Growing up in London during the 1960s, as part of an Orthodox and strongly Zionist family (the two were an integral part of each other and no one ever thought about separating them), my family religiously voted for the Labour Party. This was the party that represented and championed the interests of the ethnic and religious minorities, whose basic values of social welfare and caring for the poor and underprivileged were understood as intrinsically Jewish, and within the ranks of which many prominent members of the Jewish community were active, either as members of Parliament or as local constituency members and organizers. In an era when most other ethnic and immigrant groups were first-generation and still finding their feet in a new society, it was members of the Jewish community who represented their interests in Parliament and stood up for their rights.
There were some members of the family who may have voted for the Liberal Party (later to become the Liberal Democrats) but at that time it was unheard of for any of our acquaintances to vote for the Conservative Party. Our house, a religious Jewish household, read the Guardian newspaper, which, at the time, was seen as representing socialist and liberal values, as well as being the paper (at that time still competing with The Times and long before the emergence of The Independent newspaper) of the educated and intelligentsia, as contrasted with the many tabloids for which the British media is so famous.
Israel and anti-Semitism was simply not on the voting agenda of the time. All three parties had strong Friends of Israel organizations, and while there were probably individuals in all of the parties who were anti-Israel, anti-Semitism was not a major issue facing the community.
To the extent that it existed it was seen as being a leftover of right-wing fascism and some parts of the British aristocracy. As young, clearly identifiable Jewish kids we had no hangups about being Jewish on the streets – although the British have always been far more laid-back in this respect than their North American and New York counterparts – or being Jewish in non-Jewish schools or on university campuses, where Israel and Jewish societies organized a wide range of activities, no more and no less than any other student society, without feelings of resentment, racism or discrimination.
And while it is still perfectly safe and secure to be a Jewish resident of the UK (despite the hysteria that some Israeli newspapers and politicians throw up for their own commercial or political purposes), there is little doubt that the winds of change, especially during the past decade, are leaving their mark.
Anti-Semitism is strongly back on the agenda and there are many British Jews who are asking themselves whether, in the long term, they have a future in Britain, in a country where they have succeeded beyond all expectations during the past hundred years, and where the impressive aliya to Israel has been almost 100 percent about the desire to live in the Jewish state and has rarely ever been an escape from perceived anti-Semitism or persecution.
This has climaxed in the past few weeks within the Labour Party itself. Not only are hard questions being asked about the attitudes toward Jews among the party leadership, and in particular party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who consistently refuses to make any statements or clarifications on the matter, but there have been many who, after decades of membership, have left the party in the light of what they see as growing anti-Semitism and its acceptability among the party leadership and rank and file. The recent expulsion from the party of two prominent activists, Viki Kirby and Scott Nelson, for their anti-Semitic tweets has been seen as no more than an attempt to divert attention away from the real problem which, it would appear, has put down strong roots in the body politic of this once proud party.
The growing discontent with racism within the party comes at the same time as the co-chairperson of the Labour Students Association at Oxford University, Alex Chalmers, resigned, claiming that he was no longer able to deal with the anti-Semitic comments and slurs of his fellow members.
Two important opinion columns have appeared this past week in the leading international press. Both of them, by Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian and Nick Cohen, strongly support Israel’s intrinsic right to exist but, like so many others among Israel’s supporters, are also critical of Israeli government policies and, like this writer, have been reticent to attribute all criticism of Israel to a raw anti-Semitism. But they have both raised serious questions about what is going on among the intellectual Left in general, and the Labour Party in particular. They note the fact that many Jews no longer feel able to be members of, or vote for, a party which in so many other respects represent the very best in Jewish values.
In terms of numbers, given the small size of the British Jewish community, this is probably meaningless in terms of electoral success. The contrary is true – if most of the new immigrant groups, many of whom have a strong hatred of Israel and most things Jewish (by association), were to sign up for the party this would be much more significant in electoral terms. But that is simply missing the real issue.
Both Freedman and Cohen note that Jews are being singled out by party elites and in meetings of the party organizations and that, increasingly, the critique of Israel and Zionism, much of it spurred on by radical groups which have joined the party in recent years, makes no distinction whatsoever between Israel and the wider Jewish community. This is not surprising given the fact that in a recent survey of the Jewish community approximately 80% of respondents stated that the existence of Israel was an integral component of their Jewish identity. Whether they supported or opposed the particular policies of any Israeli government was another matter altogether, many of them opposing occupation and favoring withdrawal from the West Bank, but nevertheless strong and staunch supporters of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
The growth of this latent anti-Semitism became all the clearer during the past three years when, for the first time, the party was headed by a Jewish politician, Ed Milliband. The dinner-party remarks and jokes about Jews were clear to all, even though Milliband had never previously been known for any strong attachment to the Jewish community or specific Jewish causes and was himself highly critical of Israeli government policies vis a vis the Palestinians and the occupied territories.
Much the same can be said of the sorts of conversations and comments which are being made about the first Jewish candidate for a presidential primary in the United States, Bernie Sanders, at a time when in the North America many Jews are switching their allegiances away from the Democratic party after a century-long alignment with the party of social values, similar to those of Labour in the UK. This parallels the significant movement of Jewish voters in the UK away from Labour to the right-wing Conservative Party, a movement which has taken place ever since Margaret Thatcher was in power but has increased in recent years. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron is perceived as being one of Israel’s staunchest supporters in the UK.
Within the respective Jewish communities of the UK and US, there are many who still feel uncomfortable with the idea of a Jew running for the highest position of power. What, they argue over Friday evening dinners, will happen if and when there is a financial crisis and it is the prime minister or president, a Jew, who is blamed for all of the country’s ills? Better, they argue, to remain senior government ministers, high court judges, university professors and successful businessmen, but leave the ultimate position of power to others.
As the issues of Israel, Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Semitism become increasingly intertwined, the borders between them are becoming all the more blurred. Yes, you can still be a critic of Israel and not necessarily be an anti-Semite, but if you don’t make this abundantly clear by standing up for the Jewish community whenever there is an anti-Semitic slur, when a cemetery is desecrated or when a religious man is attacked on his way back from synagogue, then you too are just as guilty for opening the back door to anti-Semitism and you cannot escape being branded with such a label.
The Labour Party opened its back door to this form of anti-Semitism some years ago. Recent events would indicate that the anti-Semites are now walking brazenly through the front door, thus destroying the reputation of this once proud party for its moral stands against racism, on behalf of the poor and the underprivileged, and in promoting greater equality and access to opportunity for all. Such a party does not deserve to return to power until it cleans up its act and returns to those values which attracted my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, the immigrants from Eastern Europe to the UK, who found in it a natural home.
The writer, originally from the UK, is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his own.