I’m tired of hearing people claim supporting Labour is antisemitic

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn during the launch of his party's manifesto in Birmingham. (Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire via Jewish News)
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn during the launch of his party's manifesto in Birmingham. (Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire via Jewish News)

I am an American Jew living in the UK. Despite having made this country my home, I am not eligible to vote in this election. Nevertheless, I am campaigning for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, and I’m tired of hearing people claim that supporting Labour is antisemitic.

As is well known, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis suggested Jeremy Corbyn is “unfit for high office”, while the editors of the Jewish Chronicle recently appealed to non-Jews to vote against Labour.

I also have a message to non-Jews: nobody can speak on behalf of all of us.

It is often said that Jews like to argue. Our religion is the product of centuries of Rabbis arguing over the minute details of Biblical law. Contrary to how it’s popularly portrayed, Zionism was never a unified Jewish ideology, but a political movement internally divided between left- and right-wing factions — some even advocating a Jewish homeland in Uganda — and vocal Jewish detractors.

One thing I’ve learned from my Jewish upbringing, over so many Seders and sabbath meals, is that you often can’t win arguments with fellow Jews. I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried, and failed, to make the case that our Jewish values require us to oppose Israel’s occupation of Palestine, or fight Islamophobia as vociferously as we do antisemitism. Passions run high in these moments, and I acknowledge the real emotional attachment my family and friends feel towards Israel as a refuge from persecution. My mother, who was born and raised in Israel before immigrating to America, sometimes shares my views on these issues, and other times disagrees.

I know a thing or two about antisemitism. I wrote my PhD at University College London on debates around male circumcision, and I identified deep-rooted antisemitism in the anti-circumcision movement. On Labour, I have tried to explain that, while Jeremy Corbyn has made mistakes, he has also taken many bold and often unpopular stands against antisemitism and racism of all forms.

Corbyn has sped up the expulsion of Labour party members who’ve expressed antisemitism. He co-planned a 2015 counter-fascist demo in defence of Jewish residents in Golders Green. And he led the clean-up of the Finsbury Park Synagogue after a 2002 antisemitic attack.

However, I accept that I can’t convince all Jews whose opposition to Labour has calcified at this point in time. They have their reasons – fuelled by the party’s initial mishandling of the issue – and I begrudgingly respect them.

Nevertheless, there was something distinctly un-Jewish about the Chief Rabbi’s statement and the media cry to not vote Labour. In treating Jewish views on Labour as monolithic, and claiming to speak as the unified voice of the Jewish community, they flout the old adage, “two Jews, three opinions”.

I am one of many Jews who believe that today’s Labour Party offers an opportunity to transform this country for the better. To end devastating austerity, save the NHS, combat the climate emergency, and yes, stop the growing tide of racism and xenophobia of all forms, antisemitism included.

The United Nations called the UK’s “austerity experiment” a “social calamity” that has inflicted “great misery”. The IPPR recently estimated that 130,000 preventable deaths were caused by austerity. 14.3 million people live in poverty in this country. These are crimes against humanity, for which I believe both Labour and Judaism share an answer: “Justice, justice, you shall pursue”.

Indeed, the great Jewish candidate for President Bernie Sanders is championing the American equivalent of Labour’s manifesto.

Despite his admittedly poor performance on Andrew Neil, Corbyn has apologised several times for the party’s handling of antisemitism. Boris Johnson, on the other hand, continues to refuse to apologise for calling black people “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, comparing Muslim women to “letterboxes”, and calling gay men “tank-topped bumboys”.

So, for those well-intentioned non-Jews who worry we might take offence at your support for Labour, I want to remind you: we don’t all agree. Voting with your conscience is indeed the most Jewish thing you can do.


About the Author
Jordan Osserman is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in the Department of Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck (University of London).
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