Two recent UK election campaign moments provide a window into the electoral dilemma of many British Jews: should they maintain their lifelong allegiance to the Labour party – or not?
The first, earlier this week, concerns a BBC radio interview conducted by journalist Emma Barnett with Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour party. When Barnett asked how much the party’s childcare policy would cost, Corbyn was unable to answer, despite consulting the manifesto, an iPad and a ‘phone friend’.
The responses to the embarrassing scene by loyal Corbyn supporters were swift – swift in terms of shifting the blame to Barnett and insinuating her Jewish identity was the cause of her journalistic perseverance. A trollstorm reminiscent of those orchestrated at Jewish journalists by the Trump-supporting alt-right erupted, of which this tweet was an example:
Corbyn himself was moved to condemn the abuse being directed at Barnett. But the incident highlighted yet again issues that have already dominated headlines over the past year: That ‘Zios’ are behind a subterranean campaign to undermine Corbyn by whatever means possible. Since surveys have indicated that 93% of British Jews identify with Israel and a majority embrace the label ‘Zionist’, is the Barnett incident simply yet another crude example of racist reactionaries posing as Labour progressives?
The second event was Jeremy Corbyn’s recent speech following the suicide bombing at an Ariane Grande concert, criticizing the West’s war on terror.
Corbyn linked Britain’s policy of liberal interventionism – in this case in Libya in 2011 – with the attack in Manchester by a jihadi of Libyan origin. It reflects his long-held views that ‘the war on terror isn’t working’. Instead it is only through rational discussion, preferably under UN auspices, between any warring parties that will bring peace. His reluctance to endorse any kind of military action extended to pinpoint British bombing of ISIS targets around Mosul in Iraq.
While unspoken, this view informs his stance on Israeli military responses to Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza. That is a stance that would be opposed by many traditionally Labour-voting British Jews.
Corbyn’s position is a long-held belief and a calling card of Britain’s far left. He was a dominant figure in the Stop the War Coalition, which emerged from that far left tradition to oppose the UK’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The chair of that campaign and close friend of Corbyn is Andrew Murray, a member of the Communist Party for 40 years. Only seven months ago he joined Labour to take a leading role in the last leg of Labour’s election campaign.
Several of Corbyn’s inner circle originally belonged to the ‘Straight Left’ faction of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1980s – those who disliked Gorbachev’s perestroika and the openness of the Eurocommunists, and much preferred the ideological rigidity of the old days.
Murray himself once worked for Novosti, the Soviet news and propaganda agency. He also argued for an ‘understanding’ for Stalin’s policies. Corbyn himself has regularly contributed to the Morning Star, the daily of the British Communists’ pro-Kremlin faction.
Despite the electoral success of Tony Blair’s New Labour, which airbrushed out of existence, the term ‘socialism’ and transformed ‘comrades’ into ‘colleagues’ the far left never died. Corbyn’s ascendency was a reflection of of growing disillusionment within Labour with the Blair era’s middle-of the-road approach which had attracted many floating middle-class Jewish voters.
Yet while Labour’s manifesto is in essence a return to Old Labour, its leadership is clearly not – it originates in the far Left, often from outside the party. The Corbynistas have been sufficiently astute to imitate Trump’s populism and demonization of elites and the mainstream media, but from the left. Its policies of renationalising the railways, water utilities, energy supplies and the Royal Mail have proved remarkably popular – in contrast to the Conservatives’ static approach.
Many Jewish students have backed Corbyn’s desire to abolish student fees. Recent opinion polls show that Corbyn is rapidly closing the gap with the Conservative incumbent Theresa May, and the election result may be closer than anticipated.
In terms of the simmering debate about anti-Semitic comments by Labour figures, there has been – at least in terms of the leadership’s rhetoric – an effort to calm the situation. At least for the duration of the campaign, it seems to have finally sunk in that most British Jews identify with Israel in some fashion and that a majority don’t regard the identification as ‘Zionist’ as a term of opprobrium. The Labour leadership are intent on avoiding public displays of disunity, and any arguments with the Jewish community, in the run-up to the election next week. Many of the more radical Corbynista pledges regarding Israel in the draft manifesto disappeared into thin air in the final version.
In part this has been due to the efforts of a resurgent in-house Jewish participation and campaigning in the form of the Jewish Labour Movement, under the leadership of Jeremy Newmark, a well-known and kippa-wearing community figure. Newmark and his deputy are both standing as candidates in constituencies with sizeable Jewish populations – in Finchley and Hendon
Their candidatures have clearly annoyed many on the Jewish Right who see a vote for Labour as a vote of confidence in Corbyn and the far left, rather than a statement of support for a worthy local candidate.
The UK vote comes at a testing time for Labour Zionists. Many are concerned that Israel’s leadership sees the attainment of peace serving as little more than a rhetorical device and signaling a retreat from universalist values – values which matter to Diaspora Jews who, after all, live amongst non-Jews.
With a return to time-honoured Labour aspirations and a watered-down stand on Israel-Palestine, Labour may meet a greater receptivity amongst those Jewish voters who feel increasingly alienated by the policies of the Netanyahu government. It may well persuade them to hold their collective nose – despite Corbyn’s profound pro-Palestinian inclinations – and vote Labour regardless.
If the opinion polls are correct, and Corbyn does well even if he doesn’t win, the far Left will not be ousted from Labour’s leadership. The continuing saga of Corbynista control of Labour may well prove to be the deciding factor for British Jews and their relationship with Labour more than the actual election result itself.
Ha’aretz 1 June 2017