By Jack Boardman
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ The words of Charles Dickens, a man greatly concerned with the social issues of his day but blind to the antisemitic tropes in his writing, are strangely fitting for the paradoxical effect of Corbynism on the British Jewish Community. The ‘worst of times’ element is clear. During Jeremy Corbyn’s time as its leader the Labour Party was found to have breached equalities legislation in its treatment of Jewish members, many of these members left (including two members of Parliament). Across the UK the Jewish community wondered what the future held if an institutionally antisemitic regime was voted into government. A survey conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2018 showed more Jews in Britain were worried about antisemitism in political life than Jews in any of the other country’s surveyed (including Hungary and Poland). The ‘best of times’ is less immediately obvious. The shock of Corbynism politically and culturally energised the Jewish community and provided valuable lessons as to the nature of our allies.
It has been suggested, with good reason, that the Jewish community in other parts of the diaspora should learn the lessons of Corbynism in the UK. In this vein, I thought it would be worth noting down a few thoughts about the British Jewish community during and immediately after Corbynism and looking at what these lessons could be. I worked in several political jobs during the Corbyn years and eventually found myself managing the parliamentary office of one of Corbyn’s most vocal opponents within (and later outside) the Labour party. This meant I had a front row seat for the Corbyn-show, a show experience only slightly better than Marry Todd Lincoln’s. The fight against Corbynism would cost me several friends, my political home and eventually my job – it was also one of the most worthwhile things I’ve ever done.
Two Jews One(ish) Opinion
One of the most important factors cited in assessments of the British Jewish Community’s response to Corbynism was its unity of purpose. A particularly notable example being the letter from 68 Rabbis protesting Corbyn’s redefinition of antisemitism, the signatories ranged from a Haredi Rabbi to some of the more radical Liberal and Reform Rabbis. The range of religious opinion between the signatories was so vast, even involving who qualifies as a Rabbi, that it was remarkably hard for Corbynites to claim that it was unrepresentative or attack individual signatories.
There are two major representative bodies for the British Jewish Community, the Board of Deputies and the JLC (Jewish Leadership Council). The difference between these two bodies is mostly structural as many Jewish organizations are affiliated to both in different ways. Despite their lack of largescale representation from the Haredi community and from those who are uninvolved in any Jewish organizations they are comparatively the most representative of our communal bodies. The fact that both organizations kept a firm and consistent line on antisemitism in the Labour Party and worked together for events such as the protest on Parliament Square helped ensure the strongest possible response to Corbynism. The major Jewish newspapers also ran a rare joint headline in June 2018 underlining the community’s unity on the issue.
Corbyn and his supporters went to desperate lengths to highlight and sow divisions in the community thus better enabling them to dismiss concerns over antisemitism. A small group of far-left British Jews set up Jewish Voice for Labour and Labour Against the Witchhunt, although many of their members were already involved with other far-left Jewish groups. This was part of a tactic whereby creating more organizations padded out the number of signatories for letters seeking to misrepresent British Jews. There was a conscious effort by some on the left of the Labour party to promote these groups and to make them seem larger and more representative than they were.
At the same time as the antisemitism crisis in the Labour Party the UK government was seeking to introduce new compulsory RSE (the R stands for relationships, the E for education and the S will fall foul of spam filters) to the National Curriculum. There were some members of the Haredi community that actively protested these measures, especially when they had existing issues with Ofsted - the body responsible for inspecting school standards. Labour, although supportive of the introduction of compulsory RSE, pledged to dismantle Ofsted thus leaving any regulations harder to enforce. This was designed to appeal to both religious opponents of RSE as well as the teaching unions and lead some in the Haredi community to advocate for Labour. As a sign of how bitter the issue became, Haredi Rabbi Avroham Pinter z’’l was called a ‘Kapo’ in an email sent by one of Corbyn’s supporters in the community for daring to discuss a possible compromise with the Department for Education. The appearance of a few of these activists at Labour events and a somewhat suspect letter, supposedly signed by Orthodox rabbis across Europe, were used by Corbynites to refute claims of antisemitism.
Since the fall of Corbyn, and the retreat of Corbynism, much of this unity has dissipated in the absence of a common enemy. There was a bitter and surprisingly close-fought election for the Presidency of the Board of Deputies. Some of the more Right-Wing community members are attempting to form a rival organization whilst those on the left are pushing the Board to be more critical of Israel. The Jewish newspapers are arguably becoming more polarized with the Jewish News being the more left-wing and the Jewish Chronicle being the more right-wing. It is a good thing that there is a diversity of strongly held opinions, but it is important that this doesn’t get in the way of working together to oppose antisemitism.
The Mouse that Roared
There are around 5.8 million Jews in the US, there are over a million Jews in New York alone, in the UK there are less than 300,000. American Jews shout and protest. British Jews tut and, in case of emergency, write a letter. This is an oversimplification, but the two communities are notably different. To better understand British read Jacobson’s The Finkler Question or Shylock is My Name or Kalooki Nights (if you can get through the unreadable bits). If you haven’t already, watch or read Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews (seriously if you haven’t seen it - stop reading this and go watch it now). In light of this the change in the British Jewish community as a result of Corbynism was remarkable.
On 26th March 2018 the Board of Deputies and the JLC, both far from the most radical of organizations, organised an unprecedented demonstration against antisemitism in the Labour Party. I took a half-day off work and travelled down to meet up with my mother and attend the protest (Nice Jewish Boys protest antisemitism with their mothers). At the rally we found more Jews in one place then either of us had ever seen before. Having been involved with the political left I’ve been to a fair few protests and this was by far the strangest. None of the protestors quite got the chanting right or behaved as people usually did at demonstrations - but this itself was almost the point of the event. It is often explained that ‘dog bites man’ is not news but ‘man bites dog is’, in the UK ‘antisemites protest Jews’ isn’t news but ‘Jews protest antisemites’ certainly is. The sight of hundreds of somewhat disgruntled but eminently polite Jews protesting for the first time in decades (or for some of them ever) helped get the item on the news agenda. This is a trick with diminishing returns and subsequent protests got less coverage, but it still proves a point.
The fact that Jewish public figures also became more open about their Jewishness and Labour’s antisemitism was a further unusual and therefore helpful element. This is particularly exemplified by Rachel Riley who is the presenter and star mathematician of the daytime puzzle show Countdown. Like many notable British Jews, she had previously rarely discussed her Jewishness. Riley also looks nothing like what many British people (unfortunately) stereotypically think a Jew looks like. She would become one of the most public voices against the antisemitic poison in the Labour party, to the point where she required extra security at her workplace. For many politically unengaged people the fact a celebrity, who otherwise spent her spare time encouraging children to do maths, would fight so hard for a cause caught their attention.
Another stark example of the effect usually quiet public figures can have when they speak out was the intervention of Chief Rabbi Mirvis during the 2019 General Election Campaign. As Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Mirvis has adopted a quieter and less outward facing approach than his predecessor. This is by no means a criticism; he deserves immense credit for his work in creating ground-breaking guidance to help LGBT+ pupils at Jewish schools. In this case his usual reticence meant that when he wrote, in a national newspaper, about the anxiety many Jews felt about the election it was a major news item.
Much of the British Jewish Community energy and mobilisation has continued, although some of it has been diverted into various other issues. However, the eventual removal of Professor David Miller from Bristol University and the rapper Wiley from various social media platforms, after their statements about Jews, shows that we are no longer anyone’s doormats. The question of the future will be how to keep raising the issue in newsworthy and effective manners.
Fight, Fight and Fight Again
I am not a natural fighter, generally if there’s a compromise to be had I’m all for it. I spent two years trying to work out a way of taking the edge off Corbynism and trying to reach a middle ground, it was pointless. There was no compromising with the Corbynites, only a slow series of retreats each more degrading than the last. The only way of stopping the antisemitism was to fight Corbynism. The war against Corbynism was gruelling, attritional and fought on many fronts. It involved people inside and outside the Labour Party, on social media and on TV shows, celebrities and Rabbis. However, what eventually got rid of Corbyn is the simple fact more of the British public voted for someone else than did for him.
No doubt Historians will try to work out what the most effective tactic was by Corbyn’s opponents. My view is that they all made an impact, sometimes you just need to throw everything at a problem and see what sticks. Different people can contribute in different ways, the group Labour Against Antisemitism complied hundreds (if not thousands) of pieces of evidence about Labour’s inability to address antisemitism. Academics like David Hirsh helped formulate a whole new way of thinking about antisemitism on the British left. The Jewish Labour Movement members who stayed in the Labour Party helped keep the flame of moderation and decency burning for after Corbyn’s leadership. Those of us who eventually left were better able to highlight the flaws of Corbynism to the electorate. There was no one right way, no single message but a mix of thousands of voices and contributions from British Jews and their allies.
Corbyn was not defeated on social media, or at universities, or in the Arts Sector but at the ballot box. Research for the US group More in Common suggests a distinct political group in America making up 8% of the population which it terms ‘Progressive Activists’. This group post a disproportionate amount of social media content as well as having a stranglehold over the institutions of the liberal left such as universities. It was a similar group in the UK that supported Corbyn and helped propel him to the Labour leadership. It’s important to remember that elections aren’t decided by this group (or their far-right equivalent). Elections are still won or lost on the votes of the politically unengaged and the permanently undecided. Most people in the UK are not antisemites, they are open to being appealed to, to considering different opinions and experiences. The extremes may be able to call out and pressure people on social media or in a university setting but a secret ballot is a different matter. It’s not just a lesson of Corbynism but of Ohio's 11th congressional district, political organization where the public can be involved is still worthwhile. The far-left are good at berating and controlling but not so good at winning elections.
Not everyone is interested in antisemitism, but the joy of a figure like Corbyn is that he has more unpopular positions than he knows what to do with. Many of those Members of Parliament who left the Labour Party also cited Corbyn’s views on Brexit as a reason for going. For some this was genuinely held belief, for others it was a useful issue where Corbyn was at odds with his voters on something of importance to them. The former Labour MP Ian Austin was a particular master of drawing out and exposing those parts of Corbyn that were anathema to the electorate. Austin is the son of a Jewish refugee and a tough political operator; British Jews are fortunate to have him in our corner. In one particularly effective piece he met with victims of IRA terrorist attacks to highlight Corbyn’s connections with some of the less savoury elements of the Irish Republican cause. Sometimes the best way to fight antisemites is to choose other battlefields.
I don’t know if antisemitism on the far-left can be defeated but I know that far-left antisemites can be. There are clearly lessons to be learnt from Corbynism and I hope this will be of some use in working out what they are. Most of all I still believe most people in Britain and the US are decent, moderate and oppose antisemitism. Here are the words of Molly, a pensioner from distinctly gentile Hampshire, in a 2019 vox pop: ‘I know who I’m not voting for … the Red Man [Jeremy Corbyn] … because he doesn’t like the Jewish people, and I don’t agree with that.’
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