How Labour anti-Semitism has impacted British Jews

The UK Jewish community has traditionally tried to advance its interests through contacts with the authorities and the Government of the day rather than through public debate and confrontation. Not any more.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld , | updated: 07:55

Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld

n September 2015 Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the UK Labour Party. More details of his lengthy hatemongering activities are still being discovered. In February 2019 investigative journalist, Tom Bower, published his biography of Corbyn titled, Dangerous Hero. He found that Corbyn spoke to a historian in 2015 about his early life, including his first job in London in 1973 as an assistant researcher at the National Union of Tailor and Garment Workers.

Corbyn claimed that he had challenged the Jewish employers of union members in order to recover the members’ unpaid wages. He said that the “scumbags” and “crooks” (as he described the employers) went bankrupt before Christmas still owing money to their workers. Corbyn said it was his job to fight the employers. Bower interviewed Corbyn’s then trade union superior. From that conversation it became clear that Corbyn had not been in contact with union members, but was just an office worker.

This invention of his past might thus be characterized as an antisemitic fantasy. It is an add-on to Corbyn’s self-definition as a “friend” and “brother” of genocidal terrorists. He also supports and mixes with Holocaust distorters. Corbyn is an extreme anti-Israel inciter and a part-time antisemite who has used Iranian media for his hateful purposes.

Under Corbyn’s leadership the lack of desire of Labour to confront the substantial antisemitism in its ranks has become evident. There were already a number of extreme antisemitic expressions under the previous Labour leader, Ed Milliband, who is Jewish. These received little or no attention. Under Corbyn, antisemitism in the party expanded and became a public issue.

Little attention has been given to what antisemitism in Labour, and the public debate about it, have meant for the British Jewish community. It was not the first time in post-war history that British Jewry has been exposed to major antisemitism. There were major anti-Jewish riots under the Attlee Labour government in 1947 toward the end of the UK’s mandate in Palestine. That, however, is long ago.

The UK Jewish community has traditionally tried to advance its interests through contacts with the authorities and in particular with the Government of the day rather than through public debate. It has avoided confrontation with powerful societal forces as much as possible. This would a priori mean avoiding confrontation with the Labour Party.

The number of Jews in the UK is about 260,000. This represents around 0.4% of the total UK population. The Labour party currently has approximately 550,000 members. It received nearly thirteen million votes in the 2017 parliamentary elections. Yet due to the way Labour treated complaints about antisemitism, a public confrontation became unavoidable.

Corbyn’s attitude to antisemitism has ultimately led to unusually harsh statements of Jewish leaders. In May 2018, the outgoing president of the Board of Deputies Jonathan Arkush said that Jeremy Corbyn holds antisemitic views. He added that British Jews were for the first time asking, “Do we have a future here?” Arkush blamed this on Corbyn’s failure to stamp out antisemitism.  

In August 2018, after Corbyn had been leading Labour for almost three years, former UK Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks called him a “dangerous antisemite.” He accused Corbyn of giving “support to racists, terrorists and dealers of hate who want to kill Jews and remove Israel from the map.” Lord Sacks added that Corbyn uses “the language of classic pre-war European antisemitism.”

The antisemitism issue plays out against the background of a far bigger complex of  issues: the Brexit negotiations, the resulting discord in British society and politics, and the incompetence of the British government in handling the process. A mix of the two issues occurred recently when seven MP’s – later joined by an eighth --  who want the UK to remain in the European Union left Labour to create the Independent Group (ITG). Some, such as Luciana Berger, who is the only Jewish one, specifically mentioned antisemitism as a reason for leaving Labour. Others did not. There remains the question why so many Jewish MPs and peers still stay in Labour.   

A recent poll was conducted which asked whether British Jews are considering leaving the UK if Corbyn becomes prime minister. Forty-two percent answered in the affirmative. This figure should not be taken at face value. People who have never considered leaving a country do not convince themselves easily to do so. Many have jobs for which they will not find a substitute in Israel or elsewhere. Many have family obligations that require them to stay in the area, unless the situation gets really bad. Many live in what one might call ‘Jewish bubbles,’- neighborhoods primarily in London and Manchester where many other Jews live. Furthermore, there is much disbelief that Labour under Corbyn can win elections, however incompetent the Conservatives are.

Even some Jews who had not publicly identified as such found the antisemitism in Labour so obnoxious that they reacted publicly. One example was long time Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge who in July 2018 in the parliamentary chamber of the House of Commons called Corbyn a “racist” and “antisemite,” because of his response to antisemitism in Labour.


Antisemitism in Labour continues to frequently appear in major newspapers. This adds to the discomfort of Jews who prefer to stay out of the limelight.
Another was British TV personality Rachel Riley, who spoke out in September 2018 against Corbyn. Riley’s mother is Jewish.  She gave an interview which led to much hate mail and in turn caused her to begin thinking more about her Jewish roots while confirming that she is an atheist. She remarked that people were abused by antisemitic messages when they voiced support for Israel. Riley mentioned that she knew of an unpublished instance of violence against a supporter of Israel as well as a suicide attempt resulting from antisemitic abuse.

Antisemitism in Labour continues to frequently appear in major newspapers. This adds to the discomfort of Jews who prefer to stay out of the limelight.

One should perhaps see the developments of the last few years as an indication of the future. The attitudes of Corbyn and associates have helped to mainstream antisemitism in the UK. This may have long-term rather than immediate influence on members of the younger Jewish generation. Many Jews remain in denial. They may awake slowly if the growth of antisemitism continues.




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