LONDON — Just over a year ago, the head of Britain’s Jewish Leadership Council, Jonathan Goldstein, warned that the election of Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister would pose “an existential threat to our community.”
Despite the fact that Corbyn’s opposition Labour party trails in the polls, that apparent threat may now be only weeks away from being realized, as Britons prepare to vote on December 12 in an election which could also fundamentally reshape the UK’s relationship with Israel.
Goldstein’s fears appear to be shared by many Jews. Polls suggest that around just six percent plan to vote Labour. Nearly half say they were will “seriously consider” emigrating if Corbyn — a man 87% of those polled believe is an anti-Semite — gets to Downing Street.
Last week, the Jewish Chronicle newspaper published a front-page appeal to non-Jews, urging them not to support Labour. “We believe that the overwhelming majority of British people abhor racism,” the paper concluded. “We ask only that, when you cast your vote, you act on that.”
Its appeal was echoed by the former Labour minister, Ian Austin, who endorsed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative party. The adopted son of a Holocaust survivor, Austin charged that Labour had been “poisoned with racism against Jewish people and it is a complete and utter disgrace.”
British Jews, suggested Jonathan Freedland, a left-leaning Jewish columnist at The Guardian newspaper, “will approach the coming election with a trepidation they have rarely known before.”
The Labour leadership has strenuously defended itself, with Corbyn himself arguing last week: “Antisemitism and racism is an evil within our society. I’ve done everything to confront it throughout my life, and will always do so.”
Much of the fear of Corbyn is spurred by revelations about his past record that have emerged since he became Labour leader in 2015. These include him describing Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”; defending an anti-Semitic mural in East London; and a seeming willingness to associate with alleged anti-Semites, terrorists and Holocaust-deniers.
Those fears have been compounded by the anti-Semitism crisis that has rocked Labour under his leadership, which has led to the party being formally investigated by the UK’s anti-racism watchdog. And they have deepened as Labour has faced fresh criticism about alleged anti-Semitism on the part of some of those selected to fight seats in the election.
“There is undoubted anxiety in the Jewish community about the prospect of a Corbyn government and what this will mean for British Jews,” said one community official, who commented on condition of anonymity to speak more freely. “There is much less concrete indication of what, if anything, would change for Jews in this country on a day to day basis.”
Labour has, for instance, pledged to maintain funding for Jewish security and has reiterated its support for faith schools.
“What, ultimately, it comes down to is whether Corbyn would run the government and the country in the same way that he has run the Labour party for the past four years, in terms of how Jews are to be treated,” the official said.
Others fear the immediate effect on Jews of Corbyn taking office. “The morale of the Jewish community would undoubtedly drop and would be something which would take serious managing from community leaders,” said another community source.
Dark prophecies for Jews under a Corbyn government
One concern is that a Labour government would soft pedal action on Islamist extremists, given the party’s hostility towards the counter-radicalization Prevent program.
His clique are firmly of the view that Jews who are supportive of Israel’s continuing existence are the true extremists
“Corbyn has personally been close to a range of individuals and organizations which constitute an extremism and terrorism threat,” said David Toube, director of policy at the counter-extremism Quilliam think-tank.
“It is also clear that his clique are firmly of the view that concerns about takfiri jihadism are wholly misplaced, and that Jews who are supportive of Israel’s continuing existence are the true extremists. Under a Corbyn government, I would expect a range of counter-terrorism initiatives to be eviscerated or scrapped, and the focus to be shifted to counter the threat that they believe ‘Zionism’ represents,” Toube said.
A Labour source expressed fear that “the exceptionalism of the Jewish experience” may also be challenged, with Holocaust education — which receives funding from the government — potentially negatively affected over the longer term. In 2011, Corbyn and Labour heavyweight John McDonnell backed a call for the UK’s Holocaust Memorial Day to be renamed “Genocide Memorial Day — Never Again For Anyone.”
Might, asked a Jewish community source, a Corbyn government review the teaching of the Holocaust in Britain’s national school curriculum, perhaps with the aim of downplaying the “special nature” of the Shoah?
Such is the current suspicion of Labour that there are also fears that a Corbyn government might seek to “exploit” the construction of the planned new Holocaust memorial in Westminster to counter its poor image, while also attempting to interfere with the project’s remit.
Others believe that a Corbyn government risks licensing anti-Semitism in the wider public discourse with adverse consequences for the community.
In 2011, Corbyn backed a call for the UK’s Holocaust Memorial Day to be renamed ‘Genocide Memorial Day — Never Again For Anyone’
“My broad concern is that when you legitimize anti-Jewish debate and discourse, when you talk about Israel all the time and make that your central message, it’s obviously going to have an impact on the Jewish community,” said the Labour source.
This isn’t simply about anti-Semitic attacks — which often rise in Britain when the media is focused on tension or conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians — the source said, “but also the ability of a minority community to live life openly and proudly as Jewish.”
They fear that the community might end up “going back to our grandparents’ generation… when you keep your Jewishness secret and you assimilate and blend in. I think what’s really sad is that the Jewish community in this country was just about beginning to get a little bit ‘loud and proud’ like our Jewish brothers and sisters in the [United] States, and I think that will all go,” the Labour source said.
“I would expect a Labour government to be much more directly critical of Israel and its government, but don’t expect it to be explicitly anti-Semitic,” said Ben Rich, chief executive of Radix, the self-described think tank of the “radical center,” and former CEO of the Movement for Reform Judaism.
The election of any party which fails so comprehensively to challenge the racism in its midst makes us as Jews less secure
“Were the party to win the election, however, it would send a signal to those that are either openly anti-Semitic or secretly harbor anti-Semitic views that this is acceptable and somehow distinct from other forms of racism. This in turn is likely to legitimize the use of anti-Semitic tropes in public discourse and so fuel prejudice,” said Rich, who also previously served as chief of staff to the former Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron.
But, Rich also warned, Labour’s refusal to tackle anti-Semitism does not make the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the Conservative party “any more tolerable. The election of any party which fails so comprehensively to challenge the racism in its midst makes us as Jews less secure.”
…And some say there’s nothing to fear
Pro-Corbyn groups such as Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), however, deny that Jews have anything to fear from a Labour government.
“The majority of British Jews would benefit from a Corbyn-led government in the same way as the majority of the population at large,” said JVL’s media officer, Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, who noted the party’s plans to tackle poverty, inequality, and climate change, and invest in public services.
“It is hardly surprising that the daily injection into the public discourse of unproven allegations of left anti-Semitism has eroded Labour support among British Jews and may even have scared a significant number of them into contemplating fleeing the country,” she said. “This is deeply disturbing and damaging to the vital task of uniting all sections of our diverse communities against the real racist threat that comes from the far right.”
JVL also believes that media coverage “ignores the fact that there is no single, undifferentiated ‘Jewish community’ with one anti-Corbyn view.”
“There are thousands of ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews who have no voice because they are not represented by mainstream Jewish organizations,” said Wimborne-Idrissi. “Many of them are actively campaigning for a Corbyn-led Labour government.”
A ‘refreshing’ break?
Corbyn’s election would undoubtedly represent a break from the generally pro-Israel policies pursued by recent British governments.
“The character and policies of several British foreign secretaries have led to strained UK-Israeli relations in the past,” said Dr. James Vaughan, Lecturer in International History at Aberystwyth University. However, he said, there is “simply no precedent for a figure as deeply and ideologically hostile to Zionism and Israel as Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister.”
Corbyn remains, for instance, a patron of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. The pressure group supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, backs the Palestinian “right to return” to lands inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders — a demand that would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state — and opposes the “Zionist nature of the Israeli state.” Corbyn was also the longstanding chair and a founder of the virulently anti-Israel Stop the War movement.
The Labour leader’s hostility to Israel is now reflected in the party’s approach. A motion passed overwhelmingly at September’s party conference opened the door to a boycott of Israeli settlement goods — thus abandoning Labour’s long-standing opposition to BDS — and vowed to reject trade agreements with the Jewish state which “fail to recognize the rights of the Palestinians.”
That a Corbyn premiership would be damaging to UK-Israeli relations is… self-evident
This “ill-defined ethical test,” noted Luke Akehurst, director of We Believe In Israel, in a recent paper, could potentially be highly significant when Britain takes control of its trade policy after Brexit. The party also appeared to endorse a Palestinian “right to return” and reaffirmed its opposition to British arms sales to Israel.
“The narrative it presented about Israel’s creation was wholly one-sided and negative, highlighting only Palestinian suffering and implying Israel was created through ethnic cleansing ‘during the 1948 Nakba when Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their homes,’” wrote Akehurst, who is also a former member of Labour’s governing National Executive Committee.
“What is missing from these resolutions speaks volumes,” he wrote. “No recognition of the Jewish right to self-determination. No mention of Israel being a Jewish state. No mention of Jewish suffering through anti-Semitism and genocide creating the need for statehood. No mention of Israeli victims of war, terrorism and missile attacks. No recognition of Israel’s legitimate right of self-defense to protect its citizens.”
When it is published, Labour’s manifesto may — as the party did in the 2017 general election — adopt a more moderate and nuanced approach. (Conference resolutions aren’t automatically adopted for the platform the party stands on in a general election.) However, whatever the manifesto says, it’s quite clear that Corbyn’s own views — which are endorsed by much of the party membership — are at least as radical as those set out in the conference resolution.
UK on the international stage
But how much power would Corbyn have to reshape British foreign policy? “That a Corbyn premiership would be damaging to UK-Israeli relations is… self-evident,” said Vaughan. “The precise nature and scale of the damage probably depends on the extent to which Corbyn is able to impose his own convictions on the foreign policy establishment, and the degree to which the structural elements of the relationship prove robust enough to withstand what might prove to be a minority or short-lived Labour government.”
Alan Mendoza, foreign policy columnist for the City AM newspaper, believes that “Britain’s entire foreign policy would likely dramatically shift under Jeremy Corbyn, but the most profound impact is likely to be felt in the Middle East.”
“Israeli officials, who have enjoyed a hitherto warm relationship with their British counterparts in recent years, will bear the brunt of this, given Corbyn’s strong views on the country,” said Mendoza. “While BDS would not become official UK policy at this stage, a freezing of ties would be probable, with Israel being singled out as a human rights violator and regional security threat.”
Stephen Crabb, a Cabinet minister under David Cameron and now parliamentary chair of Conservative Friends of Israel in the House of Commons, argues there is “no doubt” that “the UK-Israel friendship and trading relationship would suffer immeasurably under a Jeremy Corbyn-led government, and our deep security cooperation and close intelligence-sharing will be compromised.”
Labour has made clear that it will unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state immediately upon taking office
Labour has made clear that it will unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state immediately upon taking office. In September, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, pledged that the step would come “not in due course, not when the time is right, but now.” She also vowed to convene an international emergency conference on Palestinian human rights.
Thornberry indicated too that Israel could expect a rougher ride from Britain — one of the five permanent members of the Security Council — at the United Nations.
“We would be prepared to say out loud that it shames the UN and the Security Council that for decades, Israel has been allowed to ignore, with impunity, all the resolutions the UN has passed with regard to the Occupied Territories — illegal settlement building, detention of children, and indiscriminate violence against civilians — and we will demand effective action to enforce them,” she said.
The impact of a Corbyn government on Britain’s wider approach to the Middle East is also likely to be significant.
Corbyn is a sharp critic of Saudi Arabia, which he accuses of “flouting every human rights norm” at home and abroad and “funding extremism around the world,” and a Labour government is committed to banning arms sales to the kingdom. Relations between Riyadh and London, historically close allies, would be likely to chill rapidly.
Warmer relations with Iran?
By contrast, a new warmth would potentially be seen in relations with Tehran.
“Ties with Iran are likely to be upgraded given Corbyn’s ease with the regime as witnessed by his period as a Press TV contributor,” said Mendoza, “and Britain would play a leading role in restraining any attempts to bring Iran to book over its nuclear behavior or support for terrorism.”
In contrast to his frequent criticism of Israel, Corbyn has called for an end to the “demonization” of Iran, praising its “tolerance and acceptance of other faiths, traditions and ethnic groupings.”
After visiting the country as part of a parliamentary delegation in 2014, Corbyn said the UK should “rebuild normal, proper, good relations with Iran, which means an end of sanctions, full diplomatic recognition, proper visa arrangements, and an end to the financial sanctions which are so damaging to Iranian families.”
This apparently sympathetic attitude towards the Islamic republic was evident in June, when Corbyn cast doubt on whether there was “credible evidence” that Iran was behind attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, urging Britain to “ease tensions” in the region rather than “fuel a military escalation.” Last month, the party also supported Donald Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from Syria (although it coupled that with a somewhat futile call for Russia and Turkey to follow suit).
Iran’s allies may also notice a welcome shift. Labour refused to back the UK government’s decision to proscribe Hezbollah’s political wing earlier this year (the military win was already banned). Given some of Corbyn’s past comments about Hamas, Britain’s policy of non-engagement with Gaza’s de facto rulers might well be reviewed.
To wit, Corbyn has described labeling Hamas a terrorist group a “really big, big, historical mistake,” claimed the organization was “dedicated towards the good of the Palestinian people and bringing about long-term peace and social justice… in the whole region,” and called for the UK government to “start talking directly to Hamas and Hezbollah.”
The community source said they thus fear Corbyn “delisting terror groups.” Such a move would be justified using the defense deployed by the Labour leader for his own past meetings with Hezbollah and Hamas — that it is part of a necessary dialogue to bring about peace.
Birds of a feather
Corbyn’s own inclinations would be reinforced by the close allies who would most likely accompany him into Downing Street. Seumas Milne, his highly influential director of communications and strategy, is a hardline and uncompromising left-winger, and a fierce opponent of Israel.
In 2014, for instance, Milne, a former columnist and senior journalist for The Guardian newspaper, told a rally protesting against Operation Protective Edge that “Israel has no right to defend itself from territory it illegally occupies.”
“It’s not terrorism to fight back,” he claimed. “The terrorism is the killing of civilians by Israel on an industrial scale.”
Milne, a Labour insider suggested last year, would assume the role of “de facto foreign secretary” in any Corbyn government.
The effect of a Labour government’s attitude towards Israel could be felt in Britain too, given the attachment the vast majority of the community feels towards the Jewish state.
“The party’s aggressive pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel stance would be bad for community cohesion and create a real feeling of unease,” said the community source.
Seventy percent of Jewish children go to Jewish schools, many of which are avowedly Zionist, celebrating, for instance, Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut) and teaching their pupils Hebrew.
You could see a situation whereby schools inspectors come in and say you can’t teach Zionism
“It wouldn’t necessarily be the first thing they do,” said the Labour source, “but obviously if you’ve got a prime minister who literally thinks Zionism is racism, that could have an impact on our schools. You could see a situation whereby schools inspectors come in and say you can’t teach Zionism.”
More broadly, many Jews may simply decide to downplay their support for Israel.
“What it could do is make people less willing to be publicly pro-Israel, to wear their Zionism as visibly,” added the source. “They’ll think, ‘What’s most important is our security, our schools, our rituals. We still love Israel but we don’t have to shout about it.’”
Corbyn’s supporters, though, offer an alternative take.
“Of course many British Jews feel loyalty to Israel and many have family ties with it,” said Wimborne-Idrissi. However, she added, “large numbers of Jewish people feel uncomfortable about Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights.”
“Standing for Palestinian rights is not anti-Semitic, nor even anti-Israel. While some self-proclaimed pro-Israel advocates attempt to identify all Jews with Israel, Corbyn and his supporters understand full well that Jews cannot be held responsible for Israel’s actions,” Wimborne-Idrissi said. “A determination to bring Israel into line with international law does not entail any threat to Jewish people in Britain, in Israel, or anywhere else.”
If Labour emerges victorious next month, Corbyn’s defenders and critics may not have long to discover whether their respective hopes and fears are realized.