Justin Cohen
Justin Cohen

Why communal issues will weigh heavily on voters’ minds next week

A week from now, either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn will enter Downing Street. Many, of course, will have made up their minds long ago. After 18 months of shocking headlines about Corbyn’s past pronouncements and anti-Semitism in his party, Theresa May would likely have to announce a ban on shechita for some to consider backing her main rival for Number 10. While the candidacy of prominent community members at the forefront of fighting anti-Semitism may help to avoid a dramatic erosion of support beyond the low levels of 2015, the wrath they faced from some quarters is a measure of the anger the Labour brand currently stirs up among parts of Anglo-Jewry.

Jewish voters may be swayed by Brexit, cost of living, the economy and local candidates as well as ‘Jewish’ issues, but it’s likely the latter will weigh even more heavily on people’s minds than usual next week. The fact the Tory manifesto didn’t mention Israel certainly raised eyebrows but in many ways question marks – and there were many when the UK reportedly played a leading role in UN resolution condemning settlements – have since been put to bed through actions marking her out as one of Israel’s greatest international friends. The UK’s stance against the anti-Israel bias of the UN Human Rights Council and unprecedented condemnation of then Secretary of State John Kerry was especially striking.

Where questions persist over Corbyn’s positions on some forms of boycotts and the Balfour Declaration whose centenary we mark this year, May has made clear it would be marked with “pride”. She makes no mention in her article of the Dubs amendment, whose curtailment was widely condemned, but on tackling anti-Semitism where she seeks to stress clear blue water between herself and main rival, saying her record of zero tolerance stands in contrast to his. On this, as the PM rightly points out, she has indeed been “strong and consistent”.

Certainly, that take will ring true with many of our readers. Rhetoric of zero tolerance has all too often not been matched by actions; a suggestion that our concerns have not been taken as seriously as they should. The cases Ken Livingstone and Oxford Union Labour Club. The speedy readmission of Jackie Walker, only for the party to have to suspend her again, stand out.

It’s true many of the offensive social media posts revealed over the last year were posted well before Corbyn became leader. It’s also true his clear condemnation of Nazi-Israel comparisons (a favourite of anti-Semitic elements on the Left) were a step forward and that both main parties have adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. But there’s no getting away from the fact that under his watch the party has repeatedly fallen short in the way it has dealt with some cases.

Of course there is also no getting away from a 30-year one-sided record on Israel and the Palestinians. The very thought of someone who previously introduced members of Hamas as ‘friends’ and who attended an event where a wreath was laid at the grave of Munich Olympic terrorist becoming PM, is more than enough to send a shudder through many British Jews.

There have been seeds of progress over the last year. Such revelations only undermine the fact that his second speech to Labour Friends of Israel was widely viewed as being more balanced than the first and the final draft of Labour’s manifesto, which unlike the Tories makes specific mention of the Middle East, condemned terror attacks on Israelis. The manifesto, however, also includes a pledge to “immediately” recognise Palestine – a move which would disincentivise negotiations.

With May and Tim Farron having already addressed the community directly through these pages, there is still time for Corbyn to do so for the first time. No one is pretending he would get an easy ride but it’s precisely because of the persistent concern in Anglo-Jewry – so much so that the new JLC chair has suggested his victory would create a crisis for the community – that such direct engagement is so important. And all the more so from a leader who has shown himself ready to go head to head with the PM (which she sidestepped) and who, even his fiercest critics recognise, has outperformed expectations and visibly grown with confidence with every day of this campaign.

About the Author
Justin Cohen is News Editor of the Jewish News.
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