Marla Cohen

Love. Labour. Lost.

The party was the political home for the vast majority of Great Britain’s Jews. How did it become so unlivable?
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at a rally in Stainton Village in Middlesbrough, while on the General Election campaign trail.  Wednesday December 11, 2019. (Owen Humphreys/PA Wire)
Jeremy Corbyn in 2014 (Credit: Wikipedia/Garry Knight)

While the bar mitzvah boy’s friends were bopping on the dance floor, the grownups around our table discussed the one thing that preoccupied all manner of Jewish conversation in England.

Jeremy Corbyn.

“I’d rather throw away my vote,” said one relative. “I’ll vote for the Liberal Dems.”

Very few threw away their shot. The country, en masse, delivered a resounding victory to Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party, which won in the largest Tory landslide since Margaret Thatcher’s win in 1987. It was a stunning rebuke to Labour and Corbyn, who will likely be deposed as his party seeks to remake itself.

Only a few short weeks ago, my husband and I made the trip to England to attend a family simcha. Wherever we went, it was obvious that the Jews of Great Britain felt squeezed by a political situation not of their making.

They voted two-to-one in 2016 to stay in the European Union. Most abhor Johnson, who is seen as a self-serving buffoon, and has promised them a no-deal Brexit. The undisciplined Johnson showed remarkable focus, campaigning on one message: Get Brexit Done. Now he will have the chance to do so, and by Jan. 31, the deadline last agreed to by the European Union.

The idea of a Corbyn victory had Jewish Britain running scared from a party that most of them have backed in the past. And yet a pre-election poll by the Jewish Chronicle reported that more than three-quarters of the nation’s Jews preferred a no-deal Brexit over a Labour victory. And nearly a quarter said they’d rather vote for the Liberal Democrats, a party that has welcomed Labour defectors, but that appears to have lost a seat in this latest round, including that of its leader, Jo Swinson, who will now step down.

In the space of just over three years, Britain’s Jews, who make up .5 percent of the population — fewer than 265,000 people, according to the U.K.’s 2011 census — opted to make an about-face on leaving the European Union, rather than see a party that many once called their political home come to power. It’s an astonishing turnaround, and glum resignation felt palpable throughout our trip whenever the subject arose.

For most Jews, supporting Brexit meant turning their backs on economic prosperity and sustained peace. Brexit would open the door to isolationist uncertainty. Leaving the European Union is anathema to almost everyone I spoke with — especially anyone under 40. The specter of increased tariffs, rising prices, and a future of limited opportunities for their children would loom over the conversation, as they envisioned the tangible outcomes of the U.K. walking out of the 28-member political and economic consortium.

But self-preservation is a powerful motivator. Voting for a man who at best tolerates anti-Semites and at worst is one, was simply untenable.

The Friday we arrived in London, a video of a man on the city’s underground hurling insults at a Jewish family traveling in the same car was making social media rounds. The rant goes on for quite a while, until finally the man was taken to task for his disgusting bigotry by a brave Muslim woman, who took no nonsense from him in standing up for the family under attack.

Corbyn should have taken some pointers from her.

But time and again, he balked when he had the chance to denounce the anti-Semitism that has roiled his party. He finally apologized, reluctantly, when pushed by an ITV reporter last week.

Labour members have hounded Jews in their party from its ranks. Corbyn himself has called Hamas and Hezbollah “friends” and waves away Jewish complaints about his willful inability to empathize with victims of anti-Semitism; he’s said that Jews simply do not understand “British irony.”

It made me wonder if the North London rabbi beaten by thugs shouting, “Kill the Jews” as he walked home from shul two weeks ago caught the subtle irony in that gesture.

It seemed almost unimaginable that Corbyn, leader of a major political party, had any shot at forming the United Kingdom’s next government. His party was under a formal investigation by Britain’s’ Equality and Human Rights Commission, which was looking into whether discrimination within Labour against Jews has become an institutional problem.

While we traveled to see friends and relatives in Bristol and Devon, the country’s chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, published an op-ed in the Times of London, asking “What is to become of Jews and Judaism in Britain if the Labour Party forms the next government?”

The chief rabbi doesn’t wander into the political fray every day, or without weighing his words carefully. His op-ed was unprecedented. Why was he having to single out Labour’s blindness on anti-Semitism, which he described as a “failure to see this as a human problem rather than a political one,” one that finds support at the pinnacle of its leadership.

“Many members of the Jewish community can hardly believe that this is the same party that they proudly called their political home for more than a century,” Mirvis wrote. “It can no longer claim to be the party of diversity, equality and anti-racism. This is the Labour Party in name only.”

Dame Margaret Hodge, a Jewish Labour MP who just secured her seat representing Barking, noted that a year ago there were four Jewish women serving in the Labour party, and now she is the lone survivor. Two left the party over anti-Semitism and one lost her seat.

“And I think that in itself says a lot about what the party felt in relation to its attitude to Jews and therefore the nastiness which the party has become.”

Like the Democratic Party here in the United States, Labour typically has been the voting home of the majority of Great Britain’s Jews, who came to it as it championed socialist ideals, and later because it was seen as a party that did not tolerate racism.  Labour has a history of taking on minority rights, social justice causes, and liberal policies that Jewish voters overwhelmingly have supported in both countries. And Jews, who in earlier generations were immigrant newcomers, found themselves more welcome among the ranks of Labour than in the staid echelons of the Conservative Party, which represented an entrenched class system.

That political home obviously became fraught and unwelcoming — so much so that before the election, 47 percent of Britain’s Jews reported they would consider emigrating if Labour won.

No one in our family asked us to make up the guest room back in the States during our visit. But you have to wonder how Labour could arrive at such an enlightened place that, had they come to power, nearly half of one minority group would want to make its own Brexit.

About the Author
Marla Cohen is a freelance writer in Rockland County, New York.
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