As a British Jew who supports Jeremy Corbyn, I was a little surprised to read Liam Hoare’s piece “Why Jeremy Corbyn Scares British Jews So Much.” It is disorientating to hear a group of which you are a member described as being univocal, particularly when the description fails to match your lived experience. Hoare’s tendency to present the British Jewish community to non-UK audiences as a single homogenous whole is understandable — given that it’s a picture the self-styled “leaders” of British Jewry like to reinforce — but the sources that he uses to generalize about British Jews are each unreliable and hide the community’s political diversity.
The first mistake is to rely on the Jewish Chronicle, which, despite being British Jewry’s oldest paper, is not the trusted and respected outlet it once was. Since becoming editor in 2008, Stephen Pollard has brought in an increasingly neoconservative agenda and today the Chronicle is more interested in inciting scandal and influencing wider political debate than in maintaining its traditional role: promoting the best interests of the UK Jewish community. It is now forced to compete in a more crowded market; alongside smaller progressive publications like the Jewish Quarterly and Jewish Renaissance, it is today faced with a strong rival paper The Jewish News, which shows far more intellectual openness than the Chronicle. The Chronicle’s attacks on Corbyn should be seen in this context: promoting scandal in an attempt to maintain its market share.
Then there’s a quote from the Head of the Board of Deputies, Jonathan Arkush, who claims to express concerns about Corbyn on behalf on the entire Jewish community. The views of the Board might seem like a source for the views of the British Jewish community, calling itself “the democratically elected voice of British Jewry.” But this claim is highly dubious, as I have argued elsewhere. Its claim to democracy is based on elections held by “affiliate institutions,” predominantly synagogues. But these “elections” feature tiny turnouts, candidates elected unopposed and zero transparency. The many thousands of Jews who are not members of any affiliate institution do not get a vote. The Board refuses to release any figures, but it seems unlikely that more than 10,000 people (and probably far less) vote in Board elections — a mere 3% of the estimated 300,000 Jews in Britain. So Arkush’s statements should not be seen as representative; he is just one voice and a very conservative one at that, well to the right of his predecessor Vivian Wineman.
Hoare also relies on polling, which appears to show 67% of Jews are concerned about Corbyn’s victory. Attempts to poll a minority community that doesn’t maintain a register of its members are fraught with difficulty, and almost all polls of British Jews have demonstrated massive methodological flaws, many of them documented by Daniel Vulkan, an expert on the demography of British Jewry. I find this particular poll especially questionable — it had a small sample of 1000 (0.3% of the community), and showed a strong connection between those who had voted Conservative (62.9% of respondents) and those who were concerned about Corbyn (67.2%). It is hardly surprising that Conservative voters would be concerned about the election of a left-wing leader who presumably opposes much of what they believe on tax, welfare and public services. Were the respondents concerned about any of the other candidates? We don’t know — the poll didn’t ask them.
The only source that can offer reasonably reliable information is the 10-yearly national census, which has included a question on religion since 2001, and which the Institute for Jewish Policy Research analyzes on behalf of the Jewish community. But while this is an informative source about where Jews live and where they sit within the income bracket, it tells us little about what British Jews actually think.
Given all this, we should stop generalizing, and assume that the political views of British Jews are as diverse as the rest of the British population. As Corbyn has just won a huge mandate in the Labour leadership race — taking 60% of the vote — it is not surprising that he has a number of Jewish supporters, including the active Jews for Jeremy Facebook group. And a well-known Jewish MP, Luciana Berger, has joined Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. While it is unsurprising that right-wing-dominated Jewish organizations like the Jewish Chronicle and the Zionist Federation have come out against Corbyn, he has support within other groups that form what might be called the left-wing opposition in the community: Independent Jewish Voices, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Jewdas and the Jewish Socialist Group.
There are also a range of groups like Yachad, The Jewish Council for Racial Equality and the leadership of both Reform and Liberal Judaism who take a loosely center-left political stance. These groups are likely to be sympathetic to Corbyn on some issues (especially his call to accept more refugees into Britain) and disagree on others — as is normal in politics.
It is too often assumed that British Jews are only interested in issues of Israel and anti-Semitism. But at a recent Labour hustings at JW3 (London’s new JCC) in which Corbyn participated, the biggest cheer of the night came when an audience member requested that the discussion be moved on from those issues. British Jews also care about housing, education, health and the welfare state. We’re a diverse bunch, with a diverse range of political views. Please don’t assume we’re all the same.