Labour and British Jews: Time for reconciliation

Jeremy Corbyn 

Credit: Jewish News
Jeremy Corbyn Credit: Jewish News

It’s time to cool things down. There’s been an awful lot of heat over the past few weeks, and not just from the weather. The conflict between the Labour party and Jewish communal organisations has been hugely stressful for all of us, no matter your views on it. The discussion, particularly on social media, tends to generate more heat than light. And it’s being increasingly expressed in zero-sum terms. Some in the Jewish community have said that it cannot be resolved unless Corbyn himself resigns. And some on the left have seen the whole affair as a ‘pro-Israel’ plot, in which everything should be considered a smear. Both views are wrong and only serve to drag the whole situation out.

It’s in nobody’s interest for this conflict to continue. Well, almost nobody’s. It helps antisemites, who can use confusion about what actually constitutes antisemitism to spread their lies and caricatures. And it’s helps the Jewish far-right, who are ever keen to promote the notion that Jews are not safe in the diaspora, and should instead move to Israel. But it’s bad for Labour and bad for the British Jewish community. It’s bad for Labour because it has received bucketloads of negative press coverage at a time when the Conservatives are in total disarray and the focus should be on Government failure. But more importantly, it goes against the party’s deeply held self-image that it is an anti-racist party. When John McDonnell says that the antisemitism affair has ‘shaken Labour to the core’ I absolutely believe him. But the conflict is also bad for us British Jews. Many non Jewish people simply don’t understand what it going on, and feel that people and views are being branded antisemitic without proper justification. That in turn makes them more suspicious of allegations of antisemitism, and is likely to increase antisemitic attitudes. That is a real danger we, as a community, have to take seriously. There is also the fact that Labour are likely to be in government soon, given that the party is consistently polling around 40%, and the Conservatives cannot get their Brexit plans through the Commons.  The idea that centrist Labour MPs are going to form a breakaway party is a fantasy — they would lose their seats and fare little better than the SDP in the early 1980s. So a Labour government in the coming years is highly likely, and it will be lead by Corbyn, or another leader from the left of the party. Do we relish the idea of the Jewish community being in total conflict with the government of the day? Do we want to sever connections with allies in a period where the far right (see the burgeoning movement around Tommy Robinson) is growing fast?  Wouldn’t it be better for both sides to start building some bridges?

Here’s how I think we can do it. Firstly the Labour party needs to start doing proper outreach in the Jewish community and have senior staff meet as many British Jews as possible: Rabbis, teachers, youth movement workers, artists, academics, Jewish Labour members and run of the mill British Jews. Hear their stories, listen to their fears, talk of their hopes, try to rebuild some trust. It can’t all be left to the Board of Deputies – no one body can represent all of us, in our glorious diversity. And we Jews need to take be prepared to engage with Labour; nothing can be improved if we simply shake our heads and stay away.

In time the party will need to return to its proposed code of conduct, and reshape it in dialogue with Jewish voices. I think both sides will need to compromise, and, hyperbole aside, they are not so far apart. The party should not treat its guidance notes as set in stone. There are some things which could be easily fixed — certain forms of language are described as ‘wrong’ rather than ‘antisemitic’ – I don’t think the party would have a problem with changing that. And the Jewish community should not treat the IHRA definition and examples as having come down from Mount Sinai. It is a ‘working definition’, so it will need to be adapted for use in different contexts. It should be possible, as the All Party Report into antisemitism suggested, to draft a document that protects Jews from antisemitism whilst ensuring that necessary debate around Israel/Palestine is not hindered (including the right to call for a single multicultural democracy in Israel and the Palestinian territories).

Thirdly, the party should create a programme of high quality anti-racist education, and mandate that every constituency party runs it. Momentum should do the same for its local branches. This should focus on all forms of racism, as they are connected, but should include education on antisemitism, and how it is often manifested through conspiracy theories that are not always obvious to the untrained eye. This education should focus on discussion, as anti-racism needs to be something people come to understand through engagement with each other, not just handed down from above. It’s always going to be challenging when a party gains hundreds of thousands of members overnight — some are inevitably going to hold offensive views, and others may say unwise things due to a lack of understanding. Not every person making a clumsy remark on social media is a confirmed antisemite, and suspensions and expulsions are blunt instruments at the best of times. Sustained political education is the best way to deal with prejudice, and the one most likely to have lasting effects.

Finally, both sides should accept the other’s good faith. Most Jews want a good relationship with the Labour party and have no issue in principle with a Corbyn-led Labour government. In private, at least, most Jews appreciate the party is not an ‘existential threat’ to us.  Labour, in turn, desperately wants to rebuild the relationship with the Jewish community. It acknowledges that it has been slow to act on cases of antisemitism amongst members, and has already gone some way towards improving its procedures. Let’s ignore the extreme voices on both sides and calmly sort this out. It’s time for reconciliation — we will all be better off.

About the Author
Joseph Finlay is the former Deputy Editor of the Jewish Quarterly and a PhD student at Southampton University, researching British Jewish history. He works widely in Jewish music, and is Musical Director of Mosaic Liberal Synagogue and the London Jewish Male Choir.
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