The Rosh Hashanah present nobody wants

The Rosh Hashanah present nobody wants

Corbyn impact for Times of Israel by Jenni Frazer Sep 7 2015

He is the Rosh Hashanah present unwanted by the majority of British Jews.

But, barring accidents, on Saturday night, September 12, Jeremy Corbyn, the hard-Left backbench MP drafted onto the ballot paper at the last moment, will become the new leader of the Labour Party. And the behind-the-scenes unhappiness is reflected in the reluctance of many in the organised Jewish community to speak to the Times of Israel about the impact of a Corbyn-led Labour Party.

One Jewish MP “could not accommodate your inquiry at this time”. Others did not return calls or were reluctant to go further on what they had already said in public. Some who are familiar with the Labour Party’s inner workings would only speak unattributably. The lobby group, Labour Friends of Israel, (LFI) refused to comment until the result of the race for leader was announced. Would LFI invite Corbyn, as is traditional for the leader of the party, to its fringe events at the party’s annual conference in Brighton at the end of September? That is to say, the man who has pronounced Hamas and Hizbollah to be his “friends” and who, in turn, has been endorsed by them?

Jonathan Arkush, the relatively newly-elected president of the Board of Deputies, suggested that behind closed doors the prospect of how to cope with Corbyn is causing convulsions. He issued a statement to the Times of Israel speaking of “very deep concerns” on the part of the Jewish community about “Corbyn’s reported links to a Holocaust denier and other individuals with antisemitic track records and about his hostile views on Israel”.

Arkush added: “The community has also been very troubled by his seeming friendship towards Hamas and Hizbollah, which are both proscribed terrorist organisations. Any British politician in a senior capacity will not be taken seriously if he has any partiality towards terrorist bodies”. 

He called for Corbyn “to give clear, straight answers to straight questions and repudiate any sort of support for or links to antisemites, racists and terrorists”.
And he pledged: “If he is elected as leader of the Labour Party I will seek an early meeting with him to discuss the community’s concerns and start what I hope will be process of constructive engagement.”

In a somewhat muted response, Simon Johnson, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, would say only “the Jewish community has a long history of engaging constructively with the Labour Party.  We will seek to work with whoever is elected as leader next week and we will look to build a positive relationship with the new leadership”.

But while some Jewish leaders are wringing their hands at the prospect of a Corbyn-led Labour Party, there were indications that Corbyn himself was less than enamoured of the prospect of dealing with the Jewish community. His campaign has attracted a deluge of criticism from those appalled at some of his links and supporters.

The Labour MP John Mann, who is not Jewish and who is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Antisemitism, has received a ton of antisemitic abuse which he claimed came from those styling themselves Corbyn supporters. Mann told the Jewish Chronicle: “Jewish party members [have told me] that they had been accused of dual loyalty. I have very serious concerns about Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters. This began six weeks ago when I challenged the membership system. I said it was crazy. It seems I was right. I have been described as a servant of the Israeli Prime Minister, a Nazi Zionist, a Zionist scumbag.”

He complained to Corbyn’s campaign, which pledged to root out antisemitic activists. But last week the Jewish Chronicle, quoting a “well-placed source” in the MP’s campaign team, declared that
the unwillingness to deal “head-on” with the various issues worrying the Jewish community had come from Mr Corbyn himself.

The paper claimed that the reluctance, according to the source, was because Corbyn was “partly casual about Jewish concerns, partly [because he knows] hostility to ‘Zionist neocons’ plays well to his constituency”.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one Jewish leader familiar with Labour politics told the Times of Israel that “there is no point in asking for reassurances from Corbyn. We may well say that we don’t know what to do with a party run by him. But the party itself doesn’t know what to do. We need to see, first, how the Labour Party comes to accept this reality”. The leader was tentatively hopeful that if Corbyn came to power – “and I still think it’s an ‘if’” – then he would be obliged to change as parliamentary machinery took over.

Others were less sanguine. Heavy hints thrown out by Corbyn’s inner circle suggest that – despite denials – he may well move to “de-select” sitting MPs, particularly targeting those who have voiced opposition to him. Essentially this means that the hard-Left joins a constituency party and at the earliest opportunity pushes through a vote against the local MP, while proposing its own Leftist candidate in the MP’s place.

Among those in the firing line of such a move are said to be MPs such as Ivan Lewis, Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland and a minister in governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown; the two Jewish MPs for Liverpool, Louise Ellman and Luciana Berger; and the two Labour MPs for Ilford, Wes Streeting and Mike Gapes.

Lewis, who is Jewish, represents the constituency of Bury South, in Greater Manchester, and has a large number of Jewish voters. Berger is a former director of Labour Friends of Israel, while Streeting, a one-time president of the National Union of Students, and Gapes, are both long-time friends of the Jewish community.

Lewis referred the Times of Israel to his blogpost when asked about Corbyn. He wrote: “I will not be voting for Jeremy Corbyn because on too many issues he advocates solutions which belong to the past and will not equip the country or the Labour Party with the vision and policies, which can rise to the challenges of the future. I fear his leadership would prevent us rebuilding the mainstream majority support of working- and middle-class voters, which is essential if we are ever to win an election. Some of his stated political views are a cause for serious concern. At the very least he has shown very poor judgment in expressing support for and failing to speak out against people who have engaged not in legitimate criticism of Israeli governments but in antisemitic rhetoric. It saddens me to have to say to some on the Left of British politics that anti-racism means zero tolerance of antisemitism, no ifs, and no buts”.

Adrian Cohen is chairman of the London Jewish Forum, a grassroots group which was set up originally to provide the community with a way of working with the controversial London mayor, Ken Livingstone. Cohen told the Times of Israel: “Judging by some of the comments appearing in social media during the election campaign, antisemitism has been allowed to flourish with little attempt to address it by large parts of the Left of the party which purports to be anti-racist”.

He forecast that if Corbyn won, there would probably be greater resources going to the Stop The War Coalition, of which Corbyn is chairman, the Palestine Solidarity Movement, of which Corbyn is a patron, and “more support in general for BDS, all of which is going to create a difficult atmosphere for the vast majority of British Jews given their association with Israel”.

Cohen put it starkly: “We are going to see a severe erosion of support from Jews for the Labour Party. Many traditional Labour voters will feel disenfranchised”.

Not everyone feels that way, however. A new ginger group sprang up last week calling itself Jews for Jeremy, which seems to reflect a genuine desire on the part of younger people for a shake-up in British politics.

Jews for Jeremy launched on Facebook at the initiative of the so-called “Socialist magician”, Ian Saville, who has already appeared at a Corbyn fundraising event. Two of his standard “tricks” are “the Class Struggle Rope Trick” and “the vanishing of the military-industrial complex”. In its inaugural statement the group said: “Crucially, as Jews, members of the group are alarmed that some unscrupulous sections of the media have sought to label Jeremy Corbyn as an antisemite, or a knowing associate and supporter of antisemites.

“Those who know Jeremy Corbyn and have worked with him believe that this is an absurd charge. Jeremy Corbyn has a long history of principled anti-racism, and has a close and amiable relationship with the Jewish community in his constituency. He has long had friendly contact with Jewish organisations throughout the UK and abroad. Members of Jews for Jeremy believe that these accusations are a cynical attempt to damage Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign, and do not think they amount to legitimate political criticism or debate”.

Saville told the Times of Israel: “Presently we have about 300 members. Among the group are religious and secular Jews, Israelis, people who have known Jeremy Corbyn a long time, as well as younger politically minded Jews. Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign team certainly knows of our existence, but were not involved in any way in the formation of the group… We believe that we have only just scratched the surface of the support Jeremy Corbyn has in the Jewish community”.

Shlomo Ankar, one of the Jews for Jeremy supporters, wrote an article for the Communist daily, the Morning Star, this week.

Shrugging off the allegation of being “a useful Jewish idiot”, Ankar said: “The Jews4Jeremy movement is just the start of what could well end up being a renaissance of Jewish socialism, especially among the younger generation…a petition, which aims to obtain thousands of signatories from the Jewish community, is being drafted and will request that the media stop using Jewish people as a political football to help the Tories win the next election by smearing Corbyn and the Labour Party.

“Most dramatically of all, the anger and disappointment at the right-wing agenda of the Jewish Chronicle has led to many younger Jews deciding to form a leftist, alternative media to give voice to those with socialist leanings within the Jewish community.

Ankar added: “One initiative that will be launched next month, called J-voice, has already united a number of Jewish activists and Twitter wizards, which aims to publish articles on social media that could successfully compete with the Jewish Chronicle”.

The confusion and anger felt within the Jewish community about the Labour Party can be heard when speaking to Neil Nerva, vice-chairman of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), the successor to Poale Zion and which has official, formal affiliation to the party.

Nerva acknowledges “the Jewish community can’t write off the leader of the Opposition” and says “we must engage”. But he is sadly aware that the volume of antisemitism voiced during Corbyn’s campaign has made many Jews wary, to say the least, of staying within the Labour fold. His answer is to call for as many Jews as possible to re-join trade unions and ask for the top echelons of the party to address the antisemitic wave and deal with it appropriately.

There is considerable fear that in a Corbyn-led Labour Party, those trade unions which have a boycott Israel policy in place but which have as yet not implemented it, will now be encouraged to do so.

Jeremy Newmark is vice-chair of Borehamwood & Elstree Labour Party and was a Labour candidate for Hertsmere Borough Council in May 2015. He is also a member of the executive of the Jewish Labour Movement and a former chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC).

Newmark is a well-regarded strategist within the community and he believes that “there is a limit to what central communal institutions can achieve… There will already be intensive behind-the-scenes discussions with allies and contacts across the broader Labour movement. There will be back-channel discussions with key members of Corbyn’s team. But more importantly, the localised, grassroots nature of this campaign bears out the strategic decision taken by the JLC after the 2010 election to devote resource and effort to strengthening grassroots political activism at a local level”.

Newmark’s advice is that “in a Corbyn-led Labour party, influence and power will exist in a much greater way outside Westminster. In order to shape a Labour Party that is sensitive to Jewish concerns the community will need people who are positioned and able to speak up and vote at local constituency meetings; people who are prepared to get elected and vote as delegates at party conferences; people who are able to engage with the work of policy forums and committees. All of this requires long-term investment in localised grassroots political training, advocacy and activism. There is every indication that JLC and others are working hard to deliver this”.

It is a long time since Jews have had that sort of engagement at the heart of Labour Party politics. To those who say that it doesn’t matter, as Jeremy Corbyn is unlikely to remain leader for long or win a general election, wiser heads are counselling: don’t write him off.

Newmark told the Times of Israel: “I am sure that there will be those Jewish Labour members whose first reaction will be to walk away from a Corbyn-led Labour party. I understand that. But that is the very response that will allow Israel’s case and our other concerns to be lost by default. It may well be that the Labour Party is going to be a tough environment for a while. It may even be the case that given the incredibly slim chance of Corbyn ever winning an election, national organisations take the view that they can afford to simply ignore the party for a period”.

But he insisted that in an area where the campaign against Israel’s legitimacy was being waged in civil society, in trade unions and NGOs, the stance of the Labour Party will still matter. He said: “The stance of Her Majesty’s Opposition also ultimately shape the amount of political space that the Government has in which to operate on many policy areas. This is why it will continue to matter that Jewish Labour members stay involved, stay engaged and fight the good fight”.



  • 10 September, 2015