Sitting around a dinner table with London-based friends who are frequent visitors to Israel, the discussion focused on the aftermath of the recent UK general election.
Yes, the Conservatives scraped through with a minority win, but as the conversation progressed, it was almost as though we were hearing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s post-election reaction. He interpreted Labour’s gain of 30 seats as though he had won.
Our friends were sounding the alarm that this leader – who fails to condemn antisemitism within his party, who counts Hamas and Hezbollah as his friends, and has gained the support of a vast number of young voters – was speaking as though he were the prime minister.
No doubt, free university education plus investment in the National Health Service proved popular. What about antisemitism? Could this, too, have been an attraction for Labour voters? In today’s Labour Party you don’t have to be Jewish to be at the receiving end of antisemitism. In September 2016 The Times reported that Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley, had to fix nine additional locks on her front door.
“I have had 600 rape threats in a single night,” she said. “There have been hundreds of pages of abuse with an antisemitic undercurrent.... People call me a Zionist traitor, they say I’m taking shekels, that I’m Mossad – and I’m not even Jewish….
There is definitely antisemitism, and Corbyn needs to clamp down on it.”
Phillips says she is accused of being disloyal to Corbyn.
A London Evening Standard report quoted Jewish MP Ruth Smeeth saying she has been called a Yid c***, a CIA/Mossad informant, and has been at the receiving end of continued racial abuse. She had to move to a safe house and required security protection at the Labour Party Conference.
“I don’t talk about Israel or Palestine,” Smeeth said. This [abuse] is not about anything I’ve said on Middle East politics....
“I’ve never seen antisemitism in Labour on this scale,” she continued. “The sheer volume of it has made it normal.... Labour is no longer a safe space for British Jews....
“My biggest issue is that he [Corbyn] knows it’s happening and that it’s still happening.”
Smeeth pointed out that there were other Labour MPs at the receiving end of antisemitism – many non-Jews – part of the majority who were against Corbyn’s leadership.
Corbyn has done little to combat antisemitism.
What has evolved is that anti-Zionism is a euphemism for antisemitism.
Vernon Bogdanor, a research professor at the Center for British Politics and Government, King’s College London, explains: “Corbyn and his friends share the Trotskyite view that Israel is an outpost of Western imperialism. His anti-Zionism is itself antisemitic since it singles out Israel for all sorts of sins while ignoring far worse breaches of human rights in other countries.
“But it has now gone further than that, where the simple fact that someone is a Jew is sufficient to label them a ‘Zionist’ and so, for the Trotskyites, an enemy.”
While a few Labour MPs have denounced antisemitism, the majority have – in Bogdanor’s words – “kept their heads down.” That Labour gained an additional 30 seats in this election was a surprise not only for the Conservatives but also for the 172 Labour MPs who, just one year ago, declared no confidence in Corbyn. It had appeared that the 2017 election would bring an increased majority for the Conservatives, which would automatically result in the elimination of Corbyn as their leader – so why rock the boat unnecessarily? During the election campaign Corbyn was interviewed on BBC’s Woman’s Hour by Emma Barnett an award-winning journalist.
He was asked the cost of his manifesto promise to extend free childcare, but, embarrassingly, did not know the answer. He was left speechless, resulting in a car-crash interview. Corbyn supporters hurled antisemitic abuse at the Jewish journalist. One Twitter user branded her a “Zionist shill” and posted a picture of Muppet character Miss Piggy with the message “Emma Barnett looking pleased with herself after asking Corbyn questions.”
I asked Bogdanor whether antisemitism or Corbyn’s connection with terrorist organizations had played a part in this election.
He doubted they had affected the result, even though a few days before the election the Daily Mail and The Sun published pictures of Corbyn at a jihadist rally organized by Al-Muhajiroun – today a banned organization – in which some demonstrators shouted “Gas Tel Aviv.”
However, he said: “The worry is that antisemitism is not a barrier to electoral success, as it was in [Oswald] Mosley’s time [the 1930s]. Of course antisemitism in Labour is different from that of Mosley – it is institutional, a matter more of consequence rather than intention; and Corbyn still always says he is opposed to antisemitism – though he always adds ‘and every other form of racism.’ “The great danger is that antisemitism becomes legitimized and acceptable in leftwing circles.”
How did young Jews vote in the UK? According to Josh Nagli – who has just completed a two-year stint as campaigns director of the Union of Jewish Students – many Jewish students shared the concerns of their communities in Finchley/Golders Green and Hendon, where people were unwilling to back a party led by Corbyn, due to his inability to handle antisemitism and his support for Hamas and Hezbollah.
Another factor was the resignation of Alex Chalmers, the non-Jewish co-chairman of Oxford University’s Labour Club, who could not accept its decision to support Israel Apartheid Week, which he viewed as blatant antisemitism. “A large proportion of both OULC and the student Left in Oxford more generally have a problem with Jews,” Chalmers said.
What does UK Jewish weekly the Jewish Chronicle say about Corbyn’s unexpected success? Its editorial concluded: “Instead of simply attacking Mr. Corbyn and his allies, we have to accept him at his own and his party’s estimation and see if he can be persuaded to act in a way that can restore confidence, not least in the party’s determination to root out racism – of all kinds.”
Acceptance of Corbyn and his acceptance of antisemitism at any level is totally unacceptable. Antisemitism must be attacked and uprooted because – in the words of Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis – “Antisemitism is not just a problem for Jews; it is a problem for all our society.”The writer is public relations chair of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.