Until he became leader of the British Labour party on September 12, Jeremy Corbyn — a crumpled, bearded 66-year-old socialist — had had an unremarkable political career. He was first elected to Parliament in 1983 and has represented the Labour Party in the safe seat of Islington North in north London ever since. Corbyn has never held a cabinet position nor pioneered a significant piece of legislation. He remains aligned with the far-left wing of the party, whose stature and influence has only diminished since the 1980s.
His politics are that of principled rebellion. Between 2005 and 2010, when Labour was in government, Corbyn voted against party lines 25% of the time. Known for his anti-war politics, he has publicly supported both the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Irish republicans. In 1996 the Guardian editorialized that his ill-timed meeting with Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein made him “a fool whom the Labour Party would probably be better off without.”
Now, with the party in disarray, Corbyn has come out of obscurity to become Labour’s next leader — and British Jewry is worried.
In a recent Survation poll, 67% of British Jews said they were concerned about his possible victory. “The JC rarely claims to speak for anyone other than ourselves,” The Jewish Chronicle’s August 12 editorial stated. “But in this rare instance we are certain that we speak for the vast majority of British Jews in expressing deep foreboding at the prospect of Mr. Corbyn’s election as Labour leader.”
Perturbing British Jewry are Corbyn’s associations with anti-Semitic individuals: Paul Eisen, the Holocaust denier whose foundation Deir Yassin Remembered Corbyn has supported; Raed Salah, a Palestinian leader convicted of funding Hamas, whom Corbyn invited to Parliament and called a “very honored citizen”; and Arab activist Dyab Abou Jahjah, with whom Corbyn shared a platform at a Stop The War Coalition meeting in 2009 but who was later banned from the UK on grounds of extremism.
Corbyn has also landed himself in hot water for Stop The War Coalition’s support of al-Quds Day demonstrations and referring to Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends” during a parliamentary meeting on the Middle East. He has previously met with representatives of both Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hamas and the military wing of Hezbollah are recognized as terrorist organizations by the European Union.
“Any British politician in a senior capacity will not be taken seriously if he has any partiality towards terrorist bodies,” Jonathan Arkush, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told the Forward in a statement. “We would like Jeremy Corbyn to give clear, straight answers to straight questions and repudiate any sort of support for or links to anti-Semites, racists and terrorists.”
Those within the Labour Party who have critiqued Corbyn have found themselves the victims of hostile rhetoric from his online supporters. “I have been described as a servant of the Israeli Prime Minister, a Nazi Zionist, a Zionist scumbag,” John Mann MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism, told the London Sunday Express, noting that leadership contender Liz Kendall and Joan Ryan MP, chair of Labour Friends of Israel, had also received anti-Semitic hate mail.
Corbyn’s victory — even in the face of a tremendous amount of evidence regarding his unsavory connections and questionable foreign policy views — is a sign of the unmooring of the Labour Party, a hundred-year-old institution that has lost two elections in a row and remains in search of a new identity in a capitalistic, individualistic and de-unionized economy and society. But it is also a cause and a symptom of the drifting apart of Labour and the British Jewish community.
Since the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher’s cabinets featured a number of important Jewish ministers the breakdown in this relationship has been inexorable. In part it’s a consequence of strong Conservative support for Israel but mainly it comes from British Jewry becoming overwhelmingly middle class. Before the last election in May, I attended town hall meetings for the Jewish community in Finchley and Hampstead Garden Suburb in leafy north London where Labour’s proposal for a mansion tax on properties worth over $3 million contributed to its defeat in those communities.
Labour’s loss in the 2010 election — which ended the Blair-Brown years and, with it, their New Labour project — accelerated this drift. Ed Miliband’s initial attempts (as the first ever Jewish Labour leader) to court Jewish communal institutions were scuttled by his staunch opposition to Operation Protective Edge and support for unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood. These events added to a perception that Labour had drifted leftward on the Israeli-Palestinian question.
Under Miliband’s leadership the anti-American and anti-Zionist tendencies of Labour’s left were held in check, but the influence of Jewish grandees from the New Labour era weakened. Lord Levy, for example, was central to the Labour Party during the Blair era, when he was their chief fundraiser. He was also Blair’s envoy to the Middle East and in that regard helped shape his view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Today, Levy no longer plays a meaningful role in the Labour Party. The strength of Labour Friends of Israel has also declined, prominent members like Ed Balls having been voted out of office in 2015, when the Jewish vote was projected to be 69% Conservative.
Perhaps the main reason Corbyn in particular has accelerated the separation of British Jews from Labour, though, is the feeling that he grasps neither the seriousness of his associations nor that anti-Semitism can exist on the left at all. When this issue was raised at a town hall meeting for Jewish voters at JW3 in July, Corbyn quickly noted his own family history as a riposte, his parents having participated in the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, a legendary anti-fascist demonstration of Jewish, Irish and left-wing groups against Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts in the East End of London.
Indeed, the British left excels at calling out anti-Semitism on the right. In recent months, Unite Against Fascism has been involved in countering small white power manifestations in Jewish neighborhoods in north London. Their failure, embodied, for many Jews, in Corbyn, has been in noticing how leftist anti-Zionism bleeds deeply into anti-Semitism.
“I don’t agree that the left exemplified by Jeremy Corbyn even excels at combating the anti-Semitism of the far right,” Oliver Kamm, a leader writer and columnist for The Times of London, told the Forward via email. “Commentators including Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen and me have long warned that the left has incorporated the attitudes of the nativist far-right. Corbyn’s alliances with reactionary, misogynistic, theocratic, and anti-Semitic movements bear out what we’ve said.”
Owen Jones — a Corbyn supporter who recently wrote a column for The Guardian arguing, “there’s no excuse for the left to pretend [anti-Semitism] doesn’t exist within its own ranks” — believes Corbyn “doesn’t even have a trace of anti-Semitism” in him. In the same blog post he continued, “Abhorring racism and anti-Semitism is absolutely central to his whole political DNA.”
“It’s feeble,” Kamm said, “It’s Corbyn’s politics, not his personal psychology, that’s at issue.” His impression is that “Corbyn’s lack of interest in the concerns of British Jewry and his long association with extremists augur badly. To me, his campaign is not consistent with the values of pluralism and secularism, or with the broad traditions of the Labour Party.”
Jeremy Corbyn, was unable to respond to questions from the Forward in time for this article. Previously, Corbyn has said that he has “no recollection” of donating to Deir Yassin Remembered and that Eisen’s “position on the Holocaust is wrong and reprehensible.” As for referring to Hamas and Hezbollah as ‘friends’ and Salah as a ‘very honored citizen,’ this was “diplomatic language in the context of dialogue, not an endorsement of a particular set of views.”
In the coming months, his actions will speak louder than either his words — or any of his previous actions.
Liam Hoare is a frequent contributor to the Forward