A British Jewish leader who played a central role in highlighting UK Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis — a major factor in the landslide defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s party in December’s elections — has warned that the future of world Jewry is threatened more than at any time since World War II, by a combination of “classic anti-Semitism” and anti-Zionism.
Jonathan Goldstein, London-based head of the Jewish Leadership Council, said Jewish leaders have ignored rising anti-Semitism for too long, and “lost the narrative” when it comes to Zionism.
In an interview with The Times of Israel, Goldstein charged that many of the innumerable major Jewish organizations worldwide are disseminating different narratives, when they urgently need to coordinate and work together.
“Clearly we’re not maximizing our resources as a global people to ensure that we are fighting back against a disease which is threatening to be out of control,” he said.
“Our major organizations are so at war with each other in a global sense; they are so disparate. There are so many. There are so many different narratives. Just last month, to have competing [Holocaust memorial] events in Jerusalem, with so many world leaders showing support, and in Krakow at the same time is, to me, a missed opportunity. We could and should have sent a more unified message,” he insisted.
Goldstein, who was speaking during a trip to Israel last week, issued his warnings days before Anglo-Jewry released figures showing anti-Semitic incidents in the UK soaring to a record high, with 1,805 anti-Semitic hate incidents recorded nationwide in 2019 — up 7 percent since 2018 and marking the fourth successive year of record-high figures.
Where the UK is concerned, Goldstein, who was one of the organizers and speakers at a landmark “Enough is enough” rally against Labour anti-Semitism outside the Houses of Parliament in March 2018, said there was a danger, with the crushing defeat sustained by Corbyn, that people would “believe the battle is won.” In fact, however, while the election result “showed that there’s an innate decency in Britain which remains” and that “Britain is a good country for Jews to live,” the environment is shifting. “The level of anti-Semitism which is acceptable is changing, has got higher.”
What happens in 20 years time for Israel, and for American Jewry, if the likes of The Squad end up by an unusual circumstance becoming the leaders of the Democratic Party
As for the United States, he said a lesson should be learned from Corbyn’s improbable rise. The Labour leader was seen as an irrelevant backbencher 20 years ago, and yet he rose through a series of unexpected circumstances to become the main opposition candidate for prime minister in two general elections.
Similarly, US Democratic Party leaders might choose to dismiss or ignore the “small but growing number of people [in the party] who are clearly strongly anti-Zionist.” But, he asked, “what happens in 20 years time for Israel, and for American Jewry, if the likes of The Squad … end up by an unusual circumstance becoming the leaders of the Democratic Party in America?” he said (referring to Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib).
“We cannot afford to ignore these people,” he said. “We’ve ignored this anti-Zionist narrative for far too long. We’ve allowed it to take root within our universities. We’ve allowed our own youth to be detached from Israel… We have to accept that we have a major problem globally and we have to take it on.”
What follows is an edited transcript of our interview:
The Times of Israel: So, the election is over. Corbyn was defeated. Where does that leave Anglo-Jewry?
Jonathan Goldstein: We can spend ages talking about the past and patting everybody on the back. But I don’t really think that’s the relevant thing to do today. There is no benefit in looking backwards because you get carried away with yourself.
There are two angles to anti-Semitism, in a very simplistic way. There’s the classic. And there’s the modern.
The classic is the tropes and the power and the media and the money and the control, etc. And the modern is the anti-Zionism. And what we did [in the UK] between 2018 and 2020, or even earlier, was really attack the classic, because it was easy.
On the day of the “Enough is enough” rally, we knew that a couple of guys were going to turn up brandishing Israelis flags, and we asked them not to. Why? Because we didn’t want to confuse the messaging at the time. Now, it’s different.
We knew in our bones that we had them [anti-Semites within Corbyn’s Labour Party] on the grounds of anti-Semitism. We knew these were anti-Semites, and we knew we had to build up a narrative. It took us some time in the media to call him an anti-Semite. Jonathan Arkush of the Board of Deputies was the first one to call him an anti-Semite. And he was right.
But we took it slowly. We hit the easy ground.
When you look at world Jewry today, we can no longer afford in 2020 to avoid the tough questions. We, as the global Jewish community, including Israel, have to have a much better narrative. We have to be braver about addressing this pernicious level of anti-Zionism, because it is getting out of control; [in the current climate, people] are able to speak freely about Israel as a racist country on the campuses in America and the campuses in Britain and in the political world.
You know, there are voices within the UK Labour Party and the Democratic Party in the US that will very happily stand up and talk about [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu being a racist, and drawing parallels to Israel as a country, and we’ve been pretty silent about it. We cannot afford for this to be the narrative. We know this does not reflect the reality of Israel, and we have to be bolder about calling it out and hold these politicians to account.
You’re right that it would have complicated the successful struggle against Corbyn. But in Israel today, some believe this country could be heading into the very territory that we’ve been accused of being in. [Yedioth Ahronoth columnist] Nahum Barnea, for example, wrote of the Trump plan last week that it is a recipe for apartheid [because by annexing parts of the West Bank, Israel would be formalizing two unequal sets of laws there for two peoples], that it will cost Israel its Jewish majority and its democracy, and that it’s the end of Zionism. If we’re leaving little Jewish enclaves in the hearts of major Palestinian population centers, how is that going to play out in a way that does not provoke comparisons to Bantustans?
I understand all that. It’s been my practice to try as much as I can to avoid getting involved in Israeli domestic politics. However hard that is from a leadership position, I think Israel is best served, and I think the Jewish community in Britain is best served, by its leaders trying to remain as neutral as they can.
Where it becomes extremely worrying as a narrative in the Diaspora, is that rather than these issues being used as a reason to debate the way in which Israel operates, it becomes a basis upon which to debate the right of Israel to exist as a country, in a way which you wouldn’t with any other country. And I go back to the meeting [I had in April 2018] with Corbyn and the comment by [his top aide] Seamas Milne [alleging ethnic cleansing in the formation of Israel], which I remember telling you about 18 months ago. And I think that underpins the psychology of those on the left, which is when it says to people, Okay, we are not prepared to recognize any nuance because we can’t get past 1947-48.
In other words, the whole debate focuses on whether or not Israel has the right to exist, as opposed to the way in which it operates. I think it was on CNN last night, one of the Palestinian negotiators, in trying to claim how they were on the right side of the arguments, as politicians always do, said, you know, we recognized Israel’s right to exist numerous times in this process. That’s not what the left are doing anymore. What the left are doing — and this is why it’s so dangerous, and why it does verge into anti-Semitism to the degree it does — is they deny the right of the country to exist.
Now, I think we’re both accepting and understanding that as a narrative in the outside world, it’s becoming more complicated. And if the Israeli government should take certain acts over the course of three weeks which are being considered…
For the next few weeks at least, I don’t think they will, because Jared Kushner came out against annexation before the elections…
But I think that would pollute the narrative even further.
You may recall that we met, and then we spoke again, after the Pittsburgh shootings. We then had San Diego. We’ve had incidents in Monsey. We had that situation in New Jersey, which I think is bit more complicated, but still a tragic act.
Yom Kippur in Halle, Germany.
And so it goes on. What we’re understanding is that whilst the victory of the Conservatives in Britain has at least pushed back for five years that scenario in the UK, the whole environment for world Jewry is changing. And it’s changing too fast for most of our liking.
And what concerns me is that as a global Jewish community, we have no joined up narrative. Our major organizations are so at war with each other in a global sense; they are so disparate. There are so many. There are so many different narratives. Just last month, to have competing [Holocaust memorial] events in Jerusalem, with so many world leaders showing support, and in Krakow at the same time is, to me, a missed opportunity. We could and should have sent a more unified message.”
Clearly we’re not maximizing our resources as a global people to ensure that we are fighting back against a disease which is threatening to be out of control.
And Israel’s role in that… I don’t really think it has accepted or embraced the level at which the Diaspora Jewish world is crucial. And that’s where the geopolitical situation becomes so much more complicated.
What are you recommending?
One thing people can learn from British Jewry, whilst we may not have been perfect, 80-90% of the time in the last two, three years we’ve traveled as a unit. We’ve argued on the fringes, but we’ve traveled as a unit. I think global Jewry really needs to take a step back, and certainly in America. I spoke at an event at the UJA in New York at Central Synagogue two weeks ago with [the Trump Administration’s special envy for tackling anti-Semitism] Elon Carr. I was pretty astonished because 600 people turned up on a wet Tuesday evening in Midtown.
And you look at American Jewry and you see how split they are, how many different organizations there are, how many different narratives there are. Global Jewry has to somehow get its act together and understand that we are facing a very serious threat and we have to address it on many levels.
We have got major political issues we have to deal with. We’ve also got our own organizational and our own communal issues that we have to address. Probably the single largest issue that we have to address now is the disengagement of our youth, and the level of assimilation in our youth from core Jewish values and from its association with Israel. Because ultimately if we don’t do anything, and if our people and our children and our grandchildren don’t have that emotional or physical attachment to the state of Israel and to our Judaism, we’re going to find it increasingly hard.
These huge and sometimes conflicting Jewish organizations don’t always share an entirely similar agenda. There is a rise of organizations, and within some organizations of very wealthy people from the former Soviet Union, some of whom are fairly close to the president of Russia, with all kinds of complicated agendas at play.
The Jewish world was always like this. You know the old joke about two Jews, three opinions.
I admire the people who have come to the game at various stages of their life, and who are massively committed to the future of Jewry. And we can typecast nations and people coming from different cultures. But I’ve met an awful lot of these people, just like you’ve met an awful lot of these people. And the vast majority do have the global interest of the Jewish community at heart.
Ultimately, for the future of Jewry, we have to be able somehow to leave our egos and our organizational hats behind and adopt a common narrative. Someone has to lead the way, whether it be X organization or Y organization.
It was good to see in America that the rally they had recently, a few Sundays ago after the Monsey stabbings, was cross-communal. There was the Conference of Presidents, the UJA, the AJC, various others. It was good to see them start from that basis.
You’d like to think — in the same way that we did, with the Board of Deputies, the Community Security Trust, other organizations — that this could be built upon.
America has been the paragon of virtue — effectively the secondary refuge for Jews over the course of the last generation. I think that we are at a tipping point
And I would like to see Israel becoming a partner in that process. While I know it’s not an election issue, because ultimately people in this country [Israel] are going to vote for their own safety and their own security and their own prosperity, the future of global Jewry is under threat to an extent which it has never been since the end of the Second World War.
Everybody is recognizing and appropriately memorializing 75-year since the end of the war. It does seem as if in the last two or three years, we’re moving into a different era, and we can’t afford just to slip into that era without recognizing that certain things have to change. Now it’s a pretty simplistic narrative of mine. But often the simple narratives are ones that actually get through and make a point — make people understand that behavior has to change.
That’s a very dramatic phrase: the future of global jury is under greater threat than since World War Two. How does that manifest itself in, say, New York?
When I was in New York a month ago, at the beginning of January, New York Jewry was beginning to worry about its safety and security walking down the street. Now, it may only have been one instance in Monsey. And hopefully it was only from a very small fringe group. But those were the questions coming from the floor to Elan Carr. If the environment in New York, in America, was to change to such a great degree, and Jews don’t feel comfortable in America over a period of the next five to 10 years, where else are they going to feel safe outside of Israel?
America has been the paragon of virtue — effectively the secondary refuge for Jews over the course of the last generation. So I think that we are at a tipping point. The whole environment, America, access to guns and the ability to operate in a way in which you can’t always in other countries, has made people feel more nervous. And if that environment was to change over a generation, that would be very serious.
Where is Britain at the moment? How does the British Jewish community feel about walking down the street, and about its wider, fundamental wellbeing?
CST would show that the percentage number of incidents has grown year over year, at alarming rates. Predominantly, however, those have not been physical acts. There’s not been an incident in the way in which other countries have unfortunately suffered.
Chief Rabbi Mirvis’s intervention during a general election [with an op-ed all-but pleading with voters not to elect Corbyn] — he was talking about the election being a bellwether, to hope that the innate decency of the British people would win through. And I think it did. I think it showed that Britain remains a place which respects minorities and respects the Jewish community’s contribution to society. There’s no doubt that whilst Brexit was a major, major issue in the election, the anti-Semitism and anti-British values of the Corbyn leadership and Corbyn himself, was a very significant aspect of that election — second, the opinion polls show, in what caused people to vote. The election showed that there’s an innate decency in Britain which remains. Britain is a good country for Jews to live.
And if you’ve polled Anglo Jewry today, 40 percent wouldn’t say that they were thinking of leaving?
You’re going to get a much lower number?
Yes. I came here yesterday, for a wedding. Three people at the wedding told me they had made alternative plans for 13th of December [– the day after the UK election]. A lot of people thought it was the wealthiest people [who were making plans to leave]. That wasn’t the case. There was a significant number of Jews [from all strata].
The election was a real bellwether. It was a binary choice for Britain. It was a choice between an environment in which Jews felt comfortable and safe, and an environment in which they didn’t
I went to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust ceremony last week and it was a wonderful ceremony. Prince William came as well. Chief Rabbi Mirvis spoke beautifully, Boris Johnson spoke. Jeremy Corbyn was there in the front row. And I sat there and I envisioned in my own mind, what would have happened, how I would have felt, had the result gone differently, and I’d have been sitting in that room on Monday with Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister making a speech about Holocaust Memorial Day. And the truth is, I would have felt deeply, deeply, deeply uncomfortable.
So, yes, I think that the election was a real bellwether in that sense. It was a binary choice for the country. It was a choice between an environment in which Jews felt comfortable and safe, and an environment in which they didn’t.
Now the danger is to believe the battle is won. The danger is to believe, Okay, we’ve got past that, we can move on with our lives. I don’t believe that to be the case.
The environment is changing. The level of anti-Semitism which is acceptable is changing, has got higher.
That comes from two clear areas. It comes, first, from classic anti-Semitism — the media, the power, which people don’t even realize that when they’re talking about it, they’re embodying it. And second, the anti-Zionism.
You know [Guardian columnist] Jonathan Freedland made a very interesting point in a podcast recently that he was once described by Corbyn as “subliminally” nasty and he thought to himself afterward, Why did he use the word subliminal? And the answer is, subliminal has this notion of power insidiously seeping in and taking control. It’s a very unusual word to use. It’s not a word you’ve ever heard Corbyn use in any other context.
So this notion of power and control is very much a part of the narrative of the left.
What worries me about America is again, if you step back, if you spoke to Tony Blair — and don’t forget Jeremy Corbyn has been an MP for over 30 years — Blair would say Corbyn was a backbencher. He was an irrelevance. He was never interested in domestic policy. He was out there doing his own thing in all these secondary nations, in Venezuela and this and that and the other, obviously the Palestinian conflict being a big driver. And, [Blair would say,] I just let him be, because I didn’t need to worry about it. I had a big majority, it didn’t matter. Well, 30 years later, circumstances led to Corbyn becoming the leader of the Labour Party.
If you’d run that parallel now, what happens in the Democratic Party in America, where you have this small but growing number of people who are clearly strongly anti-Zionist. And Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer, or whoever you wish to highlight as the leaders of the Democrats in Congress, they just ignore them because they don’t need to take them on.
What happens in 20 years time for Israel and for American Jewry if the likes of the Squad or whatever you want to call them end up, by an unusual circumstance, becoming the leaders of the Democratic Party in America. We cannot afford to ignore these people. We’ve ignored it for too long. We’ve ignored this anti-Zionist narrative for far too long. We’ve allowed it to take root within our universities. We’ve allowed our own youth to be detached from Israel. We’ve lost the narrative of the nation state. We’ve lost the Zionist narrative. And we cannot afford to just ignore it. We have to accept that we have a major problem globally and we have to take it on.
The alternative is that we allow this progression that’s occurred over the last five, 10 years, to continue. Anybody who can’t see it in Europe or in America or in Britain, which we got so close to…, is blind to the reality. The world is changing for Jews. It has changed. So I ask you, what is the alternative to an attempt to bring people together?
It’s necessary and laudable. I just think it’s more complicated than we would like it to be.
If it wasn’t complicated, it would have happened already. But I’m saying to you that people like you and I, and people like my friend Malcolm Hoenlein, for example, at the Conference of Presidents, or David Harris of the AJC, or Ron Lauder of the World Jewish Congress, or Moshe Kantor of the European Jewish Congress, need to find a way to get in a room and say, OK, we need for the benefit of global Jewry to be talking from the same piece of paper.
At the same time as you’re saying this, three Jewish men crafted a peace plan for an American president who, on taking office, had indicated he didn’t support the settlement enterprise. And this plan deprives the Palestinians of a fully sovereign state, even if they were ever prepared to agree to one. When people come in and say, well, why are all these Jewish people moving American policy to the detriment of other people, doesn’t that make those charges hard to brush away as, well, that’s just anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism?
That is an extremely complicated and difficult question. I have never met President [Donald] Trump; I’ve met the others. On the individual basis, they’re all extremely well-intentioned people. I think that we are in extremely complicated waters.
I have a younger brother who lives in Ra’anana. My first nephew is in the IDF. He’s currently stationed in a difficult area. I understand why the Israeli public vote for their own safety and secure. And I understand why Diaspora issues are not at the top of the agenda when people cast their votes. I, however, hope and pray that the Israeli political leadership understands the impact of their decisions on Diaspora Jewry — that if certain actions were taken following the issuing of the Trump plan, the fallout for global Jewry is going to be extremely, extremely troubling — for both the narrative, but also in reality, on the ground.
One can only hope that wise heads make wise decisions. And one hopes that those decisions are not made for short term political expediency.
Just one last thing, about Labour now. You say the mistake would be to think that the battle is over. Where do you think the Labour Party is heading? Was Corbyn a radical aberration, or not at all?
The test of the new leader is really not what he or she says during the leadership campaign, but in the first six to nine months of that new leader’s tenure.
The totemic issue was the Chakrabarti Report. That report contextualised and institutionalized the acceptance of certain anti-Semitic actions within the Labour Party. Not just what it wrote, but the whole way in which it was presented, and the intimidatory atmosphere for Jewish MPs at that time; I remember the story about Ruth Smeeth [a Jewish MP] being bullied and victimized at that event [where the report was presented].
In reality, if somebody wishes to change [Labour], they have to start from a fresh place — work with the mainstream Jewish community, to agree on what is and is not acceptable in 2020.
The question is whether that new leader has the bravery to do that. Because when you go and look online, and you hear what’s going on in the CLP [Constituency Labour Party] meetings at this moment in time, the denial of anti-Semitism is still so prevalent.
[Trade union leader] Len McCluskey only last weekend was out there shouting about it, saying [the claims of anti-Semitism in Labour] were drummed up to beat Corbyn. The report written by Labour only days ago — their internal reasons for their election defeat — didn’t acknowledge any problems on behalf of the leader. They said it wasn’t Corbyn’s fault because he’d been victimized by the media for four years.
It’s not our job to choose the new leader of the Labour Party. It’s not our job to recommend which one we think would be better for the Jewish community. But there is a high bar for the new leader to get over.
For me, the biggest way to do that is [for the new leader] to say, We are putting that in the bin and we are starting again.
‘That’ being the Chakrabarti Report?
The Chakrabarti Report, which minimized and whitewashed [the issue of anti-Semitism in Labour]. If that went in the bin, and you started again, from a different point, you’d have a chance.
If, however, you believe that the most important thing is to keep your base happy, then you’re not going to change. The level of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party will continue. Whilst the leadership will move pieces around the chessboard to make it look better, the underlying environment for the Jewish community within Labour will not change. That’s the test for the new Labour leader.