The Jewish Labour Gurus Striving to Turn Jeremy Corbyn’s Reputation Around

Even though 92 percent of the Jewish Labour Movement backs the Brit’s challenger in the party’s leadership vote, his deputies cite ‘growing trust’ with the community.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn shakes hands with Rabbi Mendy Korer at an anti-racism rally in London, July 2, 2016.
Neil Hall, Reuters

It’s not an exaggeration to say that for most British Jews – and certainly most Jewish Labour Party members – Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party has been a toxic affair.

Some initially sought to draw a line beneath his history of unsavory links with alleged anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers, not to mention his “friends” in Hamas and Hezbollah, as he once termed them. Being a rebellious backbencher of the hard left was one thing, many thought. As party leader, he was expected to conform to different standards.

But his first year of leadership has been filled with an exhausting sequence of anti-Semitism scandals in Labour. Corbyn’s supporters insist that in many cases, incidents have been overblown or simply invented by an overwhelmingly hostile media. Fourteen members have been expelled for anti-Semitism, hardly an epidemic in a party that has swollen to over half a million under Corbyn’s helm.

And Corbyn is certainly popular in the overall party; he’s expected to be reelected by a landslide in this week’s leadership election.

But critics point to the leader’s slow and apparently reluctant response to one incident after another. They argue that his supporters’ suffocating focus on the Israeli-Palestinian issue has poisoned the atmosphere, with the term “Zionist” wielded as an insult no less than “Blairite.”

For most British Jews, who remain connected and broadly supportive of Israel, this is a bitter pill. Despite Corbyn’s repeated commitment to a kinder politics, when ideology becomes so hard-line, there doesn’t seem much room to embrace a broad range of views.

Corbyn is not without Jewish support, however; a Jews for Jeremy Facebook page has well over 1,000 followers. And key members of his team, including in the leadership of Momentum, a grass-roots group set up shortly after his election, are Jewish. They even argue that it’s Jewish values of social justice that led them to join Corbyn’s campaign and identify with his ideology.

Momentum chief Jon Lansman, a 59-year-old veteran hard-left party organizer, grew up in an Orthodox home in north London and happily declares himself an atheist Jew. There’s a long tradition of anti-Zionism in parts of the Jewish left, but although his views on Israel are critical, they’re far from antagonistic, and he readily admits there are issues with anti-Semitism in the party.

Back in January, Lansman – seen as the chief architect of Corbynism – gave an interview to the London-based Jewish Chronicle with, as he put it, the express intention “to mend and build bridges.” 

When asked last week how that process had gone in the following months, he took a long pause. “I think progress has been uneven; let’s put it that way,” he said. “It’s clearly taken us back as well as forward.” As an example, he highlighted the June inquiry into Labour anti-Semitism by veteran human rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti.

The report, Lansman says, received a “pretty favorable” reception, though he acknowledges criticism from some quarters that it did not go far enough. Meanwhile, the report itself was overshadowed by events at its launch.

For a start, Corbyn appeared to compare Israel to the Islamic State. “Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those of various self-styled Islamic states or organizations,” he told a press conference.

Rhea Wolfson, Jon Lansman and James Schneider.

Even worse, Jewish MP Ruth Smeeth was subjected to abuse from a pro-Corbyn activist and fled the conference in tears. Corbyn did not intervene and afterward warmly greeted the activist.

“Very unfortunate things happened,” Lansman admits. “It was awful; I was shocked by it. The attack was unacceptable, disgraceful.”

Weeks later the report’s author, Shami Chakrabarti, was awarded a peerage by Corbyn, a politician hitherto avowedly anti-House of Lords. Chakrabarti was undoubtedly well qualified for the position, but the timing appalled critics who saw it as compensation for delivering a soft-edged report.

Lansman acknowledges that “it made it look a bit more questionable than it really is,” but insists there was no relation between the report and the peerage. Supporters argue that any clumsiness is actually part of what makes Corbyn so attractive: This is the new politics not buttressed by spin and PR.

According to Lansman, the heart of the mass misunderstanding of Corbyn is a simple failure of perception. One senses frustration that the anti-Semitism issue has sucked so much oxygen out of the Corbyn leadership. It doesn’t help, though, when an opportunity to change perceptions was so mishandled. But it’s not all bad; after all, pragmatic alliances are being built.

“If you talk to organizations as I do, like the Jewish Labour Movement and the Labour Friends of Israel – I’ve been meeting with them on a regular basis over the last year – the relationship between them and Jeremy’s office has significantly improved and there’s a growing level of trust,” Lansman says.

Mainstream, not outlandish

Sources in the community confirmed Lansman’s positive engagement, even if progress remains slow. Last month 92 percent of Jewish Labour Movement members voted to endorse challenger Owen Smith in this week's election to lead the party.

As for improving Corbyn’s record on relations with Israel, it’s hard to shake off decades of baggage, though Lansman insists that any hostility to Israel has been exaggerated.

“The level of the strength of feeling about Jeremy Corbyn has no relation to his objective views on Israel and Palestine,” Lansman says. “He supports two states, he is against an academic [or] a general boycott. Yet he is treated as an outlandish figure when his views are fairly mainstream.”

When it comes to Corbyn and his Hamas and Hezbollah “friends,” Lansman is impatient, calling the issue a red herring. He uses Corbyn’s argument that “in order to make peace you have to meet people who make war.” He adds that Corbyn has since said he regretted his terminology.

Still, Israeli officials say they have no record of Corbyn ever meeting or asking for a meeting with any government officials before a recent tte–à–tte with Israel’s ambassador to the U.K., Mark Regev. This took place at the embassy’s request, shedding doubt on Corbyn’s claim of wanting to meet people from all sides.

“I don’t know,” says Lansman. “I don’t run his private office . He was a backbencher before and probably wouldn’t have been given many interesting meetings with Israeli government officials, especially given his attitude to the Palestinians.”

One thing that has particularly irked the Jewish community is Corbyn’s habit of raising anti-Semitism in the context of other forms of prejudice. The Chakrabarti report, for instance, was not expressly limited to anti-Semitism. Lansman says this simply reflects the demands on a man working up to 18 hours a day seven days a week.

“There is enormous pressure for him to deal with the issue of anti-Semitism and Jews, and he has devoted far more attention to the Jewish community than to others,” Lansman says, noting that Corbyn is a public figure in a multicultural society. “There is a kickback from the Muslim community and others, which has led him to talk about anti-Semitism in the context of other [prejudices]; e.g., Islamophobia.”

And he notes that Corbyn’s sole community-focused debate with Smith took place at London’s JW3 Jewish Community Centre.

That event went off with little incident, despite the occasional heckling from the audience. Corbyn kept his cool and stuck largely to the standard answers he has given over the last year, deflecting a question on whether he would define himself as a Zionist. He repeated that he supports Israel’s right to exist; he even said he admired Israel’s democracy.

Earlier this year Corbyn was criticized by Israel’s Labor Party for not responding to an invitation to visit the country. Currently Corbyn’s office says he has no time for such a trip.

“I have no doubt he will visit Israel at some point,” Lansman says, but adds that Labor chief Isaac Herzog’s offer “was not an invitation made in good faith.”

Former London mayor and Corbyn ally Ken Livingstone, currently suspended from the party for claiming that Hitler supported Zionism, famously said that in 45 years of Labour activism he had never witnessed an act of anti-Semitism. Asked if during more than three decades of involvement with the left he has ever witnessed anti-Semitism, Lansman pauses again.

“I would say that I certainly have seen some examples of what you could call low-level anti-Semitism. [Jewish] people being questioned on their views of Israel is undoubtedly a form of anti-Semitism – low-level but unacceptable. It still goes on.”

It’s not only veteran Jewish left-wingers like Lansman playing central roles in the Corbyn camp. Rhea Wolfson, 26, was put forward to replace Livingstone as a candidate for the National Executive Committee, the party’s governing body.

Wolfson, who grew up in Glasgow, has a long history of community involvement. A former president of Oxford University’s Jewish Society, she chaired the Zionist youth council and worked as an outreach manager for the New Israel Fund.

But when she ran for the National Executive Committee, her home constituency in Eastwood – the most Jewish area in Scotland – wouldn’t endorse her. “Eastwood is where I grew up and where my family is,” Wolfson says. “It was a very difficult situation.”

Former Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, an ex-chairman of Labour Friends of Israel who once represented the area, told local members not to vote for someone associated with Momentum, because of the anti-Semitism accusations, Wolfson says.

Many insisted that her nomination was pushed by the Corbynistas as a fig leaf simply because she was Jewish. Wolfson says this was no bad thing: “People say they only picked you because you’re Jewish. But we need a Jewish voice.”

‘Totally unacceptable language’

She also acknowledges that Corbyn has made mistakes and that “there has to be a long healing process.” As Wolfson puts it, the language Corbyn used when introducing the Chakrabarti report was “politically silly.” She doesn’t believe it was on purpose though. “Do I think Jeremy was comparing Israel to the Islamic State? No. But it was too easily misconstrued.”

“The average person I meet in the Jewish community is very skeptical of Jeremy,” Wolfson adds. “I get a lot of messages from people I haven’t seen for years telling me, ‘I think you’re making a terrible mistake.’”

That’s not to mention the torrents of abuse she gets on social media. She recalls one tweet suggesting that her party leader planned to put her in a gas chamber. It came from someone with a picture of an Israeli flag in their Twitter handle.

“It makes me angry and incredibly frustrated,” she says, admitting that some abuse has come from within her own camp. “It’s difficult when building a mass movement ,[but] I won’t let a small group of people tarnish it.”

Like the others, Wolfson is adamant that her Judaism has never been an issue on the left. “I don’t identify as a Zionist, but I’m certainly not an anti-Zionist,” she says, explaining her pride in working for the “fantastic” New Israel Fund.

“I have witnessed debates where totally unacceptable language was used, people railing against the Zionists. The left does treat Zionism differently from other nationalism; they are less willing to have a nuanced discussion.”

But that doesn’t necessarily mean anti-Semitism. “Zionism is incredibly misunderstood within the left,” she says. Abuse “doesn’t always come from a bad place, but from a totally uneducated place.”

Momentum has been the target of accusations of bullying, of being a cultish party within a party. It allegedly provides a channel for Trotskyists to swamp Labour. Newspaper and television reporters have filed “exposés” on life in the movement, with undercover reporters revealing its supposedly dark secrets.

Momentum’s national organizer James Schneider – a familiar face in the media – says he often gets “a bit quizzical” reaction from others in the Jewish community when they learn about his role.

“The way in which [Corbyn] and his supporters are presented is a million miles away from how they really are,” Schneider says. “|I can see why people in the Jewish community are worried and concerned; I don’t think it’s well placed.”

One damaging incident happened when Jackie Walker, deputy head of Momentum’s steering committee, was suspended in May after writing on Facebook that Jews were “the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade.” Reinstated following an investigation, she was unrepentant, blaming “Israeli propagandists” for a campaign against her.

Schneider defends her return, arguing that a fair process was followed. “It wasn’t a considered public statement – it’s right to look at context,” he says. The 29-year-old, who says he identifies as culturally rather than religiously Jewish, agrees that anti-Jewish prejudice can come in subtle forms.

As an example he recalls the media’s use of a photograph of previous Labour leader Ed Miliband awkwardly eating a bacon sandwich. He calls that “quite clearly anti-Semitic,” and he sees the scandals as part of a concerted campaign.

“In the last 15 months there have been different lines of attack on Jeremy and his supporters – wildly out of context, hugely exaggerating any kernels of truth and flatly lying, ” Schneider says.

Surprisingly perhaps, he highlights “really good” suggestions by Dave Rich, a researcher on British anti-Semitism, in his new book “The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism.”

These suggestions include ditching conspiracy theories, not using Holocaust analogies or hysterical language when talking about Israel, and simply recognizing anti-Semitism as a form of prejudice.

Still, it’s doubtful that Jewish Labour supporters, with their tradition of left-wing Zionism, will rush into the Corbyn camp. Over a year into a leadership that is expected to continue after this week's predicted landslide, relations with the community seem almost irreparable.

It’s true that Corbyn’s enemies are legion, both within the party and without. For some in Anglo-Jewry, Corbyn’s camp couldn’t say anything on Israel or Zionism that would satisfy them. And of course the right-wing media has lingered happily on anti-Semitism scandals. But that’s a long way from this being a manufactured crisis, as one prominent Corbyn supporter after another has implied.

Simple pragmatism may mean that relations with the Jewish Labour Movement may be on the mend. But it’s questionable if that can bring along the rest of the community. The fumbled response and perception of impatient indifference has squandered much goodwill.

“The attitude to Jeremy is not rational,” Lansman says. That’s exactly what his critics would argue.