LONDON — In December 1917, as World War I entered its final ghastly year, Britain’s fledgling Labour party and its trade union founders held a special conference to set out their vision for the future.
Among the measures the 700 delegates approved in the War Aims Memorandum was a call for Palestine to be “set free from the harsh and oppressive government of the Turk, in order that the country may form a free state, under international guarantee, to which such of the Jewish People as desired to do so may return, and may work out their salvation.”
It was, as Dr. Ronnie Fraser, the director of Academic Friends of Israel recently argued, a critical turning point in the relationship between Labour and Britain’s Jews, igniting the party’s “enthusiasm for Zionism.”
It was also the moment which cemented the alliance between Poale Zion — a Jewish workers’ movement founded in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century which preached a blend of socialism and Zionism — and the Labour party.
A year later, on the eve of the 1918 general election, Poale Zion, which had established its first branches in Britain in 1903, urged Jewish voters to back Labour. Two years later, it formally affiliated to the Labour party.
Over the past century, the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) — as Poale Zion was renamed in 2004 — has represented Jews within the Labour party; its support for Zionism and Israel is widely recognized as the “authentic” voice of Britain’s center-left Jews.
That largely unchallenged role is now under threat, however. In September, Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), a new, left-wing group was publicly launched at the party’s annual conference in Brighton on the south coast of England.
The event — which attracted a capacity crowd in the ballroom of a seaside hotel — encapsulated JVL’s agenda and what critics see as its potential dangers.
From the platform speakers castigated Israel (with the Israeli left receiving particular scorn); assailed JLM’s “pro-Zionist agenda”; and derided the “myth of anti-Semitism in the Labour party” and the “anti-Semitic smear campaign” supposedly waged against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters.
The audience attracted some high-profile and vociferous critics of Israel. The BDS-supporting film maker and Corbyn ally Ken Loach (who the next day said of allegations of anti-Semitism in the Labour party: “It’s funny these stories suddenly appeared when Jeremy Corbyn became leader, isn’t it?”) received a standing ovation and delivered an impromptu speech.
Ken Loach on 50+ years of Labour meetings "I have never heard a single anti-Semitic word or racist word. I'm not saying it does not happen" pic.twitter.com/NQ3RNF6eZ5
— BBC Daily Politics and Sunday Politics (@daily_politics) September 26, 2017
Len McCluskey, the powerful leader of the Unite union, who has repeatedly described the problem of anti-Semitism in the party as “mood music,” offered warm words for JVL and said he wanted to see his union, the country’s biggest, affiliate to it.
Like McCluskey, Tosh McDonald, the president of the rail union ASLEF who caused controversy last year by likening the fight against fascism during the Spanish civil war to the struggle of the Palestinians, made a large personal donation at the launch.
On the floor of the main conference itself, JVL’s leaders also made a splash. To repeated rounds of applause, Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, a member of JVL’s executive committee, delivered a passionate attack on Israel during a debate on foreign affairs, concluding with the line: “This party does not have a problem with Jews.”
But it was JVL’s opposition to JLM’s attempt to change Labour’s rules to crack down on anti-Semitism — a change backed by Corbyn himself — which provoked most controversy.
During the debate on the measure, which was adopted by the party, JVL’s vice-chair, Leah Lavane, railed against JLM and those who “make that accusation [of anti-Semitism] every time you criticize the despicable behavior of the state of Israel toward the Palestinian people.”
For JVL, the tightening of the party’s rules represents an “anti-democratic restriction on political debate” which “runs the risk of giving the stamp of approval to those opposed to Corbyn’s leadership to drive out more of his supporters.”
It particularly objects to the party judging allegations of anti-Semitism by using the definition drawn up by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and adopted by the British government because, it claims, this restricts criticism of Israel.
In fact, the IHRA definition explicitly makes clear that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”
While accepting that “anti-Semitism still exists and still needs to be guarded against,” Wimborne-Idrissi denies that Labour has “a particular problem.” She points to evidence presented to the House of Commons’ Home Affairs Select Committee last year that 75 percent of political anti-Semitism comes from the far right.
“Attempts to widen the definition to include criticism of Israel or Zionism,” she warns, risks causing “dangerous confusion.”
“It makes it harder to recognize real Jew-hatred when it arises, and it makes honest critics of Israel and its injustices against the Palestinian people vulnerable to malicious attack,” she says.
Labour’s own disciplinary procedures, Wimborne-Idrissi believes, “permit the vilification and victimization of individuals accused of anti-Semitism,” allowing opponents of Corbyn to “exploit both the party machinery and an illegitimately widened definition of anti-Semitism to attack those on the left who support justice for Palestinians, attempting to undermine the leadership in the process.”
A marked drop in Jewish Labour support
JVL’s assertions do not appear to be shared by British Jews more widely. Polls suggest that, under Corbyn’s leadership, Jewish support for Labour has dropped to just 13%. In June’s general election, the party failed to win a number of marginal seats as the “Corbyn surge” which deprived Prime Minister Theresa May of her parliamentary majority faltered as it hit north London’s so-called “bagel belt.”
JVL’s chair, Jenny Manson, refutes this interpretation, suggesting instead that “it has been the JLM and its supporters allied with Progress [a centrist pressure group in the party] who have alienated numbers of former Labour voters by stirring up an unfounded panic about the party having ‘a problem with Jews.’”
But JVL not only refutes the idea that Labour has a problem with anti-Semitism, it has also sought to defend those who have become embroiled in the controversies surrounding it.
A number of its leading lights, for instance, have come to the aid of the former London mayor, Ken Livingstone, who was suspended from the party in 2016 after suggesting that Hitler supported Zionism. At the time, Wimborne-Idrissi argued that “none of the remarks or actions attributed to Ken Livingstone demonstrate any anti-Semitic intent or motivation,” while Manson suggested that “these actions by Ken were not offensive, nor anti-Semitic in any way.”
After Loach appeared to defend a speaker at one conference fringe event who suggested that people should be allowed to question whether the Holocaust happened, Wimborne-Idrissi wrote that he was simply “pursuing an argument about the importance of free speech when he was called upon to comment upon an ambiguous sentence mentioning the Holocaust in a speech that he had not heard.”
There was no need, she suggested, for the film director to make the “blindingly obvious point that denying the Holocaust is abhorrent.”
(Loach later attempted to clarify his comments.)
JVL also waged a campaign on behalf of Moshe Machover, an Israeli expatriate living in London, who was briefly suspended by Labour last month over an article he wrote quoting the architect of the Final Solution, Reinhard Heydrich, and suggesting there was a “basic agreement” between the Nazis and Zionists.
Copies of Machover’s article were widely distributed during the Brighton conference by a group called Labour Party Marxists. For Jonathan Rosenhead, a JVL executive member, the controversy over Machover represented just another example of the “dirty tricks” pursued by those engaged in the “ongoing attempts to deny public space to critics of Israel.”
In many regards, JVL’s activities are nothing new. As Dave Rich, author of “The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism” argues: “There are precedents for this — you can go all the way back to the Bolsheviks to find Jewish socialists leading left wing attacks against other Jews.”
Some observers regard JVL as “trapped in 1917,” endlessly rehearsing the theoretical debates between the early 20th century Zionists and their Bundist opponents. Comparison with the Bundists — socialist secularists whose slogan was “where we live, that is our country” — is not one JVL supporters shy away from.
‘Discard the shackles’ of ‘the Israel thing’
Nonetheless, JVL is keen to publicly deny that it is anti-Zionist.
“Describing JVL as ‘anti-Zionist’ fundamentally misrepresents us,” Manson suggested to The Guardian last month.
“Our statement of principles makes no mention at all of Zionism. Rather our objective is simply to uphold the right of supporters of justice for Palestinians to engage in solidarity activities… You need hold no position on Zionism — for, against or anything else — to join and work with us,” she said.
Leaked emails indicate that JVL’s founders quite consciously sought, in the words of one, to “discard the shackles” of “the Israel thing” when drawing up its mission statement, although that statement also made clear the group’s determination to “uphold the right of supporters of justice for Palestinians to engage in solidarity activities, such as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.”
However, JVL is closely linked to Free Speech on Israel (FSOI), which is explicit in its opposition to Zionism. Founded in 2016 to “counter the manufactured moral panic over a supposed epidemic of anti-Semitism in the UK” and oppose the notion that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, it enthusiastically welcomed the launch of JVL.
Wimborne-Idrissi says JVL and FSOI are “two separate organizations with different aims and objectives.”
There is, though, a close overlap in the leading personnel of the two groups. FSOI’s chair, Mike Cushman, is JVL’s membership officer. Its vice-chair, Jonathan Rosenhead, is JVL’s information officer, while its secretary, Glyn Secker, holds the same position at JVL.
Cushman has a somewhat conspiratorial view of Israel’s role in British politics. Earlier this year, he suggested that Labour had become “a pawn of Zionist organizations that place loyalty to Israel’s interests above advancing the Labour Party”; argued that May’s foreign policy was dictated by “reciprocity for previous career assistance from the Israelis”; and labeled “most senior members of both main parties, with the exception of Corbyn and his close associates, and the Liberal Democrats” part of “the network of Israeli influence.”
JVL’s critics claim that while the group claims to represent Jews who do not share JLM’s support for Israel, its real aim is more malign.
The ‘Asajew’ function
As the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, argues: “There really is only one purpose to JVL — to deflect criticism of Labour’s response to anti-Semitism under Corbyn. That is its only function. The rest is sophistry.”
There really is only one purpose to JVL — to deflect criticism of Labour’s response to anti-Semitism under Corbyn. The rest is sophistry.
Others suggest that JVL represents only a very narrow seam of opinion within British Jewry — “at most 5%,” argues one activist — and point to surveys which indicate deep and widespread affinity for Israel among the community.
Despite unease at the actions of the Netanyahu government, one 2015 poll, for instance, found that 93% of British Jews say Israel forms some part of their identity as Jews, with similar numbers supporting its right to exist as a Jewish state.
But this numerical insignificance should not detract from JVL’s potential impact. It “fulfills the classic ‘Asajew’ function of telling non-Jews they really don’t need to concern themselves with what the bulk — the overwhelming majority — of the Jewish community feels,” believes Pollard. “They are pernicious in their intent and deserve the opprobrium they receive.”
One senior Labour figure agrees: “They are a small group of loud anti-Zionists who provide a front for a larger group of non-Jewish Israel haters. Their tactics are to smear the Jewish Labour Movement — at times with anti-Semitic tropes — to put in doubt their historic, present and future role in the Labour party.”
Some suspect that JVL’s aim is to delegitimize JLM and perhaps even to drive it from the party. During the 1980s, the anti-Zionist hard left, backed by a small number of sympathetic Jews, waged a campaign against Poale Zion and attempted to have it disaffiliated from Labour.
Although ultimately unsuccessful — with Labour’s shift back to the center after the election of Neil Kinnock in 1983, the leadership attempted to crack down on anti-Israel activism in the party — there were casualties along the way. Reg Freeson, a left-wing Jewish MP who was a strong supporter of Israel and a leading figure in Poale Zion, was eventually forced out of his north-west London seat and replaced by Livingstone.
Wimborne-Idrissi says JVL’s “longer term aim” could be to affiliate to the Labour party.
“We do not challenge the JLM’s right to exist and to organize people who support its principles,” she argues, “but we do not believe it has the right to speak as the Jewish Labour Movement on behalf of all Jews in the Labour party.”
We do not believe it has the right to speak as the Jewish Labour Movement on behalf of all Jews in the Labour party
Within the party, JVL’s presence allows Corbyn to suggest that his virulently anti-Israel agenda has supporters within the Jewish community. But it is the influence JVL may exercise beyond the community which worries many.
A ‘coterie of Jewish anti-Zionists’
David Hirsh, a senior lecture in sociology at the University of London’s Goldsmiths college and author of the newly published “Contemporary Left Anti-Semitism,” believes that it is “understandable that many Jews have a particular concern with Israel; and it is therefore not surprising that many Jews are especially concerned with what Israel does wrong.”
His fear, however, is that “this little coterie of Jewish anti-Zionists take that concern to the level of obsession, with Israel’s crimes, both real and imagined, and they try to encourage non-Jewish civil society, the Labour party, the unions and the churches, to adopt their own Jewish obsession with the evils of Israel.
“Of course a Jewish obsession with the evils of Israel takes on a different meaning when it is adopted in social spaces which are not Jewish. Then, the temptation to center everything bad that happens in the world on Israel becomes something much more threatening that self-criticism. Anti-Semitism always puts the Jews at the center of everything that is bad in the world,” he says.
Hirsh is particularly scathing to those who “use their Jewish identity” to “kosherize” the BDS campaign.
“If I wasn’t Jewish and if I didn’t know much, and if I was persuaded to support BDS via this kind of posing, I’d be furious when I later discovered I’d been encouraged to facilitate the normalization of anti-Semitic politics,” he argues.
He also suggests that the Jews supporting JVL seek to control the flow of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism rather than be carried along on its currents by those outside the Jewish community.
“They would rather live in a world where anti-Semitism was provoked by Jews — and so therefore could notionally be stopped by Jews — than in a world where anti-Semitism was irrational. They prefer to imagine that Jews are in control of their own destiny than that they are simply victims of anti-Semitism,” he says.
That harsh verdict is one that JVL’s founders would no doubt reject, but it is one with which many more British Jews are likely to find sympathy.
Writer Robert Philpot is the author of “The Honorary Jew: How Britain’s Jews Helped Shape Margaret Thatcher and Her Beliefs.” He is the former editor of an independent centrist Labour magazine, Progress, and is now a contributing editor to it. His articles have appeared in The Jewish Chronicle, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, Commentary and History Today. He previously served as a special adviser in the Northern Ireland Office and Cabinet Office.