Will antisemitism drive British Jews to make aliyah to Israel?

Ever since the Labour Party, traditionally considered a natural home for British Jews, elected Jeremy Corbyn as its leader in September 2015, it has been embroiled in a dispute.

Jeremy Corbyn acknowledges an audience’s applause (photo credit: PHIL NOBLE/REUTERS)
Jeremy Corbyn acknowledges an audience’s applause
(photo credit: PHIL NOBLE/REUTERS)
Some 25,000 of Israel’s nearly nine million citizens were born in the United Kingdom. This is not very many, but are they soon to be joined by a new wave of immigration from Britain such as Israel has witnessed in the past from mainland Europe, the Arab world, Russia, Ethiopia and France?
The question arises in the wake of a recent upsurge in the UK of antisemitic incidents in general, and the exposure of overt antisemitism within the Labour Party, one of the nation’s two major political parties. A director of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Yigal Palmor, said recently, “Aliyah has become a popular conversation theme among many British Jews.”
“It's a very sad state of affairs,” said Gideon Falter, chairman of the UK’s Campaign Against Antisemitism, “because we have all grown up here and for most of us this is where our grandparents found refuge during the darkest days of humanity.”
Ever since the Labour Party, traditionally considered a natural home for British Jews, elected Jeremy Corbyn as its leader in September 2015, it has been embroiled in a bitter dispute over the extent of antisemitism within its ranks.
Corbyn is an avowed Marxist and a long-time espouser of radical action in support of causes that he adjudges anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist. That sets him at odds with centrist political opinion in Britain. When he became a member of parliament in 1983, the Labour Party had just suffered its worst electoral defeat in fifty years. It had gone to the country on a radical socialist manifesto that was later dubbed “the longest suicide note in history.” Its new leader, Neil Kinnock, much more of a social democrat, came into office intent on modifying the hard-left policies that had been so decidedly rejected by the British public.
Jeremy Corbyn was having none of it. In dogged pursuit of ideals that many see as relics of the class war within the UK, and of the Cold War outside, he voted against his party in Parliament literally hundreds of times, both when they were in opposition, and when they returned to power under Tony Blair. He was, and remains, implacably opposed to the social democratic philosophy underpinning the politics of a large proportion of the Labour Party.
Corbyn was voted into the leadership largely by radically-minded young people who flocked to join the party to rebel against the established approach to politics of both main parties. Like many of his supporters Corbyn subscribes to the left-wing philosophy of “intersectionality,” which regards victimhood as a unifying condition, binding together all who are oppressed, no matter from what cause. Victims of racial discrimination are at one with the sexually exploited or the economically oppressed. Left-wing thinking, impervious to the complexities of an issue that has defied decades of peace efforts, regards the Palestinians as victims of Zionist colonialism. Supporting all victims as a matter of principle must therefore logically encompass opposing Zionism and Israel – a position that slips all too easily into frank antisemitism.
This tendency had already infected the left wing of the Labour Party when Corbyn became leader. One prominent member, Ken Livingstone, once London’s mayor, had exemplified it by hosting virulent antisemitic speakers, comparing a Jewish journalist to a Nazi concentration camp guard, and linking Hitler to Zionism based on a highly questionable interpretation of Nazi efforts in the 1930s to expel Jews from Germany. Livingstone never acknowledged that this bizarre attempt to tar Zionism with a Nazi brush was antisemitic.
Early in 2016, public opposition to antisemitism within Labour’s ranks, and to Ken Livingstone in particular, led to the Labour Party suspending him (he later resigned his membership), and to Corbyn setting up an independent inquiry into antisemitism and other forms of racism within the party.
Conducted by human rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti, the report – immediately dubbed a “whitewash” by many Labour voices, Jewish and non-Jewish – concluded that the Labour Party was not overrun by antisemitism, but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere.” Very shortly afterwards Chakrabarti was elevated to the House of Lords, and is currently the Rt. Hon. Baroness Chakrabarti, Labour’s shadow Attorney General.
March 2018 saw Corbyn supporting a virulently antisemitic mural, reminiscent of the cartoons that used to appear in the notorious Nazi journal, Der Stȕrmer. Later, calling it “deeply disturbing and antisemitic,” he said that he had not looked at it properly,
The summer that followed was a bad time for Corbyn.
In July Labour adopted a new code of conduct on antisemitism. Although based on the internationally recognized IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) guidelines, Labour’s version omitted four of its “examples of antisemitism,” which dealt specifically with Israel. In brief, Labour sought to establish that it was not antisemitic to accuse Jewish people of being more loyal to Israel than to their home country; to claim that Israel’s existence as a state was a racist endeavor; to require higher standards of behavior from Israel than from other nations; and to compare contemporary Israeli policies to those of the Nazis.
Labour’s truncated version was immediately condemned by Jewish leaders and Labour figures. A combined force of 68 UK rabbis, from across the spectrum of Jewish belief, wrote a joint letter urging Labour to adopt the IHRA guidelines in full. The UK’s three main Jewish newspapers, in a unique gesture of solidarity, published on their front pages under the title “United We Stand” precisely the same leading article, warning that a government led by Jeremy Corbyn would pose an “existential threat to Jewish life.”
Although it rejected the criticism, Labour carried out a consultation and finally adopted the IHRA definition with all its examples. However the gesture was immediately devalued in an accompanying statement that “this will not in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians.” But, of course, the whole point of the IHRA guidelines is to constrain freedom of expression on Israel by respecting its definitions of antisemitism.
The committee’s statement was, however, milk-and-water compared with a much longer qualifying document that Corbyn had urged on it. A key passage read that it should not “be regarded as antisemitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist, because of their discriminatory impact.” In short Corbyn would have Israel regarded as having been born in sin, never really to be redeemed.
Corbyn faced criticism in August 2018 after a video emerged in which he said a group of British Zionists had “no sense of English irony.” Former chief rabbi Lord Sacks branded the comments as highly offensive, and accused Corbyn of being an antisemite.
Soon the questionable persons and places to which his political beliefs had led him began to emerge in a series of highly disturbing incidents. He came under fire over his presence at a ceremony in Tunisia in 2014 in which he was pictured laying a wreath on the grave of a perpetrator of the 1972 Munich terror attack, during which 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and killed. Condemned by Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Corbyn said he had attended the event in Tunis as part of a wider event about the search for peace.
Responding to news stories about having hosted occasions which included representatives of Hezbollah and Hamas, whom he had called “friends,” Corbyn said, “In the past, in pursuit of justice for the Palestinian people and peace in Israel/Palestine, I have on occasion appeared on platforms with people whose views I completely reject. I apologize for the concerns and anxiety that this has caused.” So far no pictures of Corbyn sharing a platform with supporters of Israel have come to light.
Corbyn has been entirely consistent in decrying the evils of racism, with which he includes antisemitism, and has declared himself dedicated to rooting antisemitism out of the Labour Party. He has been equally consistent in his support for the Palestinian cause, while also declaring himself in favor of a two-state solution. In the recent Labour Party conference he declared, to the wild waving of Palestinian flags in the hall, that the next Labour government would immediately recognize the state of Palestine as a step towards achieving just that.
Over the three years 2015-2017, Britain’s Campaign Against Antisemitism, together with the YouGov market research company, conducted interviews with more than 10,000 British Jews. Eighty percent said they believed that the Labour Party was harboring antisemites in its ranks; three-quarters said they felt that recent political events had resulted in increased hostility toward Jews, while almost a third said they have considered leaving the UK because of antisemitism. Given the events of 2018, opinion must certainly have hardened.
“A lot of Jewish people are worrying about what the future might hold,” said Dave Rich, head of policy for the UK’s Community Security Trust, recently.
Well it holds Brexit – Britain leaving the EU – the outcome of which is uncertain indeed. If Parliament fails to ratify the deal being negotiated between the UK and the EU, or if there is no deal, major political disruption will follow. One possible outcome could be a general election, and in that event a Labour victory is entirely possible. It is the prospect of a government led by Jeremy Corbyn, even more than the rise in antisemitic incidents, which weighs heaviest on the minds of Britain’s Jewish community.
In April, Jewish journalist Miriam Shaviv wrote in the Jewish Chronicle about how she came to the “heartbreaking” realization that her “family’s long-term future cannot be in the UK… Corbyn embodies the reason why Israel’s existence is forever necessary, as a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution and distress.”
For their own sake it must be hoped that Britain’s Jews are not forced into aliyah in order to flee persecution or distress. There are other more positive, hopeful and uplifting reasons for Jews to return to Zion.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is ‘The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016.’ He blogs at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com