The day our leaders changed the narrative on Labour anti-Semitism

Another day and another angry statement about Labour anti-Semitism was released by despairing community leaders. Impotent in the face of the party’s lacklastre approach, meanwhile, British Jews spent the day shouting at the TV news and talking around the dinner table about their concerns being  mocked and belittled.

Or at least that could have been the scene yesterday – as it has time and time again over the last few years. Instead, the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council changed the narrative – in dramatic and unprecedented fashion.

In under 48 hours, they came up with plans for the ‘enough is enough’ rally, organised the logistics, successfully encouraged thousands to attend, members of the Jewish alongside MPs, and finally attracted wall to wall media coverage. None of this was inevitable. Our community’s leaders did just that: they led, tapping into growing discontent and acting decisively in the interests of the fight against racism. In doing so, they put aside the fact such action against an official Opposition was unprecedented and that Corbyn could yet become PM. Perhaps because of it.

If memories of the last Gaza conflict remain fresh, when the main communal bodies were accused of dropping the ball, they certainly appear to have learnt a lesson.

The result was an awesome public display of community unity beamed into living rooms nationwide and making clear that Jews fearful about Labour are the mainstream majority, no matter how many tweets sent by their co-religionists who insist the issue is exaggerated.

There is also something to be said for the fact that proactive action, supported by so many allies, left many in our community feeling somehow less despondent about where we have found ourselves.

But will it actually make a difference where it most counts: at the highest levels of the party. There’ll be no shortage of doubters after the last huge eruption was followed by the much-criticised Chakrabarti report, but early indications suggest it’s not impossible. In response to the brandishing of the dual stick of protest and publicity, Corbyn has acknowledged that antisemitism cases have often not been dealt with quickly enough and explicitly acknowledged some expressions of the new antisemitism. These are all important words that ought to have been said two years or more ago.

By going further than ever before themselves, community leaders have forced the Labour leader to go much further than he has previously. You can’t help but think that images of the demo shook a man who so proudly talks of his mother taking to the streets to oppose antisemitism in another era.

The acid test, however, will be whether he acts when the media glare has subsided. And when he says there needs to be a greater understanding of contemporary antisemitism, is he ready to include himself and those around him in that? If so, he has much to gain, including a legacy about which those at Cable Street would be rightly proud.

As an aside, there was another aspect of yesterday which should give hope to our community. Nearly three years after the BOD and JLC each released very different statements on the election of Corbyn, they joined forces and resources to pull off a master stroke. Perhaps there’s a lesson there too.

In fact, it’s the second major issue brought to a head this week through a combination of leadership and a united front, with the judicial review into the coroner Mary Hassell due before the High Court today. And we can add to the list of triumphs of leadership that of Chief Rabbi Mirvis in rebuking his Israeli counterpart over remarks about black people.

It’s very easy to knock those who choose to put their heads above the parapet to lead – indeed it has become a popular pastime for some in British Jewry. Today, especially, we should recognise and applaud what they do.

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