In the same week that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes an official visit to the UK, the British Labour Party will announce the results of its election leadership. As things appear at present, radical left-wing candidate Jeremy Corbyn seems certain to win the most ballots, although it remains to be seen whether this will be sufficient to give him an absolute majority, or whether the count will have to include the second preferences of the party voters, in which case it is possible that one of the other three, more centrist social democrat candidates could overtake Corbyn.
When I was growing up in an Orthodox Jewish and strongly Zionist household in North London of the 1960s and early 1970s, there was never any question that our parents would vote for the Labour Party in the general elections. The Labour Party was the party of the poor and the downtrodden, representing the interests of the immigrants and the religious minorities. They were the party of the Welfare State, the party with a strong mission of social responsibility. In the very best of Jewish traditions, it was a party that cared for others and not just for itself.
At that time, Israel was not an electoral issue on the agenda of the Anglo Jewish community. They did not view either of the two major parties – Labour and the Conservative Party – as being particularly different regarding the State of Israel. The prime minister at the time, Harold Wilson, as have almost all British prime ministers since that time displayed a strong friendship toward the Jewish community and toward Israel, regardless of the fact that he did not necessarily agree with Israel’s post-1967 policies regarding the Palestinians and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Prime ministers such as Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron of the Conservative Party, and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown of Labour have enjoyed close and warm relationships with Israel, even when the Foreign Ministry has not always shared the same warmth.
Unlike the United States, the Jewish vote in the UK is relatively insignificant. The whole community, including large numbers who are totally unaffiliated, numbers little more than 250,000. With the exception of some constituencies in the Jewish heartland of North West London, their overall impact on the election outcome is negligible. But the voice of the community on issues relating to anti-Semitism and religious freedom at home, and the party’s attitudes towards Israel abroad, has become far more vociferous in recent years, as they see a growing distancing between the party political leadership, especially that of the Labour and Liberal Democrat Parties, and their concerns.
Since the 1970s there has been a gradual drift of Jewish votes away from Labour and toward the Conservative Party. This is for two reasons.
As the community continues to be economically and socially mobile, increasingly affluent and successful, the social and economic messages of the Conservative Party have become increasingly relevant. This was particularly the case with Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, whose own personal life story was one which mirrored the Jewish experience.
It is perhaps not surprising that the Thatcher Cabinet had more Jewish members around the table than any other British government before or since. These were people who, like her and like the Jewish community as a whole, were proud of their own efforts to lift themselves out of the poor and downtrodden experience of immigrants and within two to three generations make their mark in all walks of British life, in science, commerce, politics, education and culture.
And while the Jewish community disproportionately contributes to charity and social welfare causes, they did this out of a strong self belief in the responsibility of the community always to assist those less fortunate than themselves, both within the community and beyond it, rather than relying solely on the state to automatically bail everybody out, even when they weren’t prepared to make an effort on their own behalf.
Despite the shift, a diminishing majority of the Anglo Jewish community continued to vote for the Labour Party, but this has now been brought into question with what is seen, by many, as a party and a leadership which has displayed blatant anti-Israel sentiment, has not sufficiently taken up the cudgels in the fight against renewed anti-Semitism, and which has developed an unbalanced policy toward all things relating to Israel and, in some cases , to the wider Jewish community, if only because of its close ties with Israel.
The previous Labour leader, Ed Milliband, was Jewish by birth, and following his rise to leadership of the party was careful to demonstrate his Jewish background, and his Israeli relatives, even though he has never been in any way affiliated with the community. His positions on Israel were considered too critical by much of the Jewish community, but there was never any question about his clear stand on issues relating to racism and anti-Semitism. At the most, there were probably not a few members of the community who either saw him as being too radical, moving away from the centrist policies of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, or – ironically – not desiring to have a Jewish prime minister when every mistake and error on his part would be reflected in an anti-Semitic innuendo or slur.
The same cannot be said for Corbyn. Not only does he publicly support groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, he has come out strongly against Israel, so that even critical supporters of Israel on the Left of the political spectrum – those not enamored of the warm reception Netanyahu will receive this week in Downing Street and critical of Israel’s continued policies vis a vis the Palestinians, but who nevertheless support Israel and its right to exist as a Jewish state, have completely turned off. The fact that none other than one of Britain’s leading anti-Semites and rabble rousers, George Galloway, has indicated that if Corbyn were to be elected he would consider rejoining the Labour Party, and has offered his support to a Corbyn election campaign, speaks for itself. Corbyn is bad news for the Jewish community because he represents all of the intolerance and hidden anti-Semitism which, in recent years, has slowly been surfacing among groups who, it had been assumed, would be the first to defend the rights of all ethnic and religious minorities.
The only piece of good news about a Corbyn victory, as far as many within the community are concerned, is the fact that a Labour Party led by him would be an absolute certainty to lose the next general election, by even a bigger majority than that experienced by Milliband earlier this year. The British public seeks the center path – they do not like extremes. They supported Tony Blair who brought Labour back from the radical Left into the center, seeking cross-societal consensus rather than ideological confrontation. This year’s election result was partly due to the fact that Milliband was perceived as taking the party back toward a more radical position. If Corbyn is elected as party leader this coming week, it would appear the party has not learned the lesson and is clearly bent on electoral and political suicide in the long term.
The Labour Party election campaign has taught us that there is a large constituency of people on the Left in the UK who really don’t care about anti-Semitism. They can’t see it. They can only recognize it as Zionists trying to silence support for the Palestinians.
And the fact that the three centrist candidates have been either unwilling or unable to push Corbyn hard on this issue would indicate that they feel the same, or that the concerns of the Jewish community simply isn’t a winning issue.
Corbyn appears to be an honest, hard-working parliamentarian who cares about his constituents.
His constituency of North Islington is composed of many ethnic and immigrant groups, bordering some of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods of Hackney and Stamford Hill. He does not waste public funds and cycles around London rather than using chauffeured cars and displaying all the trappings of power and office. He came out totally clean in the recent investigation into the misuse of public funds by many MPs. For all that he is to be commended, but his blatant and overstated lack of sympathy toward Israel or the Jewish community means that, if elected, there will be an even greater shift of Jewish support away from the Labour Party to the open arms of a Cameron-led Conservative Party, which is now perceived as being the closest ally of an embattled Anglo Jewish community.The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University. Originally from the UK, he was awarded the OBE in 2013 for promoting scientific relations between Israel and the UK. The views expressed are his alone.