Labour Pains: For Britain’s Jews, Corbyn’s Departure Doesn’t Mean anti-Semitism Crisis Has Ended

The party will have a new leader in April when Jeremy Corbyn steps down, but with the results of a probe into anti-Semitism due this summer, will that be enough to persuade former Jewish members to come back?

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British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking during a protest in London to oppose the threat of war with Iran, January 11, 2020.
British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking during a protest in London to oppose the threat of war with Iran, January 11, 2020. Credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/ REUTERS
Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled

LONDON – Two months have passed since Labour’s resounding defeat in Britain’s general election and leader Jeremy Corbyn’s subsequent decision to step down. But the departure this spring of the man whose leadership did so much to anger and alienate the Jewish community may not be enough to bring many former Jewish members back.

Mike Katz, chairman of the Jewish Labour Movement (an affiliate of the party for the last century) wrote in the New Statesman magazine recently there has been the beginning of a “rapprochement” for left-leaning Jews alienated by Corbyn. As proof, he cited the record increase in the movement’s membership since last December’s general election. There was now a “chance to rebuild the party and reset its broken relationship with the Jewish community that has for so long been one of Labour’s strongest supporters,” he wrote.

The truth is a little more complicated than that. Many new members are likely joining so they can take advantage of the party rule that allows affiliates to vote in the leadership election without joining the party itself. (The ballot opens on February 21, with the result set to be announced on April 4.) But based on interviews Haaretz conducted with left-leaning Jews and anecdotal evidence, there is still a long way to go before the community is convinced that a post-Corbyn Labour will change, or is indeed capable of doing so.

“I’m not willing to join the Labour Party while it isn’t a safe space for center-left Jews – which it isn’t,” says human rights barrister Adam Wagner, who joined the Jewish Labour Movement specifically to vote in the leadership election. “I’m more politically energized now because I see the importance,” he adds. “Counterintuitively, I appreciate the party more because I see what we’ve lost.”

Adam Wagner. Says of potential new Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, "Out of the candidates the community can work with, he is the best."Credit: Doughty Street Chambers

Community activist Natasha Isaac says her job as a barrister representing people on legal aid had made her passionate about the importance of progressive policies. But after agonizing over the decision, she eventually opted against joining the Jewish Labour Movement. “If I’m going to join, I want to feel like it’s a party I feel naturally at home in already – not where I need to spend time eradicating hatred toward me,” she explains.

Others like Adam Langleben, a former Labour councilman who quit the party last February but remained a Jewish Labour Movement member, say they cannot bring themselves to even vote for a new leader without seeing substantive change.

“The whole thing is emotional,” he says. “What happened in Labour was not simply a change in political direction; it felt like a personal betrayal and a betrayal of the historic Jewish connection to the party. Forgiving betrayal is hard.”

There is still keen interest in Labour’s future, though. An upcoming leadership event at a Jewish community center in north London sold out within an hour of tickets being released, and has since been moved to a much larger venue.

‘Really toxic’

For both past and present Jewish members of the party, the Corbyn years were traumatic following his shock leadership win in September 2015. Even among Corbyn’s opponents there were bitter divisions – between those who opted to stay and fight, continuing to believe that Labour remained a positive force for change; and those who believed the party was beyond the pale and abandoned it completely.

Sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris identifies February 2019 – when then-lawmaker Luciana Berger resigned from the Labour Party over what she called its institutional anti-Semitism – as the moment when the internal debate reached the tipping point. “That gave the signal that there was no more ‘stay and fight,’ and that’s when the infighting started to get really toxic – and it got even worse nearer to the election,” he says, referring to the snap election called by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in which Labour suffered its worst election result since 1935.

Keith Kahn-Harris, author of “Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity.”Credit: Zoe Norfolk

“If this had gone on for longer or if Corbyn had won the election, [the infighting] was on the verge of tearing us apart,” Khan-Harris believes.

The Jewish Labour Movement, meanwhile, charted its own path, calling out Corbyn’s inability or unwillingness to tackle anti-Semitism while campaigning for a select few Labour parliamentary candidates who were seen as allies.

It also submitted a devastating dossier of evidence as part of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s investigation into anti-Semitism in the party, following a formal complaint by the Campaign Against Antisemitism. The Jewish Labour Movement report, which included testimonies from 70 Labour staffers, included allegations that Corbyn’s office directly interfered in probes into anti-Semitic incidents. It described a situation where “the party is itself responsible for committing, permitting and encouraging antisemitic acts.” The findings are due to be published by the EHRC this summer.

David Toube, director of policy at counter-extremism think tank Quilliam, believes there was no way Jews could have legitimately supported Labour at the last election – unless it was to vote for specific lawmakers with a track record of action against anti-Semitism. But he still distinguishes between “staying and fighting” and “staying and capitulating.” Among the latter, he singles out Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of the progressive Jewish movement Liberal Judaism.

Rich caused a stir last fall when it emerged he had invited Corbyn to a Shabbat dinner – and was then photographed in the front row of a party conference event held by Jewish Voice for Labour – a tiny, far-left group set up in 2017 to provide “an alternative voice for Jewish members of Labour” that is often criticized as being “anti-Zionist.” Rich went on to back Labour’s candidate in the race for Finchley and Golders Green against Conservative incumbent Mike Freer and Berger, who unsuccessfully stood for the Liberal Democrats in a seat that has the biggest Jewish community in the country.

Luciana Berger, standing for the Liberal Democrat Party, canvassing with actor Hugh Grant in Golders Green and Finchley, north London, December 1, 2019.Credit: David Mirzoeff/AP

“I thought Danny Rich was appalling,” Toube says. “He was at the absolute opposite end of the spectrum from people who saw there was a problem and chose to downgrade their relations with the party – the stay and fighters who actually fought rather than seeing anti-Semitism as a second- or third-level problem.”

‘Quite angry’

Langelben tells Haaretz he doesn’t “judge people who made a different decision from me and decided to stay and fight. One of the many things Jeremy Corbyn has done to our community was to create a separation. People have called me a kapo in real life and on social media; campaigning for the 2018 local elections, I got not infrequent abuse from Jews,” he says.

Jonathan Lis, deputy director of the pro-EU think tank British Influence, wrote an op-ed in British daily The Guardian three weeks before the election on why, as a Jew, he was still voting Labour.

While accepting that there was a problem with anti-Semitism in the party, he argued there was no evidence to show that Corbyn himself hated Jews and that, ultimately, supporting the party’s progressive manifesto pledges took priority.

Lis says that while some in his family had been “quite angry” with the article, he was “pleasantly surprised” by the overall response. “Only one person told me that my great-grandparents would have denounced and disowned me on their way to the gas chambers,” he notes.

The anger wrought by the Corbyn era has also been channeled outward. Toube says the Jewish community’s new willingness to protest publicly against anti-Semitism demonstrates a much more muscular approach. “The British Jewish way of ‘Let’s not make a fuss in public, let’s have a quiet word behind closed doors,’ has been discredited and will be difficult to revive,” he concludes.

The community has already been proactive on the issue. Last month, the Board of Deputies – British Jewry’s main representative body – released a list of 10 pledges Labour’s leadership candidates needed to adopt in order to end the anti-Semitism crisis and heal a relationship that had been “all but destroyed.”

The pledges included the adoption, without qualification, of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism. When Labour previously adopted the IHRA standard in 2018, it added several provisos – including around issues involving Israel.

One pledge that drew considerable ire from the far-left media was that “engagement with the Jewish community must be made via its main representative groups” – a clear reference to fringe bodies such as Jewish Voice for Labour. “In other words,” editor Emily Apple wrote on the Canary website, “the party must only listen to certain voices. It must ignore socialist Jews. And it must ignore Jews who don’t support the actions of the Israeli state.”

All four of the leadership candidates – Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry – and most of those running in the separate deputy leadership race have signed up to the pledges. That includes Long-Bailey, who is widely seen as the “continuity Corbyn” candidate and, alongside Starmer, is the front-runner. Of the others, outsider Nandy – who became a lawmaker in 2010 and never served in the Shadow Cabinet – spoke out a number of times about anti-Semitism during the Corbyn era and recently called for the party to make its EHRC submission publicly available.

The contenders to be the next leader of the Labour Party: Emily Thornberry, left, Keir Starmer, Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey. Credit: Paul Ellis, AFP / Simon Dawson, Reuters / Adrian Dennis, AFP / Oli Scarff, AFP

Although Shadow Foreign Secretary Thornberry urged Labour to adopt the IHRA definition in full when the controversy erupted in 2018, she – like Long-Bailey – nominated Corbyn for the leadership in 2015 and is not seen as a close ally by the community.

The consensus among Jewish Labour supporters seems to be that a self-identifying “Corbynist” will not be able to heal the rift with the community. In the deputy leadership competition, the presence of candidate Richard Burgon, who notoriously once called Zionism “the enemy of peace” at a public event and refused to sign up to the Board of Deputies’ pledges, is also causing concern.

The best option

Many argue that the party has its best chance of recovery under Starmer, the former director of public prosecutions (the British equivalent of attorney general). Nonetheless, most agree that as someone who remained in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, he is also implicated in the anti-Semitism furor.

Like many senior Labour officials, Starmer acknowledged that the party had an anti-Semitism problem but refused to blame Corbyn for it, telling the BBC last October that he didn’t see the point of “personalizing” the issue.

“We’ve got a problem that there is anti-Semitism,” he said. “We’ve got a bigger problem that some people don’t acknowledge it. We’re working on that. We’ve got to do that collectively. The test will be whether those that have concerns, as Louise did [referring to Jewish ex-lawmaker Louise Ellman, who resigned from the party last October], feel that they can return to the Labour Party. When they do I will consider we’ve succeeded.”

Wagner says of Starmer that “if you take a hard look at what’s possible – politics being the art of the possible – out of the candidates the community can work with, then he is the best. Labour is a very legalistic organization, like student politics writ large. Starmer, as a lawyer, has a decent prospect.”

Wagner notes that it is crucial to recognize the unique nature of supposedly mainstream left-wing politics. “From outside, it looks like the Labour Party,” he says. “From the inside, it looks like a group of warring factions who hate each other more than they want to win power. Every structure is organized according to factions,” with further factions inside them. “It’s like Europe before World War I,” he adds.

The new leader will have to fight for control of those factions before he or she can come close to instituting the changes – such as a truly independent disciplinary process – that Jewish Labour members (and the Board of Deputies) have demanded. Winning back mainstream Jewish voters will be even harder.

“The Labour brand has become so toxic in some quarters of the community that, for some people, it will be a question of not returning for a generation,” Kahn-Harris says. He does not expect “a mass surge” of Jews returning, and doubts whether “there will be much healing within the community. But there is a sense of exhaustion after this massive outpouring of anger and fear, which might mitigate some of the fury.”

Wagner is more optimistic. “It all happened in the space of four years, so can be fixed in four years,” he says. “There are a big group of Jewish people who would go back quite quickly.”

Fellow barrister Isaac, meanwhile, believes it will take “real whole-scale introspection within the Labour Party, and some really strong leadership to not only sign up to but implement concrete change.” She adds that twentysomethings are likely to be more forgiving. “I can’t put a timescale on it, but I don’t think it will take a generation,” says the 27-year-old. “Jews are pretty good at dealing with trauma. My parents’ generation feel cut out, but I would love to be able to vote Labour at the next election,” she says.

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