Hurt and hope: For left-wing British Jews, UK election is a moment of reckoning

With the U.K. at its most divided in living memory, progressive British Jews are facing a choice between a socialist Labour Party beset by anti-Semitism scandals and a Conservative Party empowering the far right, while battling communal divisions over political allegiances.

When Rob Abrams made it known that he would be voting for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the upcoming elections, some in his community called him a “kapo,” the term used to describe Jewish collaborators in Nazi concentration camps. One person told him that he hoped Abrams’ mother would say Kaddish, the Jewish mourner’s prayer, over him in the near future.

“It’s very painful, I feel very much stuck between a rock and a hard place,” says Abrams, a British Jewish left-wing and anti-occupation activist based in London. “On the one hand I get accused by people of being this and that and of seeing anti-Semitism everywhere, and on the other side I see people who don’t see anti-Semitism.”

Abrams is one of over 260,000 British Jews who on Dec. 12, along with the rest of the British electorate, will be choosing between incumbent prime minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative party and the Labour Party headed by socialist Jeremy Corbyn.

While much of the attention has been on their parties’ approaches to Brexit, the NHS, taxation, and the climate crisis, there has also been considerable focus on the U.K.’s small Jewish minority and the allegations of anti-Semitism within Labour’s ranks that have engulfed the party. While not isolated to his reign, since Corbyn’s rise to leadership in 2015, the party has been rocked by repeated accusations — and a subsequent media storm — that have drastically intensified in the run-up to this election.

On Nov. 7, a front-page letter in the Jewish Chronicle, the British-Jewish newspaper of record, called on non-Jewish Brits not to vote for Labour, citing that 87 percent of British Jews consider Corbyn to be an anti-Semite, and that 47 percent would “seriously consider” emigrating should he be elected prime minister. A similar sentiment was echoed by U.K. Chief Rabbi Efraim Mirvis a few weeks later, when he broke with convention to declare Corbyn “unfit for high office.”

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis speaking in London, March 24, 2015. (Foreign and Commonwealth Office – Chief Rabbi/CC 2.0)
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis speaking in London, March 24, 2015. (Foreign and Commonwealth Office – Chief Rabbi/CC 2.0)

For those British Jews on the left, the saga has the added dimension that the right has turned the situation to its own political advantage, often by those figures noted for their own murky associations with anti-Semitism. Of note are Johnson’s own historic ties with figures like former Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon and the Brexit Party’s Nigel Farage, who is also closely associated with the U.S. president.

Yet amid the noise of the mainstream press and a political class more concerned with finger-wagging, the human dimension of this story has often been overlooked. The mainstream media’s endless column inches on the “Jewish community” have stripped British Jews of their ethnocultural, religious, socioeconomic, and political diversity, boxing them into a homogenous bloc. Missing from the story is what it feels like to be both Jewish and a part of the left — with all the “shades of opinion” that entails.

One crisis too many

Many British Jewish left-wing voters feel caught between two warring realities, one in which people believe the anti-Semitism allegations and denounce Labour, and the other in which people see no anti-Semitism and denounce the allegations.

Several who plan to vote Labour are doing so with a heavy heart. Those who find the decision easier are guided by political values that they feel are best represented by the Labour manifesto and Corbyn, or by the moral imperative they feel to stop Johnson’s Conservatives. For many who simply cannot endorse the lack of leadership on an issue which has inundated Labour, they must instead sacrifice some of their ideals and vote for another party. This stance was mostly found among voters in what are considered “safe” Labour constituencies.

For Neil Nerva, a Labour councilor in Queen’s Park, London, the election season has been marked by a feeling of shame. “What I’ve lost is the adrenaline and the confidence to try and persuade people how to vote. What I’m ashamed of more than anything else — I’m ashamed of the party I’m a member of and advancing — is that the vast majority of the Jewish people, and many others, do not have the confidence to vote for Labour.” Neil’s persistence in this election is down to his confidence in his local MP, Tulip Siddiq; if it wasn’t for her, he admits, he wouldn’t be “out and active.”

Amos Schonfield from London, active with Jewish groups including liberal advocacy organization Yachad and the Board of Deputies, says there has simply been one crisis too many, and plans on voting Green. Schonfield gave up his Labour membership in 2018 when a member of the party’s governing body, Peter Willsman, was re-elected after being recorded in July 2018 blaming anti-Semitism allegations in the Labour party on Jewish “Trump fanatics,” dismissing their veracity, and asking “the rabbis” to provide evidence.

In May 2019, he was again recorded at a meeting in which he labeled the “crisis” a smear campaign targeting Corbyn and claimed that the Israeli embassy had orchestrated an open letter from 68 rabbis regarding their concern about anti-Semitism in Labour. This time, the party suspended him.

“[Willsman] showed blatant disregard of Jews, and then to see him elected with 70,000 votes — I could no longer say it was a case of one bad apple in the Labour party,” says Schonfield. “There was widespread dismissal of racism in favor of faction.

“I want to see Corbyn’s manifesto delivered, I want to be part of that movement, but you can’t deny that there’s institutional failings with anti-Semitism,” he continues. “And when a party that calls itself an anti-racist party can’t deal with anti-Semitism, you can’t have confidence that it will deliver. I support people who vote Labour and do so knowing they need to make the party better, but I’m not prepared to do so.”

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn at a protest by junior doctors, London, April 26, 2016. (Garry Knight/CC 2.0)
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn at a protest by junior doctors, London, April 26, 2016. (Garry Knight/CC 2.0)

A similar story is told by Joel Hart, a PhD candidate at Oxford who supports Labour’s manifesto but feels that he cannot vote for the party, and is also considering voting for the Green Party from a Labour safe seat. He names Corbyn’s 2012 defense of an East London mural featuring anti-Semitic tropes as “one of the first things that led me away from far-left circles to start with, despite having very radical views on the economy.” Despite later omissions of regret from Corbyn, for Hart it opened up a doubt that has “stuck with me ever since.”

Hart’s brother, Samson, echoes this sense of a torn identity. An activist and farmer residing in Frome, he initially joined Labour to vote for Corbyn in the last election. But unlike his brother, Samson is not prepared to abandon the party. “I’ve been struggling like many Jews… there was a big period in the last election when I felt let down by the Labour party,” he said, citing a BBC exposé that aired last summer in which eight Labour whistleblowers claimed that efforts to tackle anti-Semitism were consistently undermined by the party. “So, I kind of distanced myself, and I read everything there was to read. I wanted to be able to defend my own position as someone who believes there is clearly anti-Semitism within the Labour party, yet also someone who often identifies as anti-Zionist and has been engaged in anti-occupation activism,” he said.

When asked what brought him back into Labour’s fold the answer is clear: “I need to be on a side, it’s too risky not to. I need to put aside the difficulties and vote for hope.”

A Labour of love

While many interviewees express dismay and disappointment at Labour’s handling of the anti-Semitism complaints, many also voice a genuine desire to see its manifesto implemented.

For Liane Aviram, a student and film editor from south London now residing in Berlin, her Jewish identity informs her decision to vote for Labour.

“I grew up in a household that promotes a Judaism of love, respect and solidarity,” she explains. “That’s what Judaism has taught me and I think this is reflected in the new Labour manifesto,” noting the call for greater funding for the protection of synagogues and Jewish security bodies such as the Community Security Trust, as well as the work to challenge anti-Semitic rhetoric from the far-right and European governments sympathetic to it, such as Hungary and Poland.

For some, there is a strong sense of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to steer the U.K. down a fairer and more equitable path. Rob Weiss, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in London, refers to Labour’s manifesto as “a brave and radical document which can deliver real change for the people of this country.” Rivkah Brown, editor of Vashti, a new progressive, British-Jewish website, emphasized the importance of addressing wealth inequality and “social justice enacted through redistributive economics that taxes the rich in order to feed the poor.”

Furthermore, Samson Hart asserts the idea that voting for Labour means tackling anti-Semitism, not promoting it. “Anti-Semitism should be fought alongside all other forms of racism and discrimination and we need to be vigilant [about] how those come together, and how they benefit each other. It felt like a very selfish position to just be thinking about anti-Semitism.

“I vote with a willingness to hear out my community, and yet an understanding that our oppression is better fought alongside all oppressions, and that there is more to fear in the far right that the only other governing alternative is pandering towards,” he says.

A similar story is conveyed by Emilie Goldman, a media professional in south-western England of Ashkenazi descent, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. While allowing for the complexity of the relationship between Jews and whiteness, particularly where Jews of Color and Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews are concerned, Goldman indicates that her position as a white-skinned non-visibly-Jewish person yields a personal responsibility to vote against Johnson and the racism he courts. “I can walk down the street and not feel like someone is going to attack me for being Jewish, whereas someone who’s not white is never going to know what that feels like,” she says.

Weiss also points to the relatively unexamined racism among the Conservatives. “There is a huge level of hypocrisy when a party that has, historically, been committed to anti-racism and equality is criticized for prejudice, while the Conservative Party, whose leader is on record for his inflammatory racist rhetoric, is barely held to account,” he says.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson at the Prime Minister’s House in Jerusalem on September 30, 2016. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson at the Prime Minister’s House in Jerusalem on September 30, 2016. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Flora Feldman, who works in tech in London, agrees: “There’s all kinds of anti-Semitism and racism in the Tory [Conservative] and also Liberal Democrat parties. It’s not a Labour problem – it’s a problem.”

Blindness of the left

Samson Hart expands on the idea that anti-Semitism is not restricted to Labour or the broader left, describing anti-Semitism as “inherent in British society.”

“Europe has been a place of endless anti-Semitism and historic persecution of Jews, and we would be crazy to think that those structures, much like all forms of racism, don’t continue to reverberate across our institutions,” he says. “There needs to be a deepening in understanding of the wider structures, to see how anti-Semitism is formed and how it manifests.”

Rob Abrams, who has experienced anti-Semitism on the left, asserts that anti-Semitism in the U.K. “comes from this British attitude of ignorance towards Jews and our history.”

“Unfortunately, the left wing in the U.K. think they’re impervious to anti-Semitism,” he explains. “No particular part of the spectrum has a monopoly on anti-Semitism. The part of the political spectrum that threatens us is the far-right.

“The anti-Semitism crisis got a lot worse when there were a few comments that notable individuals made,” Abrams continues. “They could’ve apologized and it would have been over, but it was the defensiveness and the viciousness of that defensiveness.”

Abrams, who appeared with Corbyn in a Rosh HaShanah video earlier this year and was at a Passover Seder attended by Corbyn, to much fanfare and ire alike, notes that “a lot of non-Jews don’t appreciate a lot of the historical trauma that Jews carry.”

“Whether or not you believe certain accusations are smears or not, it doesn’t change the fact that people are hurting and their historical traumas are real,” he adds.

Samson Hart puts part of this defensive attitude down to “the cult of Corbyn,” which makes certain supporters “unwilling to accept any accusation of anti-Semitism.” Such blindness results in erasure, which he feels is the antithesis of how to bring the Jewish community back into the Labour fold.

The threat of the far-right

The sense of crisis is bolstered by the potential for this election to result in a strong Conservative majority — one that would boost Johnson’s hard Brexit plan and could further empower the nativism he has courted since becoming prime minister. For many British voters, the election is not simply over a new socioeconomic direction for their divided country, but whether the U.K. remains an open and tolerant society.

Johnson, mired in his own history of racist and Islamophobic comments, has already become a poster boy for a new strain of English nationalism.

For Yair Wallach, a senior lecturer in Israel Studies at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, these are dire times.

“It’s not a usual election. Brexit is a huge risk, so you have to take the route that seems the least risky,” he says, even if that means giving a boost to a leadership that in his eyes has largely failed. “I would not normally vote Labour given what we’ve seen over the last four years, but it’s been suggested that if you vote Labour you don’t care about Jews or anti-Semitism, and I think that’s not the right way to look at this,” he continues. “People can care about all these things and be aware of these things — we’re talking about lesser evils. Any vote that facilitates the Conservative majority is far more risky.”

Nerva, the Labour councilor, agrees. “There’s this real fear of Boris Johnson: a right-wing populism which could unleash very dangerous forces,” he says. As Joel Hart points out, “People have died in the West due to far-right anti-Semitism. It’s unbelievable that the Chief Rabbi hasn’t made that the focus of his fears.”

Nerva concedes that the Jewish community has been slow to identify the Conservative Party’s weaponization of anti-Semitism. But whereas these tactics are not surprising to him or the others we spoke to, the “whataboutery” on the left is what really hurts. “I’m in the Labour Party because I expect better,” he says. “This is our benchmark — a right-wing party that for a large part of the 20th century was not a natural home for Jewish people?”

“I feel very uncomfortable that the issue [of anti-Semitism] is being used for that purpose by people who don’t actually understand the sensitivities,” says Joel Hart. “If I broke it down, [they] probably don’t care about Jews. And the fact that it is becoming a big issue within the general election also frightens me. It should not be on the center stage and the only reason it is is because it’s being used as a political football.”

Between a rock and a hard place

Many of those we spoke with expressed reservations or discomfort around sharing their voting intentions and views. Those voting Labour recounted the disgust or disdain sent their way by those in the Jewish community and beyond who think their support laughable or irresponsible. Yet those who feel they cannot bring themselves to vote Labour are treated by parts of the left as facilitators of continued Tory austerity far-right policies, regardless of whether they’re voting in a marginal constituency.

Feldman, who intends to vote for Labour, admits to being “more afraid to discuss politics with my friends than my family” for fear of the fractures that might result — fractures which Samson and Joel Hart already see. “The general narrative in the Jewish community is that a vote for Labour is the worst possible thing we can do,” says Samson. “It’s been quite difficult, you get seen as a self-hating Jew.”

Vashti’s Rivkah Brown describes the impact of her support for Labour on her relationships as “a mixed bag,” from family members who feel hurt to those expressing their solidarity and appreciation. “Perhaps the most significant impact of the ‘Labour anti-Semitism crisis,’ however, has been to mobilize the Jewish left, including me,” she says. “This mobilization, and the organizations, movements and campaigns that embody it, have created a close-knit network of progressive Jews, in a way that is much bigger than this election.” Brown is referring in particular to Vashti, the anti-occupation outfit Na’amod, and the grassroots campaign Jews Against Boris, three groups that have been active in the run-up to the election.

Moving forward in muddy waters

Several interviewees noted that Britain’s Jewish communities need to have a much more open conversation on Israel-Palestine. Rob Weiss, touching on the conflation of hatred of Jews with criticism of Israel, says he is “astonished and saddened that there doesn’t seem to be a possibility to have a reasoned and thoughtful discussion about Israel-Palestine without being accused of anti-Semitism.”

Members of Jews Against Boris, a grassroots campaign aiming to unseat incumbent U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in London, November 17, 2019. (Jews Against Boris)
Members of Jews Against Boris, a grassroots campaign aiming to unseat incumbent U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in London, November 17, 2019. (Jews Against Boris)

For Abrams, bringing nuance into this conversation requires that parts of the Jewish community “realize that supporting the self-determination of Palestinians and recognizing the inherent persecution of Palestinians is not anti-Semitic.” At the same time, he cautions that dismissing concerns of anti-Semitism as being purely motivated by Zionism “recalls that fifth column, disloyal trope which has been used against Jews historically.”

Backlighting the fraught conversation on Israel-Palestine activism and anti-Semitism has been the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation into anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. The probe was launched earlier this summer, after a preliminary investigation in March, following official complaints made by the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) and the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism. Last week, the JLM’s submission of testimonies to the EHRC was leaked — testimonies which, for Wallach, “demonstrate that the majority of anti-Semitic incidents and problems are not Palestine-related.”

“The common refrain is that the accusations are due to Corbyn’s credentials as a supporter of the Palestinian cause. This does not stand up to scrutiny,” Wallach explains. “Harassment, Holocaust denial and conspiracy theories are not pro-Palestine activism. Systemic failure in dealing with them is not pro-Palestine activism.

“Clearly there are aspects or incidents which are Palestine-related, mainly dealing with Corbyn himself (his participation in a PLO commemoration in Tunis; his reference to Hamas and Hezbollah as ‘friends’),” he continues. “Whether we count these as anti-Semitic or not is open to debate. But the main thing is that is a very small part in an overall picture which is mainly about widespread anti-Semitic abuse, mainly on social media, which the party has tolerated in recent years.”

One Jewish filmmaker, who lives in London and asked to remain anonymous, is similarly frustrated by the argument that anti-Semitism on the left can be put down to pro-Palestinian or anti-Israeli sentiment. “There are people on the outside looking in who can’t see the idea that you can be pro-Palestinian rights and statehood but still have a conception of Zionism that is incredibly critical in the strongest possible terms of a Netanyahu government and historical injustices against the Palestinian people, with a desire to right those injustices,” he says, adding that the charge of anti-Semitism is inconsistently applied for this reason. “The Tories get an easy ride because as long as they say, ‘we’re broadly pro-Israel,’ then they’ve ‘dealt with’ the issue of anti-Semitism.”

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published with the filmmaker’s name in full. He requested his name be pulled from the article out of fear for his livelihood.]

Brown believes this dynamic emphasizes the need to “engage with the community in a real and everyday way” and rebuild trust with traditional left-wing allies like Labour. She cites her Member of Parliament for 27 years, Diane Abbott, who does this “excellently” with the ultra-Orthodox community. Corbyn, she says, may need to go further than his “open door” approach to Chief Rabbi Efraim Mirvis, and to “interact more proactively with the community — particularly those corners of it that don’t share his politics.”

“The onus is on Labour to educate itself in anti-Semitism, understand the nuances, and knock this on the head,” says Eve Barlow, a Scottish music journalist based in Los Angeles. Barlow sees no way forward with the current leadership still in place — and others agree. “The level of bad faith has reached such a point that the only thing that would satisfy the Jewish community at large would be for Corbyn to resign,” says Schonfield.

Abrams calls instead for a period of “transitional justice” that would include hard facts and reality. “The leadership is not changing and the community is hurting and that has to be dealt with, with Corbyn. I don’t believe in this whole naïve idea of changing the leader and it will all go away.

“The only way we can rebuild trust and faith between the left and the Jewish community,” he continues, “is through emotion and understanding and listening and empathy.”

Disclaimer: The authors acknowledge the lack of female and Mizrahi and Sephardi voices in this piece. Please get in touch if you would like to contribute to the discussion.