The British elections on Dec. 12 are shaping up to be a watershed moment for the United Kingdom as a whole because of their implications for Brexit and the region’s economy, health system and minorities.
But they are particularly crucial to Jews.
The Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, is looking to unseat the Conservatives, headed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson’s push for a Brexit at all costs, with or without a trade deal with the European Union, has significantly hurt his approval ratings. But his party still holds a commanding lead over Corbyn’s — due in large part to an antisemitism controversy that has dogged Labour for the entirety of Corbyn’s four years in charge.
Many of the UK’s thousands of liberal Jews are now facing a historic conundrum: Vote for Johnson, which means a possibly ugly exit from the EU, or Corbyn, a candidate called an antisemite by a former chief rabbi of Britain. The current chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis — making the first partisan intervention by someone in his position — said Corbyn was “complicit in prejudice.”
How did we get here, and what’s likely to happen after the vote? Here are the answers to five frequently asked questions that explain the controversy and the stakes.
1. Is Jeremy Corbyn an antisemite?
Corbyn, a longtime left-wing parliamentarian, stands accused of allowing antisemitism to fester among his party and his supporters — and also of saying things that suggest he might personally hold antisemitic views.
Jonathan Sacks, the previous chief rabbi of Britain, certainly thinks Corbyn is antisemitic, as he said in a bombshell interview last year with the New Statesman. So do more than the 58,000 signers of an online petition promoted by the Campaign Against Antisemitism, one of two major Jewish community watchdogs.
A survey in May found that 80 percent of British voters are aware of an antisemitism crisis surrounding Labour.
The body of evidence against Corbyn includes his defense in 2013 of a London mural depicting Jewish bankers playing Monopoly on the backs of dark-skinned men. Corbyn later said he didn’t notice what he acknowledged was antisemitic motifs.
Then there was his remark later that year that Britain-born “Zionists” don’t “understand English irony.” He denied allegations that he used Zionists as a euphemism for Jews.
In 2014, Corbyn laid a wreath on a monument in Tunisia for the Palestinian killers of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Corbyn had consistently supported boycotting Israel before being elected Labour leader — since 2015 he has limited his support to boycotting only settlement products.
Corbyn passionately rejects the allegations. In 2018, he wrote in a statement that “Labour is an anti-racist party and I utterly condemn antisemitism, which is why as leader of the Labour Party I want to be clear that I will not tolerate any form of antisemitism that exists in and around our movement.”
2. Whether or not Corbyn is antisemitic, is the Labour Party antisemitic under him?
It is objective fact that after Corbyn became Labour leader in 2015, many of the party’s new left-wing supporters have said anti-Israel and often antisemitic things.
The Labour Against Antisemitism group has documented thousands of cases of alleged antisemitic hate speech by members since 2015, most of which have not been processed by the party’s Ethics Committee. Last year, Labour was placed under a probe of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a government watchdog, over its handling of an explosion of antisemitic incidents.
In 2016, an interparliamentary committee, which included Labour representatives, accused the party of creating a “safe space for those with vile attitudes towards Jewish people.”
Some members caught in the act of antisemitic hate speech have been kicked out of the party, but many others have been let back in.
Some are even running on the party’s ticket for Parliament next week, including Afzal Khan in Manchester, who in 2015 posted a video on Facebook about the “Israel-British-Swiss-Rothschilds crime syndicate.”
Several Jewish lawmakers have faced online antisemitic bullying from Labour supporters, and many have left the party. Among the more prominent ones is Luciana Berger, once a rising star in the party who is now running with the more centrist Liberal Democrats party.
Hundreds of Labour members and supporters have also abandoned the party, which used to be British Jewry’s political home.
After brushing aside the issue in past interviews, Corbyn apologized on ITV “for everything that’s happened” involving Labour Party members.
3. What else is at stake for British Jews in the election?
Corbyn wants private schools, including religious ones, to be “absorbed” into the public education system – a term that is widely perceived as a euphemism for ending them. A Labour victory could mean new taxes that the party currently supports, including one that will cost small businesses an extra $6,600 annually and another that will reduce top paying pensions by $15,000.
Thus the election is likely to affect both impoverished haredi Orthodox Jewish families and affluent secular ones, and everyone in between.
A victory for Boris Johnson would likely not mean business as usual, either. Many economists warn that leaving the EU without a trade deal could trigger a financial crisis. And Brexit is, according to some, responsible for a wave of xenophobic incidents.
4. Does Labour still have Jewish members?
It does, but it’s hard to tell how many. The Jewish Labour Movement, which was established in 1903, is one of the oldest socialist societies affiliated with the party, though it seems to be teetering on the edge of cutting ties as the scandals escalate. Its members are among Corbyn’s most vocal internal opponents.
Then there’s Jewish Voice for Labour, a group set up in 2017 by Jews who support Corbyn and rush to confront critics of the antisemitism issue.
Countering Mirvis’ intervention, Jewish Voice for Labour wrote in a statement that the rabbi “pitted us [Jews] against what millions see rightly as the greatest set of proposals for progressive, anti-austerity, social reform and egalitarianism most of us have ever seen – and yearn for.”
Still, the vast majority of British Jews seem to have parted ways with Labour, at least for the time being.
In a poll conducted last year, before the eruption of several major new scandals, among 710 British Jews, more than 85 percent said they consider Corbyn to be an anti-Semite and Labour “to have high levels of antisemitism.”
5. Can Corbyn conceivably win?
In a new YouGov survey from Wednesday, the Conservatives had 42 percent of the vote, with Labour trailing at 33 percent. The centrist Liberal Democrats are well behind at 12 percent.
That’s good news for the Conservatives because, thanks to the British electoral system, that means they’re on course for obtaining a majority in Parliament.
However, almost none of the other parties are likely to form a coalition with Johnson due to his rigid Brexit policy. So even if the Conservatives emerge as the largest party, they might still lose the election without an overall coalition majority.
That’s figuring that the country does not have a last-minute panic over Brexit as well. Corbyn, who has remained fairly neutral on Britain leaving the EU, now represents, to some at least, the country’s only viable anti-Brexit stance. Others, however, believe his left-wing, anti-globalist politics (and base) mean he may well prefer to keep the Brexit train on its tracks.
Labour, on the other hand, may well stop the train, striking a coalition deal with the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats and other parties, installing Corbyn as prime minister.