, both major parties, in a traditionally two-horse political system, offer them a particularly repellent choice. 

The rise of a third party, the Liberal Democrats, a pro-Europe party which had its own anti-Semitism issues, but belatedly but firmly dealt with them, may offer a refuge to Jewish voters. But the fact remains that for the vast majority of U.K. Jews who don’t want to appease anti-Semites, racists and nativists, the options have never been narrower. 

The impact of the tortuous rise in anti-Semitism in Labour since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader in 2015 has been deep and shocking for U.K. Jews.

Members of the Jewish community hold a protest against Britain's opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn and anti-semitism in the  Labour party, March 26, 2018
TOLGA AKMEN/AFP

Labour members and elected representatives sharing neo-Nazi posts? Check. Blaming Jews for ISIS and suggesting they profited from 9/11? Check. Complaints about anti-Semitism are a witch-hunt, likely orchestrated by the Israeli deep state? Check.

Before Corbyn, around 33 percent of U.K. Jews supported Labour; that percentage has now collapsed to under ten percent. 86 percent of British Jews believe that Corbyn is anti-Semitic. 

The party’s record on anti-Semitism is now the subject of an investigation by a government watchdog whose only previous scrutiny of a U.K. political party targeted the virulently racist far right British National Party.

Last week, a second Jewish Labour woman MP quit the party, having faced a concerted barrage of hate and threats - and tepid, if not entirely absent, support from party leaders.

In her resignation letter, Louise Ellman describes how, under Corbyn  - who has spent three decades "consorting with, and never confronting, anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers and terrorists," anti-Semitism has "become mainstream in the Labour Party. Jewish members have been bullied, abused and driven out. Anti-Semites have felt comfortable and vile conspiracy theories have been propagated…The Labour Party is no longer a safe place for Jews."

On the other side of the aisle, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is an enthusiast of the same inciting, populist language beloved of his American peer, Donald Trump, forging a "channel for pent-up, nativist fury" against the hated "elite" - and shares with Trump a long record of racist comments directed at minorities. 

For U.K. Jews, Johnson presents a different kind of quandary than Corbyn: Johnson is a philo-Semite of the cynical kind, a loud backer of Israel, but comfortable with racist slurs against Muslims, people of color and immigrants, all the while bolstering nationalism and eroding the liberal values and rule of law that protects democracy in general and safeguards minorities in particular.

Johnson is keenly aware of the potent electoral competition from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, stuffed with a motley crew of hard right nationalists, Holocaust revisionists and replacement theory racists, and a leader who deliberately amplifies ultra-right personalities and messaging. Farage could become an essential coalition ally for Johnson after the next elections.

This political mainstreaming of anti-Semitism and nationalist exclusion have had real-world consequences. Hate crimes on the basis of religion against Jews in England and Wales nearly doubled in 2018, making up 18 percent of all religious hate crimes. Jews constitute just half a percent of the U.K. population.

But as well as the online prejudice and face-to-face intimidation now common from the Corbynist left and hard right, U.K. Jews face an even starker form of hostility from well-placed politicians and activists in both major parties - one that would undermine their physical safety. 

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage speaks during a Brexit Party news conference in London, Britain August 27, 2019
\ HENRY NICHOLLS/ REUTERS

It may appear bizarre to actively query the necessity of specific security arrangements for U.K. Jewish sites following 12 months of shooting attacks on Jews by white supremacists in synagogues from Pittsburgh to Poway to Halle, and a decade of Islamist violence killing Jews in Paris, Brussels, Copenhagen and Toulouse. Back in 1994, the London Jewish community itself was the target of car bombings committed by secular Palestinian terrorists.

But that too has happened - exposing how far the gaslighting of Jews has spread.

Close Corbyn ally Jackie Walker queried whether the Jewish community was really "under such threat they have to use security in all their buildings." Members of the the Corbyn-boosting Momentum pressure group she co-chaired explained that security guards were part of a Zionist scheme to "generate the fear of anti-Semitism to promote their own agenda." 

Just last month a Conservative MP, Crispin Blunt, suggested the Jewish community sought "special status" and funding, and rather than backing the state’s role in strengthening their security measures, declared airily that his aim was "to get to where faith and non-faith communities all feel secure." Indeed, Jews have been trying to get to that place for a couple of millenia.

The fateful, lingering question many U.K. Jews are asking themselves is how much other voters really care. Corbyn’s personal ratings are abysmal, and Labour under his leadership is languishing in the polls, but this seems to be largely due to his inability to articulate a clear position on Brexit and capitalize on serial Conservative failures.

MP Luciana Berger who quit Labour and joined the Liberal Democrats speaks in Parliament Square at a People's Vote rally calling for a second referendum on Brexit. October 19, 2019
AFP

The diminishing numbers of U.K. Jews who’ve decided to remain and fight within Labour fight constant disillusionment about the shallowness of support from the much-hyped "antiracist left" - as Miriam Mirwitch, the chair of Young Labour wrote on Twitter:

"Feel heartbroken by the number of comrades who supposedly oppose antisemitism yet constantly turn a blind eye to it. Allyship is a constant effort and a constant commitment. It’s not a phrase you can pull out just to help with electioneering."

Tory Islamophobia has pushed a number of prominent U.K. Muslims out the party - but less than a quarter of U.K. voters think Johnson is racist. Accusations of xenophobic manipulation and populism won’t sway his fervently pro-Brexit base.

Many U.K. Jews now see the Lib Dems, a once-maligned third party, as a political lifeboat. In the country’s most demographically Jewish parliamentary constituency, Finchley & Golders Green, a recent poll showed both Conservative and Labour losing almost 20 percentage points each, with a clear switch to the Lib Dems - up 34 percent.

Jews are now at a unique disadvantage among U.K. minorities. They have, effectively, lost the capacity to fully engage in politics on both the mainstream left and right without discrimination, intimidation or relinquishing key values. 160 years after gaining the right to vote, U.K. Jews are facing a form of disenfranchisement.

Esther Solomon is the Opinion Editor of Haaretz English. Twitter: @EstherSolomon