Michael Rainsbury
Jewish Educator

Jeremy Corbyn’s Jewish Condition

Jeremy Corbyn and the Jews. The tragic story thus far, never far from another chapter, should logically put any hopes of reconciliation beyond possibility. Except that it doesn’t. There’s some part of me that wishes the Labour Party leader would just buck up the courage and say something nice about us. And then everything would be OK, or at least not as bad. Even if we have an inkling it’s not genuine.

His latest opportunity to do this was his message to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which asked each party leader to produce a video message to the Jewish community ahead of this week’s general election. His message was scripted, and no doubt very carefully calibrated. Jeremy Corbyn offered the following praise of the Jewish community:

  1. Corbyn thanks the Board for producing a manifesto which promotes values of “inclusion, social cohesion and diversity,” – those are his values too, he says.
  2. Corbyn reminisces about being mentored by veteran Jewish union members. The Jewish values of being open, welcoming, mutually supportive and socially just are lessons he says he learned from them.
  3. Finally, Corbyn notes that Jewish organisations, fighting alongside his mother, helped stop the fascists in the Battle of Cable Street.

On the face of it, these seem to be personal recollections, which show a genuine effort to forge a connection with the Jewish community after two years of turmoil. However a closer look reveals something more troubling: all of the praise is qualified. Jews deserve praise as long as they fight for social justice, as defined by Jeremy Corbyn. The Board’s manifesto is praised only when its values coincide with Jeremy Corbyn’s.

And then consider what Corbyn could have said. He could have praised the Jewish school system, its charitable organisations, the community’s contribution to British life, the role of interfaith workers and much more. But he doesn’t. Could this be because he feels that the Jewish community’s broad support for the State of Israel (which to him is itself a cause for social injustice) undermines all else? I can only speculate, but this lack of basic praise is conspicuous in its absence. It is surely not asking too much of Jeremy Corbyn to offer some unconditional praise.

The very nature of politics is such that the public’s support for an individual or party is conditional. Party leaders must earn trust from the public, and perceived failure is likely to lead to a loss of trust. However politicians must never impose those rules on citizens. Jews do not have to earn their trust of Jeremy Corbyn more than anyone else. Yet whilst Corbyn has recently lavished praise on the British people as a whole, and aims to “unlock the talent of Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority people”, the best he can offer the Jewish community is that they fought alongside his mother at Cable Street, in 1936.

I’ve always enjoyed living in the UK and Israel, two places where I am accepted for whoever I am and whatever I believe in. I have always felt free to express my opinions without fear of being persecuted, and more importantly, that my faith has never played a role in that. It is hard to overstate how much of an anomaly this is in the course of European Jewish history. When Jews were accepted at all, it was often conditional. Jews would be left alone if they lived in certain areas, paid certain taxes or entered certain professions.

As the world marches on, so does anti-Semitism. In 2017 it’s not fashionable to ask Jews to pay special taxes, limit professions or live in certain areas – and it’s unlikely it will ever be. But Jeremy Corbyn’s condition is that the Jewish community must fall into line with his worldview of social justice.

Coupled with Corbyn’s support for Hamas, his shambolic handling of an anti-Semitism enquiry and his failure to take strong action against anti-Semites in his movement, it is unsurprising that he is unwilling to say the line Theresa May opened her equivalent video message with: “I’m immensely proud of the Jewish community in Britain and its huge contribution to our national life.”

In this election there is a clear choice. Theresa May respects the Jewish community, while Jeremy Corbyn does not. People say that Jeremy Corbyn will take Britain back to the seventies. But for Jews, it will be more like the seventeenth century. Let’s ensure he doesn’t turn back time on the Jewish condition.

About the Author
Michael Rainsbury is the Head of Adult Education at the London School of Jewish Studies and a Sacks Scholar. He created the first dedicated English language tours of the Israeli President’s Residence in Jerusalem and leads Jewish heritage tours with JRoots. All articles are written in a personal capacity.