‘We’ll Fight Forever’

Labour’s Jewish Supporters Won’t Back Down on anti-Semitism Row With Corbyn

‘Lots of things are corrosive to the soul right now in Labour, but to walk away feels like abandoning the community,’ says one left-wing activist, capturing the mood of many ahead of Tuesday’s party vote on adopting full anti-Semitism guidelines

Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn visiting a bus manufacturer in Scotland, August 20, 2018.
Jane Barlow,AP

LONDON – At the Jewish Labour Movement’s annual conference on Sunday, there were sessions on many different subjects, but really only one issue on the agenda: Labour’s apparent descent under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn into a party plagued by anti-Semitism.

This is a fraught week for the U.K.’s main left-wing party. Tuesday sees a National Executive Committee vote on whether to adopt the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. A previous version that omitted four of the 11 working examples of “contemporary anti-Semitism,” some related to criticism of Israel, was roundly rejected by the Jewish community.

From the day’s most headline-grabbing speech – a passionate address from former Prime Minister Gordon Brown – to conversations around the inevitable salmon bagels at lunchtime, delegates to the Labour affiliate conference were united. Nothing less than full acceptance of the IHRA definition would do.

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“I’m continuing to be optimistic that the NEC will do the right thing and adopt the IHRA definition in full,” Wes Streeting, a non-Jewish MP who is a high-profile Corbyn critic, told Haaretz.

“They can’t fudge their way through it with caveats and get-out-of-jail-free cards. What matters is that it carries the confidence of the Jewish community.”

Streeting said the Labour Party is facing its greatest existential threat since the 1981 split that saw the creation of the centrist Social Democratic Party and helped keep the Conservatives in power for a further 16 years.

“Things are as bad now,” he said. “There is mounting press speculation about people preparing to break away. … It would be devastating for Labour and hard to see how a split wouldn’t lead to another term of Tory rule, if not a generation.”

The anti-Semitism crisis was at the heart of the divisions, he continued.

“Frankly, if we don’t sort out the problem, then there won’t be a party and we are not going to have a Labour government. The party won’t vote, people will walk away, support will fragment.” Streeting’s Ilford North constituency, in northeast London, has a relatively high number of Jewish voters.

In a sign of how close Tuesday’s vote may be, Corbyn postponed a briefing from MI5 head Andrew Parker – on terror threats facing the United Kingdom – in order to focus on the NEC meeting.

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“We are getting so many mixed messages [about the vote]. It looks like it’s going to be close, but there is a growing body of voices” supporting it, said Jewish lawmaker Luciana Berger, the shadow minister for mental health until she resigned in 2016 amid concerns over Corbyn’s leadership.

Berger has been the target of a campaign of online anti-Semitic abuse so astonishing in its intensity that, in his keynote speech, Brown praised her resilience in the face of “internet intimidation, internet insults and internet innuendo.”

“I’ve spent a lot of time over the summer working on issues I’m passionate about,” Berger said. “I’ve been trying to distract myself with my work. I’ve also switched my Twitter notifications off. Twitter is now a cesspit,” she added.

“I don’t know what will happen, but it can’t carry on like this,” said Ian Austin MP. “I’m amazed when you step back and consider how the Labour Party is convulsed in a row about anti-Semitism. How did we get here?”

Austin, the adopted child of a Jewish refugee who fled the Nazis in 1939, is himself the subject of a disciplinary investigation over an anti-Semitism clash with the Labour Party chairman, Ian Lavery. (Similar disciplinary proceedings against another Labour MP and JLM conference speaker, Margaret Hodge, were recently dropped: She had angrily confronted Corbyn in the House of Commons in July, calling him an anti-Semite.)

“When Labour MPs get together, they talk about whether it’s possible to stay in the Labour Party or is it possible to do something else,” Austin told Haaretz. “The onus is on Jeremy Corbyn. It’s extraordinary that he’s so far stayed silent or given half-hearted apologies. I never thought he was capable of leading the Labour Party, and the reason I didn’t support him is that he’s spent his entire career mixing with extremists and even terrorists and anti-Semites. Everything we’ve seen has proved my concerns were right.”

Communal arsenal

But some worry that as much as the community and its allies seem united in their insistence that there can be no alternative to the full IHRA adoption, there are few resources left in the communal arsenal. There was the unprecedented demonstration in Parliament Square against anti-Semitism in July, and the letter signed by nearly 70 rabbis across the entire denominational spectrum. But if there are further steps to be taken, an event that was basically a conference of the party’s stay-and-fighters was probably not the place to find them.

“I will fight forever,” said Laura Janner-Klausner, the senior rabbi to Reform Judaism, recalling previous battles between the Labour leadership and the far-left. Although she conceded that “this time they’re in charge,” she added, “I don’t think people should give up.”

“I still see a great many people prepared to stay and fight,” said Streeting. “If they want me out, they’re going to have to throw me out across the red line.”

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Adrian Cohen is chair of the London Jewish Forum and lay chair of Labour Friends of Israel. Although he believes that only “the complete adoption of the IHRA” guidelines would satisfy the community, he also added that “the Labour Party is not a holy vessel; there’s no absolute obligation to remain.”

He noted that though he remains firmly in the stay-and-fight camp, he has seen “lots of people leave, and it has weakened the fight within, as well as marginalizing their viewpoint in the process.

“Lots of things are corrosive to the soul right now in Labour, but to walk away feels like abandoning the community,” said Cohen. “If there was a fundamental realignment of British politics, it might be a different thing. If it was a progressive party that reflects my values and was not stained with anti-Semitism and there was a practical prospect, that would be a different matter.”

Cohen has little patience with Corbyn’s apparent fondness for outlier groups such as the newly formed Jewish Voice for Labour that seemingly give him a veneer of communal engagement. JVL has called the anti-Semitism allegations “a cynical attack” on the Labour Party and claims that the IHRA definitions are used to silence criticism of Israel.

“I am very skeptical about them,” said Cohen, noting that JVL was planning to co-host a meeting on “Corbyn, Anti-Semitism and Justice for Palestine” on Yom Kippur next week.

“I think they’re a synthetic organization, straight out of the Stalinist toolbox to undermine the Jewish community in all its diversity,” said Cohen.

Former Labour councilman Adam Langleben said Corbyn’s recently revealed comments from 2013, in which he seemed to cast doubt on how truly English a group of “Zionists” were, had been the last straw for him.

“I can’t join a campaign that would make him prime minister,” Langleben said. “There is the beginning of a full-blown, anti-Semitic grassroots movement” within the party.