Boris Johnson vs. Jeremy Corbyn: Brexit or antisemitism?

British Jewish voters head to the polls to choose next UK government.

VOTERS AND TELLERS outside of polling station inside Menorah Primary School in Golders Green, London (photo credit: JOSH DELL)
VOTERS AND TELLERS outside of polling station inside Menorah Primary School in Golders Green, London
(photo credit: JOSH DELL)
LONDON – Outside of the polling station located inside Etz Chaim Primary School in the northwest London neighborhood of Mill Hill, a 24-year-old Jewish voter doesn’t hold back.
“Corbyn makes me feel sick – I want Boris to have a barnstorming majority,” he says, speaking anonymously, in a sentiment that is repeated by many of the area’s Jewish voters in seats located within north London’s ‘Bagel Belt’ of seats, which have the highest Jewish populations of all 650 constituencies that voted to elect Members of Parliament in Thursday’s general election.
He was referring to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who were facing off that will either pave the way for Brexit under Johnson or propel Britain towards another referendum that could ultimately reverse the decision to leave the European Union.
Despite rain and snow in some parts of a UK taking part in its first December election since 1923, there was no shortage of voters, with lines outside polling stations in the early hours of an Election Day that has seen antisemitism become a prominent issue – and an overriding one for some voters.
In Mill Hill, located in the constituency of Hendon, voters (most of whom either wished to remain anonymous or only reveal their first name when speaking to the Post), cited the desire to protect the Jewish community or Brexit as their key motivator for voting.
Mark, the owner of an IT and telecoms business, said that Corbyn was his primary reason for voting Conservative, saying that the Labour Party leader was “promoting old fangled 40-year-old ideas… and blatant and flagrant antisemitism.”
Another Conservative voter, citing the security of the community as the main driver behind her vote, said that “most people in the country don’t realize that while I vote at a Jewish school today, there’s a security guard outside – and that’s without Corbyn as prime minister.”
The constituency, whose MP Matthew Offord won with a narrow majority of 1,072 over Labour in the 2017 election, had a Labour MP between 1997-2010, something that several voters saw as representative of the stark change in the party. Citing Tony Blair as a Labour leader they were able to vote for, one Hendon voter said that “under Tony Blair it was fine – he’s in Israel more than the UK these days.”
THURSDAY'S hard-fought elections followed a campaign that emerged out of the Brexit backlog that followed the 2017 general election, which saw the fall of Prime Minister Theresa May in her attempts to get her Brexit deal through the Houses of Parliament. This was followed by the election of Johnson, who as Conservative Party leader became prime minister of the UK. After failing to get his own newly negotiated Brexit deal passed in Parliament in late October, he pushed and secured an election in the beginning of November.
Johnson’s Conservatives ran a steady campaign, with the mantra of “Get Brexit Done” being uttered ad infinitum every day. The Conservatives, who began the election with an average poll lead over Labour of 12%, have seen their lead dip slightly as the election has progressed.
Although an autumn poll of the Jewish community said that only 6% intended to vote for Labour, many casting their vote on Thursday were enthusiastically voting for the party. Annabel, a film-maker voting in the Holborn and St. Pancras constituency, cited Johnson’s past racist statements and his closeness with the Trump presidency as key drivers for her voting for Labour.
“[I] fear us heading towards an extreme right-wing world… a vote for Boris [Johnson] reinforces Trump.”
These comments reflected the increased focus on Johnson’s past writings that have emerged in this election. A letter published in The Guardian on Election Day and signed by a wide range of Jewish public figures, academics and activists cited the character of Sammy Katz in the prime minister’s 2004 novel Seventy-Two Virgins: A Comedy of Errors as exemplifying antisemitic tropes. Katz is described in the book as having a “proud nose and curly hair” and as somebody who sends his son “pathetic presents, every five years, of low-denomination bills.”
Having voted for Labour all her life, Annabel nonetheless felt that the Jewish community “could have been dealt with much better” by Corbyn, a view echoed by other Labour voters across polling stations.
FOR JEWISH voters, the election has seen two significant events. On a nationwide scale, the intervention of British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis – who described Corbyn as “not fit for high office” in an op-ed published in The Times on November 25 – provoked several days of discussion.
Alongside this, the leaking of the submission made by the Labour Party’s oldest Jewish affiliate group, the Jewish Labour Movement, to the current investigation by UK public body the Equality and Human Rights Commission into whether the Labour Party is institutionally antisemitic, provided some of the most shocking examples yet of antisemitism within the party.
Examples provided by the Jewish Labour Movement included a respondent saying that they had the slurs “child killer,” “Tory Jew” and “Zio scum” thrown at them during meetings of their local constituency Labour Party. Another piece of evidence submitted revealed that in one north London constituency Labour Party, the membership secretary objected to applications from 25 ultra-Orthodox Jewish citizens and asked to visit their homes for them to be vetted.
According to the Jewish Labour Movement, “This was not a requirement for other prospective members, and appears to have been direct discrimination against Jewish applicants for membership.”
With regards to the other political parties in the UK, one of the biggest hopes for the centrist Liberal Democrats on polling day was in former Labour MP Luciana Berger, who was standing in the constituency of Finchley and Golders Green after leaving Labour, in part as the result of her experiences of antisemitism within the party.
Human rights lawyer Adam Wagner, who had previously voted Labour and Lib Dem and describes himself as a Jew on the Left, said that he was voting for Luciana Berger on the basis that she was the “best candidate.”
Describing his move away from supporting Labour since Corbyn’s election, Wagner said that “Like many people on the Left, I feel that Labour has left me with no choice but to avoid them,” adding “it’s completely given up on the community – and gave up on it a long time ago.”
Voters at the polling station located in Menorah Primary School in the constituency had mixed views on the chances of Berger. While Denitsa, a stay-at-home mom, simply responded “Luciana” when asked what her primary reason for voting was, other voters felt that the safety of the Jewish community was their primary reason for voting and that a vote for Johnson was the only way to do this.
A primary school teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, said that her main reasons for voting were “antisemitism and the safety of the community – I don’t want them [Labour] to win.”
As late as the day before the election, other parties in the UK were withdrawing support for candidates who had engaged in antisemitic behavior. James Edward Buckley, a parliamentary candidate for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, lost the endorsement of the party after it was revealed that he had posted on Facebook earlier this year a range of antisemitic statements, including “if you think the Jews were innocent in WW2 you are blind.”