Why Many British Jews Are Still Voting for Corbyn's Labour

Some radicals like him, some are party stalwarts, some are loath to see a Conservative government, and some believe a Labour parliament would house a wide variety of MPs

Jeremy Corbyn speaking in Rotherham, Britain, May 10, 2017.
Andrew Yates / Reuters

LONDON  — Even in an age of online campaigning and targeted Facebook propaganda, a lot of the British general election is still taking place the old-fashioned way, with the candidates and party activists going door-to-door canvassing for votes. Whether or not this direct contact actually sways voters is debatable, but it does give politicians at all levels a feeling for what the people think about their potential leaders and the voters a chance to air their concerns.

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For canvassers of the Labour Party in some parts of London, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow, there are neighborhoods where a mezuzah on the door means they are about to have a very specific kind of conversation. “You get it again and again when talking to Jewish voters,” says one Labour activist. “They say we could never vote for Labour as long as Jeremy Corbyn is the leader, and when I tell them I’m a Jew as well, they ask if I’m not ashamed to be canvassing for him.”

Seven weeks ago, when Prime Minister Theresa May called the early election, Labour leader Corbyn was seen as the party’s main liability. In the polls asking whom the British public saw as the most suitable prime minister, he was as low as 16 percent, and many of the party’s candidates around the country chose not even to put Corbyn’s photograph on the leaflets they distributed around their constituencies. In London, many Labour candidates used instead a photo of the party’s popular mayor, Sadiq Khan.

Since then, Corbyn has run an increasingly effective campaign, energizing the party’s base and nearly closing the once wide margin between Labour and the Conservative Party, but he remains a divisive figure for many around the country. This is doubly true for the majority of Jewish voters who believe there has been a rise in cases of anti-Semitic statements by party members since Corbyn's election as leader nearly two years ago. They have a very poor view of his past policies on Israel, particularly his embracing of Holocaust deniers and members of terrorist organizations including Hamas and Hezbollah, whom he called “our friends.”

And yet it still seems that a significant proportion of British Jews are planning to vote Labour on Thursday. Just as with any political issue concerning the Jewish community, they are divided into a number of tribes whose reasons for voting Labour are widely disparate.

On one end of the political spectrum are the Jews who support Corbyn; indeed some of them, members of communist and other radical-left groups, didn't vote for Labour in previous elections when the party’s leadership consisted mainly of centrist New Labour politicians. A number of pro-Corbyn Jews are prominent in the Momentum movement, an organization set up in 2015 outside the Labour Party specifically to support Corbyn and his policies. These include Jon Lansman, Momentum’s founder and an architect of Corbyn’s 2015 party leadership campaign. They have been engaged for much of the last two years in a wary conversation with the Jewish community, trying to convince British Jews they have nothing to fear in Corbyn.

Another group of pro-Corbyn Jews are the members of pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist groups in Britain. Long operating on the fringes of the established Jewish community, ostracized by many within the mainstream, they see Corbyn as a champion of their views and are ardently campaigning his cause. One of them, Jonathan Rosenhead, chairman of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine that has been calling for a boycott of Israeli academics, wrote an op-ed this week in Haaretz where he explained why as a British Jew he would welcome Corbyn as prime minister.

A decent party manifesto

But the majority of British Jews who will be voting Labour on Thursday will be doing so in spite of, not because of, Corbyn. One such tribe is home to the “always Labour” voters who cling to the belief that Corbyn and his cohorts don't represent Labour's true values, which they see as Jewish values. One of these is Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, the senior rabbi of Reform Judaism in Britain. As a daughter of a Labour MP, Rabbi Janner-Klausner is the type of person who always voted Labour, not just the British one, but the Israeli incarnation as well during the period she lived in Jerusalem.

“My hand will absolutely not be shaking as I vote Labour on Thursday,” she says. "Labour’s values are a direct representation of how I interpret my Judaism.” That said, she's sympathetic to British Jews who will find it hard this time to vote likewise.

“Rabbis shouldn’t tell people what to vote for," Janner-Klausner says. "I know a lot of people who are hesitant to vote because of Corbyn, and not just because of him, but because of the fact that some attitudes towards Jews and Israel within his movement have not been dealt with systemically and seriously. I certainly understand the dilemma, and even though I would never vote for them, I think it’s a good thing that many Jews today feel welcome in the Conservative Party. It wasn’t always the case.”

Another of these voters is Natan Doron, a local council member in North London’s Crouch End, who has been spending many hours of the last few weeks discussing these issues with voters in his ward. He's satisfied that the party’s manifesto hasn’t reflected the anti-Israel views that Corbyn once espoused. Part of the problem he says is that many Jews who used to vote for Labour now judge it mainly on these issues.

“There’s definitely part of the community that have the Labour tradition and associate the party with their Jewish values, but for wider parts of the community the main issues are anti-Semitism and Israel,” Doron says. “But the Labour Party has always been a friend of Israel and that’s why it’s important that in our manifesto there’s a clear commitment to Israel’s existence and security. And we’ve shown that especially in London with Sadiq Khan, who is seen as a genuine and trusted friend of the Jewish people.”

Other Jews see themselves as instinctively left-wing, not necessarily Labour voters, but don’t think much of Corbyn. “I’m voting Labour this time, but it was a very complicated range of emotions,” says Keith Kahn-Harris, a sociologist and leading researcher of the contemporary Jewish community. “During the New Labour years I voted for the Liberal Democrats. I was very disillusioned with Labour then, and the Lib Dems were much stronger on personal liberties.”

But even though Kahn-Harris feels more at home today with the more traditionally left positions, he's still wary of Corbyn and the cult around him. “I don’t like two elements about him. He certainly made friendly contacts with nondemocratic forces in the Middle East and elsewhere," Kahn-Harris says.

"And parts of his movement have a lust for purging the party of all those who don’t agree with him and his leadership. Ultimately, I’m voting for Corbyn’s Labour because the alternative, a Conservative government which will make Brexit Britain a deregulated tax haven and where the poorer members of society will suffer terribly, is much worse.”

Still, he can see why many Jews who are members of the relatively well-off middle class see things differently. As an observer of Jewish life in Britain, Kahn-Harris is concerned with the way the majority of Jews feel toward Corbyn’s Labour.

“If Corbyn does become prime minister, some in the community will resort to an apocalyptic language which is not warranted. Some will say all the Jews now have to leave Britain. That’s ridiculous, but we should be taking this trepidation seriously," he says.

"A Corbyn victory will be very difficult for many Jews; the mainstream of British Jewry may have got too used to living in a politically congenial environment where the community’s leadership has significant influence. There are influential Jews in the Corbyn movement but they’re not from the mainstream. The mainstream Jewish community and its leadership has been caught off guard by the rise of Corbyn.”

Liking your local MP

Despite this, Kahn-Harris believes that ultimately, if Corbyn wins, the Labour government will still consist of a wide variety of Labour MPs, many of whom with warm ties to the Jewish community.

This is the main consideration of another tribe of Jewish Labour supporters, the anti-Corbyn tactical voters. They admit they don’t want to see Corbyn as prime minister, but they believe in strengthening the Labour Party from within and making sure their local MPs who are not Corbyn-supporters get elected. In an April column in The Jewish Chronicle called “Why I’m still choosing Labour,” novelist Linda Grant admitted that if she lived “a few streets away, in Islington North, Corbyn’s constituency, I can’t say how I would vote. Probably not Labour.” Luckily for her, the Labour candidate in her area is someone she believes is truly supportive of the Jewish community.

That's the dilemma for many of these traditional Jewish Labour supporters. Are they voting for the local candidate they like or for Corbyn they detest? Ironically, in some heavily Jewish areas, it's the Labour MPs who are seen as close to Israel and Jewish concerns who are most at risk. In Bury South, for example, a constituency in Greater Manchester with a large Jewish community, many are predicting that the veteran Labour Jewish MP will lose his seat after 20 years in parliament. Ivan Lewis’ support for Israel is unquestionable, but he may be punished for Corbyn.

The Conservative Party has been trying to capitalize on this dilemma. In Ilford North, a constituency won in 2015 by Labour, the local MP Wes Streeting, a staunch supporter of Israel, is fighting for political survival. Labour’s margin of victory was only 589 votes, and Lee Scott, the Conservative candidate, sounds confident he can overturn it with the help of Jewish voters.

“Wherever I meet Jewish voters it’s clear they can’t vote for a man who honored the terrorist who carried out the Munich massacre and who shares platforms with Hezbollah,” he says. Scott doesn’t believe that his opponent’s pro-Israel views will change anything. “My opponent isn’t Wes Streeting. My opponent is Jeremy Corbyn’s candidate in Ilford North, and I have found very few people Jewish or non-Jewish who think Corbyn will make a good prime minister.”

This is a campaign that has brought dozens of Jewish activists rallying to Ilford North to save Streeting. One of them, Jacob Judah, a history student at the London School of Economics, says he went four times to canvass in Ilford after seeing Streeting defend Israel on television.

“As a Jew I think that values of our community, of taking care of everyone and making sure no one is left behind, are much better represented by Labour,” he says. “The Labour Party is bigger than Corbyn. We’ve been telling people on the doorstep that there’s no realistic chance of Labour winning and we are simply trying to save good Labour MPs.”

But isn't he worried that marginal seats like Ilford North will be the ones that deliver a surprising Corbyn victory?

“Look, I haven’t met one person in Labour who still believes we can win, but I still believe that a Corbyn-led Labour government will be better than a May-led Conservative government. And I almost left the Labour Party when all this anti-Semitism stuff came out.”