On December 12, 2019, British voters went to the polls in the country’s general election and delivered a stinging rebuke to the Labour Party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Incumbent Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party won 365 seats out of a total of 650 in the House of Commons, giving the party a comfortable majority in Parliament. Labour won a total of 203 seats, its worst showing in over eight decades (the remaining seats went to the Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats, and a scattering of smaller parties). In what the New York Times called “a sharp realignment of the country’s election map along lines shaped by Brexit,” British voters decided to stick with the mop-haired and sometimes buffoonish Johnson and reject the hard-left socialist Corbyn.
While Brexit may have been the biggest issue in the election, antisemitism in the “anti-racist” Labour Party played a key role. To gain a better understanding of Anglo Jewry, British politics, and antisemitism in the United Kingdom, I spoke with Amos Schonfield, a British Jewish progressive activist and former supporter of the Labour Party. Schonfield is active in the Masorti movement and liberal Zionist groups, and he serves on the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
The British Jewish community numbers between 250,000 and 400,000 people. About 45% of the community is considered mainstream Orthodox, while about 20% is Haredi. Smaller denominations include the Masorti, Reform, and Liberal movements. The community “is pretty politically diverse” according to Schonfield, and its historic working-class political roots changed as some Jews began to prosper more economically over the course of the twentieth century. Today, the community at large is center to center-right. A Conservative MP represents the constituency with the largest Jewish population. Israel is people’s “fourth or fifth priority,” and the Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats all have parliamentary Friends of Israel groups. Electorally, Jews can only sway the vote in four or five parliament seats (the so-called “bagel belt”).
Given its small percentage of the electorate, how did the British Jewish community become the center of a general election seemingly dominated by debates around Britain’s future relationship with the European Union? The answer lies with the ascendancy of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party.
The Labour Party antisemitism saga that dominated the British news (and Jewish news outlets around the globe) began in full-force with the election of Corbyn as party leader in 2015. A longtime MP, Corbyn won the leadership contest on a wave of left-wing populism, taking over 50% of the vote in the first round. Labour introduced a small flat-rate fee for people to pay to vote in the internal election, and many who were not previously party members joined to vote for the veteran socialist. Schonfield posits that “the far-left didn’t think they were going to win… but there was growing frustration with the establishment.” Former Prime Minister Tony Blair brought the traditionally trade union-based and economically left-wing party to the political center during his leadership. While successive leaders after Blair shifted from the center back to the left, “there was a desire for something different” among its more hardcore leftist supporters. Enter Corbyn.
Corbyn, whose mother marched in the 1936 Battle of Cable Street to fight against a group of British fascists, has long claimed to be a champion in the fight against fascism and antisemitism. However, Corbyn’s anti-racism has never seemed to include Jews. The list of his virulent anti-Zionist and antisemitic transgressions in recent years is long. Corbyn invited members of Hamas and Hezbollah to speak at an event at the British Parliament, calling them “our friends.” In 2012, he participated in a panel in Qatar with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and other convicted Palestinian terrorists. Corbyn defended an antisemitic mural in London depicting a group of men with hooked noses playing some kind of money game on top of the backs of black and brown people in a 2012 Facebook comment.
As leader, Corbyn pushed back on attempts by the Labour Party to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. At a 2014 ceremony in Tunisia, Corbyn was photographed holding a wreath near the graves of Palestinian terrorists involved in the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. He claimed that “Zionists” have “no sense of English irony.” And it goes on and on.
Antisemitism in the Labour Party was not just the domain of its leader. Schonfield noted that there have been many examples of “horrific antisemitism in the party” and it has been “mostly bottom-up,” including from party members at large and other current and former elected officials. Members of the Oxford Labour Club hurled open insults at Jews. It took three years for the party to suspend former London mayor and MP Ken Livingstone for remarks saying Hitler was a Zionist “before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” A Labour local councilor shared an antisemitic caricature of the Statue of Liberty being attacked by an alien with a Magen David painted on it. Luciana Berger, then a Labour MP, was one of several prominent Jewish members who left the party because of antisemitic abuse. In May 2019, the British government’s Equality and Human Rights Commission launched an investigation into antisemitism in the party.
When Corbyn became Labour leader, there were two main reactions in the Jewish community. Broadly speaking, there was a “degree of worry, mostly around Israel policies,” while those who were close to or members of the party took a “let’s wait and see” approach according to Schonfield. A group of Jewish Corbyn supporters formed Jewish Voice for Labour, though the group was not part of the community mainstream. During 2018’s “summer of antisemitism,” countless allegations against Corbyn and his supporters in the party surfaced.
Over time, the relationship between the organized Jewish community and Corbyn completely collapsed, leading to what Schonfield called a “destruction of good faith relations” and eventually a large protest outside Parliament. Jewish support for the party “eroded at a steady rate,” and during Corbyn’s tenure as leader from 2015-early 2020 Schonfield estimates that 90% of Jews who formerly supported the party left.
The December 2019 election was Corbyn’s second as Labour leader. In 2017, the party had received its most votes ever due to the country’s growing population. 2019 would be very different. Though Brexit was of primary concern to most voters, the Conservative Party used antisemitism as a way to attack Corbyn and Labour. Non-Jewish Brits in places with no Jews cited antisemitism in Labour as a concern and reason not to trust Corbyn as a potential prime minister. Labour’s antisemitism scandals were everywhere in the British press and media. In a September 2018 poll for Britain’s Jewish Chronicle, nearly 86% of British Jews believed Corbyn is an antisemite (only 8.3% believed he is not), while a Survation poll found that nearly 40% of the British public at large responded in the affirmative.
British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis made what Times of Israel founding editor David Horovitz called an “unprecedented intervention into partisan politics” two weeks before the election when he wrote “a new poison— sanctioned from the very top— has taken root” and that “the way in which the leadership of the Labour Party has dealt with anti-Jewish racism is incompatible with the British values of which we are so proud.” Some Jews considered leaving the country if Corbyn became prime minister. Corbyn may not have been the only one spreading antisemitism in Labour, but he certainly overlooked it. Schonfield summarized the situation as this: “I don’t think Corbyn hates Jews… but he spent four years not taking the concerns of Jews into account,” with Labour “gaslighting” the Jewish community by claiming Corbyn fought against all forms of racism.
Ultimately, the British people forcefully renounced Corbyn and his diehard supporters by handing Johnson’s Tories a resounding victory at the polls. In a September 5 op-ed for Ha’aretz, British-Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer writes that there were several things that made Corbyn unelectable. The then Labour leader’s “inability to comprehend the antisemitism which had spread in Labour, especially among his diehard followers, and his unwillingness to deal with it;” his bizarre “Cold War ‘anti-imperialist’ fixations that made him incapable of criticizing Russia;” Brexit “and Corbyn’s abject refusal to set out a clear position for Britain,” and finally “the sheer incompetence of a man who simply could not make the most basic decisions necessary of a party leader.”
British Jews and voters at large chose the larger than life and controversial Boris Johnson as the figure they wanted to remain prime minister and fulfill his pre-election promise to “get Brexit done.” A strong supporter of Israel and the Jewish community, Johnson has the support of much of mainstream British Jewry. While there have been cases of casual antisemitism amongst some members and supporters in the Conservative Party (like some making references to a “north London liberal elite”), there is no systemic antisemitism in the party.
The political future of British Jews is somewhat up in the air. “Jews are politically homeless right now,” Schonfield says. Some are obviously very pro-Johnson, but the current Conservative government is pretty firmly right-wing and pro-Brexit, something many in the Jewish community do not support. Keir Starmer, the new Labour leader, is a more centrist figure who has promised to take action and fight against antisemitism. The party is working on it, but the damage has already been done and “Jews aren’t going to trust the Labour Party for the next decade at least.”
All of this leads us to the United States. British voters sent Corbyn back to the parliamentary backbenches when they not only renounced his leadership but also Corbynism at large. On November 3, Americans have the chance to not only send Donald Trump packing, but Trumpism with him.
I did not support Donald Trump in the 2016 election. I found the campaign he ran, which began with the now infamous escalator ride and a barrage against Mexican immigrants “bringing drugs… bringing crime” and being “rapists,” to be beneath the dignity of anyone seeking the presidency and frankly disgusting. When he (shockingly) won, though, I refrained from joining the “criticize Trump for every single thing he does” bandwagon. I believed that if he was successful the country would be better off than if he was not. The last three and a half years have shown, however, that he is utterly incapable of doing the job.
Donald Trump is a clear threat to the United States. His “very fine people on both sides” comments about the far-right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 were among the most shocking things I had ever heard up to that point. When neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and Klansmen chant “Jews will not replace us” and murder a peaceful counter-protester there is no room for equivocation. Little did I know that that disgusting press conference at Trump Tower would set the standard for the next three years of this presidency.
It would be an impossible task to list out every example of hateful rhetoric employed by this president and his supporters and enablers. From the racist birther conspiracy peddled against Barack Obama to calling African countries “shitholes” and defending monuments dedicated to the Confederacy and Confederate soldiers (who were all secessionist traitors dedicated to keeping human beings in bondage), Donald Trump’s inflammatory comments around race have easily tainted his claim that he is “the least racist person there is anywhere in the world.”
The president’s responses to the police killings of unarmed black Americans during the summer of 2020 have been well documented. When peaceful protesters assembled across from the White House to demand change and fight systemic racism, the administration ordered federal law enforcement officers to use tear gas to disperse them. He threatened to use the United States military to quelch peaceful protests on American soil. Trump was not referring to state governors calling up the National Guard. President Donald J. Trump wanted to order active duty troops into cities and towns across this country to put down attempts by Americans of all backgrounds to exercise their Constitutional right to peacefully protest. Think about that for a moment.
Trump’s unprecedented politicization of the military led his former defense secretary General James Mattis to write “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort.” In recent months, the president and his supporters have used blatantly racist language and scare tactics, ranting about “law and order,” accusing Democrats of “wanting to destroy the suburbs,” and appealing to racial divides and prejudices to equate instances of riots and looting with all those peacefully protesting for racial equality and justice. George Wallace and those behind the GOP’s Southern Strategy and Silent Majority would be proud.
Trump’s disparaging of military heroes and Gold Star families was well known before he came into office and has continued without consequence. In 2015, he called John McCain, one of the greatest Americans of the past century, a “loser” and said “he is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” In a 2016 interview with ABC’s George Stephanopolous, Trump questioned why Gold Star father Khizr Khan gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention while his wife Ghazala looked on, saying “maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say” (in reality, Ghazala Khan did not speak out of continued grief over her dead son, Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004).
A September 2020 article in The Atlantic by critically acclaimed journalist and magazine editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg contained several instances where the president is said to have called Americans killed, wounded, or captured in combat “losers” and “suckers” while also questioning why people join the military. Countless former officials have criticized Trump’s complete lack of understanding the military’s role and total disregard for service and sacrifice in book after book and article after article, all written by impeccably well-sourced professionals (not evil “deep state operatives”).
Admiring dictators; dismissing intelligence about domestic white nationalist terrorists and Russian interference in American elections; not reading briefings; stoking fear and division; sharing racist dog whistles; appointing unqualified people to the federal bench or to jobs in the executive branch; denying the existential threat that is climate change; threatening to withhold security aid to Ukraine if they did not investigate a political rival and getting impeached for that conduct. All of these examples of dereliction of duty point to a man incapable of understanding what it means to be president.
Trump’s response to the biggest public health crisis in a century might be the biggest low of all. The coronavirus has killed almost 200,000 Americans (and that is just the official count). Millions have been infected. The economy is in tatters. During a time when the president should be leading the charge and setting an example in the war on a deadly virus, Donald Trump spends his time Tweeting, undermining his own virus task force, and questioning qualified doctors, public health officials, and scientists, all the while refusing to wear a mask or call on his supporters and Republican governors to enforce mandates to wear them. He does not tell people to social distance and decides to get medical advice from the founder of a pillow company. Yes, you read that all correctly. Worst of all, he knew.
The recordings of conversations Trump had with veteran investigative journalist Bob Woodward, in which he talked about knowing the dangers of coronavirus in February and admits to playing it down show a president who does not deserve to lead this country for another second, let alone four years. It should be abundantly clear to everyone that Donald Trump does not care about anyone besides himself (and possibly his immediate family). If we were in an armed conflict today, we would lose. The president is simply incompetent and a significant portion of Americans are seemingly unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to beat the virus. Blaming China, calling on states to fully open and end restrictions, and taking no responsibility will not save a single life, yet is all Donald Trump will fall back on because he is a failure.
Finally, there is antisemitism. I do not know or care what Donald Trump thinks about Jews deep down in his being. His actions and statements speak for themselves. In an address to the Republican Jewish Coalition in December 2015, Trump said “and I know why you’re not going to support me. You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money” and “you want to control your own politician,” invoking pernicious antisemitic stereotypes about Jews controlling and buying politicians. Trump told a Republican Jewish Coalition group that Benjamin Netanyahu was “your prime minister” in April 2019, once again using an antisemitic stereotype about Jews and dual loyalty. He published a Tweet calling Hillary Clinton corrupt featuring a stack of money and a six-pointed star (he went on to replace what clearly looks like a Magen David with a circle) in July 2016.
A few days after his inauguration in January 2017, Trump put out a statement for International Holocaust Remembrance Day that did not mention Jews or antisemitism. His incessant talk about a caravan of immigrants heading to the United States from Mexico became fodder for a far-right conspiracy saying Jews were to blame for their impending arrival, inspiring a white supremacist terrorist to kill eleven Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue.
Donald Trump has no problem calling out antisemitism when it comes from those on the far-left, but he has a dismal record of fighting it among his own supporters. Look no farther than Charlottesville, his recent embrace of Qanon conspiracy theorists trafficking in antisemitism, waffling back and forth after David Duke’s endorsement, and refusal to condemn antisemtic attacks on Jewish journalists who had written articles critical of his tactics and policies.
Trump’s defenders point to his Jewish daughter and Israel policies as proof that he is not antisemitic. As I have written previously, I supported many of Trump’s signature Israel moves. However, I find these excuses pathetic and insulting to peoples’ intelligence. Yes, Donald Trump has a Jewish daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren. That does not mean he is exempt from condemning antisemitism in all forms and from both sides of the political spectrum. No Jewish family member, lawyer, or (mostly symbolic) change in Israel policy will hide the fact that he has said antisemitic things and is supported by far-right antisemities.
While they may come from nearly opposite political camps, Pfeffer argues in Ha’aretz that Corbynite and Trumpish antisemitism share many similarities. He defines the phenomena as “an antisemitism which dare not speak its name; instead of openly reviling all Jews, it is selective in those it chooses to hate,” and that “imbeds itself in often ‘loftier causes, be they the intersectional struggles against racism, capitalism and Zionism, or against globalism, liberalism and the cosmopolitan elite.” Perhaps most importantly, “it is the antisemitism that never has a shortage of ‘good Jews’ to give it cover.”
Corbyn’s hard-left Jewish supporters might be a smaller percentage of the British Jewish community than Trump’s Jewish voters (who are disproportionately Orthodox and/or part of the pro-Israel right), but both are minorites and not representative of Anglo or American Jewry. This antisemitism, which “appeals openly to those who traffic in the crudest judeophobic conspiracy theories,” must be renounced by mainstream Jewish communities and the wider British and American publics.
Brits were largely faced with a relatively thankless choice between Corbyn’s Labour and Johnson’s Conservatives. Johnson, with his own history of incendiary remarks and clownish yet authentic personality, was seen as more trustworthy and free of the antisemitism that rocked Corbyn and his hardcore followers. In the upcoming presidential election, Americans are faced with a clear choice: Donald Trump and the chaos, failure, and ugliness that he represents, or Joe Biden, someone not only with the experience necessary to be president but the empathy, human decency, and ability to bring people together and unite this broken country.
Corbyn was repudiated as a leader, and with him went Corbynism. In a few short weeks, we have the chance to not only send Trump back to Mar-a-Lago, but also defeat his Republican enablers in House and Senate races across the country and purge Trumpism from the party of Lincoln. The Brits did not want a far-left socialist and admirer of Castro, Chavez, the Soviet Union, and Hamas with the nuclear codes. The time has come for us to take them away from Xi, Kim, Erdogan, and Putin’s biggest fan in Washington.