There was something unprecedented about the recent UK General Election, especially for Jewish voters. For the first time I can remember, nearly all Labour voters I knew split on ethnic lines. Jews went one way. Non-Jews another. I never thought I would see this in Britain.
The vast majority of my Jewish friends could not bring themselves to vote for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. However much we like or admire particular Labour MPs the issue was quite simple: under Jeremy Corbyn there has been the stench of antisemitism for the past two years. The Chakrabarti whitewash a year ago exactly. The Livingstone affair. Individual MPs or Labour figures making casual antisemitic remarks.
Of course, Corbyn and McDonnell are not, in my view, themselves antisemites but I know serious people who think they are. They have allowed their criticisms of Israel and Zionism to bleed into outright antisemitism using age-old antisemitic tropes and imagery, or they have made obsessive comparisons between Israel and Nazis or exaggerated links between Jews and slavery. The leadership have not done enough to eradicate this from the party. So it is not surprising that only 13% of British Jews could bear to vote for Labour. Many lifelong Labour voters couldn’t do it.
The vast majority of my Labour-leaning non-Jewish friends who support Labour voted for Corbyn with no apparent qualms. They barely acknowledged the issue of how Labour’s leadership has failed to properly address the issue of antisemitism among many of Corbyn’s followers. This is unprecedented and is worth reflecting on.
Many said this was just “tribal”. Lifelong Labour voters, they couldn’t vote for anyone else. This isn’t the issue, though. The issue was that they, and many other Labour supporters, haven’t even acknowledged Corbyn’s Jewish question: the hate-mail sent to Jewish MPs like Luciana Berger and Louise Ellman, the torrent of antisemitic imagery on social media, the evidence of Corbyn’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah, addressing rallies, calling Hamas “friends”.
More serious, though, is the way the mainstream media have reported this. They have consistently presented Corbyn’s Labour as politics as usual, as a mainstream party. It is not. There is a larger pattern here. Corbyn and McDonnell belong to the days of the hard left of the 1970s and ‘80s which condemned Israel just as they flirted with the IRA and, later, various terrorist organisations in the Middle East. To get a real sense of these affiliations, you had to look to the press or to individual commentators on social media. The Jewish Chronicle, editor Stephen Pollard and Marcus Dysch in particular, have argued passionately that the Labour Party has changed into something toxic in the past two years and have documented this change in great detail.
I don’t have a single non-Jewish friend who has defended any of this. They simply haven’t commented on it. They haven’t said given the choice between fighting antisemitism and fighting Conservative austerity they would support Corbyn. There’s just been an eerie silence as if nothing was going on. Well, something is going on and the silence is symptomatic of the seriousness of what’s happening in Britain today. As in the bad days of British antisemitism it is not bad manners to talk about it.
This has not stopped with the General Election, of course. The front page of last week’s The Jewish Chronicle quoted a number of leading figures from prominent Jewish organisations who said that it is now time to rebuild some kind of relationship with Corbyn’s Labour. But here’s the rub. They nearly all chose to remain anonymous. This is astonishing. Why would they do this? They could have come out in the open and said Labour did better in the election than many expected so despite Corbyn’s record they felt it is time to build bridges. But they chose to remain anonymous. Presumably, in the time-honoured tradition of Anglo-Jewry they didn’t want to rock the boat.
Non-Jews don’t want to talk about it. Prominent Jews don’t want to come out in the open. This is deeply disturbing and without precedent.
David Herman is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to The Jewish Quarterly.