The Jewish Left’s Malaise

‘Whatever else they stand for, friends of the Jewish Left shouldn’t be standing at this election  against non-Jewish MPs, who have been brave and vocal in the fight against anti-Semitism, in order to put Jeremy Corbyn into Number 10’

Jeremy Brier

It’s not that difficult to start a row in the Jewish community (just go to the Brent Cross shopping mall car park if you don’t believe me). But I was nevertheless quite honoured to have started what the Jewish Chronicle called “a big one”. Doing anything in the Jewish community becomes more impressive with scale. No one’s mother ever telephoned their friends to boast that their son started “a small debate”.

But it was only a modest point that I sought to make. My argument, in the JC, was that the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) was fighting our friends and propping up our foes by standing for the Labour Party in marginal seats with large Jewish populations (like Finchley and Hendon) against non-Jewish MPs who have been brave and vocal in the fight against anti-Semitism. Not so much starting a row, I thought, as a statement of the blindingly obvious.

Apparently not so, to parts of the Jewish Left. Danny Rich, a prominent Liberal rabbi, described my contention as “an attack on all [the JLM] have achieved, and everything we have won”. Blimey. I only heard of it for the first time a fortnight ago. My article meant no such thing.

I applaud the JLM for its historical success in fighting anti-Semitism, of course I do. But its numerous campaigns have only been necessitated because Labour is so toxic on this issue. The levels of its activity are ironic testament to the problems with Labour. Hardly a day goes by without Labour members ascribing global difficulties to Jewish conspiracy. Many suffer from Ken’s favourite illness, Hitler Tourette’s. Even when Labour commissioned an inquiry into anti-Semitism, it concluded in a whitewash. As I wrote previously: Labour ended up in the clear and Shami Chakrabarti ended up in ermine. 

So mazel tov to the JLM on its incredibly busy last couple of years. But this also explains why it makes perfect sense not to put tooth and nail into fighting off prominent friends of the community, only to try and deliver more marginal seats for a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn.

One of the premises which informs the thinking of the Jewish Left is that Corbyn has no chance of being Prime Minister. David Hirsh, an academic I respect, stated in the Jewish News that Corbyn has

only the tiniest chance of winning the election. And if Labour did find itself in a position to form a coalition, the anti-Corbyn Labour MPs would hold the balance of power at Westminster. In my judgment, electing [Jeremy] Newmark [the Labour candidate in Finchley and chair of the JLM] would not put Corbyn one centimetre nearer to control of the nuclear button.

That’s not a position of principle; it’s a spread bet on the opinion polls. It could go horribly wrong. A week is a long time in politics, and five weeks is longer. What if Labour did win those seats and gifted Corbyn a majority of one or two? In any event, isn’t the theoretical possibility of this happening enough to show up the problem of principle here? It also ignores the fact that even if Labour are not able form a government, with every seat that Corbyn wins he can claim an enlarged mandate to remain leader. Every vote that switches from Mike Freer, for the Conservatives, to Jeremy Newmark in Golders Green helps Corbyn to cling on.

How did the Jewish Left get into this malaise? Twenty years ago, as New Labour freshened up Britain, with enormous Jewish support, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were staunch friends of the community and steadfast allies of Israel. It was Ed Miliband who lost faith in New Labour and began the shift in positioning. Perhaps to overcompensate for being Jewish (I’ve never believed the bacon sandwich was a fluke; it was never going to be chopped liver), Miliband shifted Labour’s position to lukewarm. In this very magazine, Maureen Lipman set off the first nationwide debate about Labour and anti-Semitism, saying that she would not vote for Miliband because of his stance on Israel.

As ever, Israel is a microcosm for a worldview. Debates concerning other countries — Kashmir or Kurdistan — may be of enormous significance to interested parties but Israel remains a barometer for what a person thinks of the West and, in many senses, the world. Miliband, in commencing Labour’s retreat from Israel, also marked its retreat from America, global market forces and the fight against radical Islam. Suddenly, Labour was attractive again to those who stand against these things and who, throughout history, cannot distinguish their views on Zionism, America, the banks and the media from The Jews.

If Miliband began the retreat and made it possible with his democratisation of the Labour leadership elections, it was perfected by Corbyn. On May Day this year, Blair’s new dawn outside the Royal Festival Hall gave way to John McDonnell in Trafalgar Square. The crowd waved Communist flags and chanted “Labour friends of Israel no more”. Israel again, the apotheosis of the West, the embodiment of all that McDonnell and his cronies despise. Israel again, singled out in the leaked Labour manifesto for special treatment: Seumas Milne pushing the Palestinian narrative to the front and centre of Labour’s new foreign policy. Which brings us back to the peculiar spectacle of the Jewish Left choosing to fight for the seats that could put Corbyn in Number 10 (or, as Diane Abbott calls it, Number 17).

I want to be clear. The Jewish Left has a proud history of fighting anti-Semitism. Its past campaigns are admirable and, even when we disagree on party politics, we often share deep values and commitments to the Jewish people and to Israel which are transcendent. But this is a moment in British political history when individuals on the Jewish Left need to consider whether they are really fighting the right battles, the right way. We admire Jeremy Newmark for criticising his own party’s manifesto, but why then try to boost its votes and, potentially, its seats? Whatever else the Jewish Left stand for, they shouldn’t be standing for Corbyn. 

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