The Guardians of the Jewish ‘Mainstream’ Have Their Own Questions to Answer Over Jews’ Corbyn Fears

On day one of this general election campaign, the Jewish Chronicle ran an editorial imploring non-Jewish British citizens not to vote Labour. Citing a poll commissioned by the paper which suggested that 87% of British Jews consider Jeremy Corbyn to be an antisemite, the Chronicle warned: “If this man is chosen as our next prime minister, the message will be stark: that our dismay that he could ever be elevated to a prominent role in British politics, and our fears of where that will lead, are irrelevant.” 

The editorial was immediately effective, widely circulated amongst politicians and pundits eager to read it as the final word on antisemitism in the Labour party. Jo Swinson, who intends to make her party the new home of left-wing Jews, called it “incredibly powerful”. The former Conservative MP Nick Boles’ condemnation of Corbyn saw him immediately become engaged in a Twitter spat with Sayeeda Warsi about his own complicity in Tory Islamophobia – a particularly dispiriting encounter that nonetheless serves as a neat microcosm of the whole ugly debate. One of the more remarkable reactions came from Times journalist Philip Collins, whose castigation of Corbyn over antisemitism quickly became a defence of Boris Johnson over Islamophobia. In the same Twitter thread, James Ball, a writer for the New European, expressed his disbelief that anyone would disagree with the Jewish Chronicle on antisemitism.

The obvious response to this – that plenty of Jews disagree with the Chronicle on antisemitism, let alone gentiles – is already anticipated; yes, some diverge from the mainstream, but only a tiny fraction, insignificant in the face of such overwhelming consensus. And the other natural response – that the Jewish Chronicle is a right-wing paper, edited by a right-winger, Stephen Pollard, whose animus to socialism long precedes Corbyn’s elevation to the Labour leadership – is similarly preempted and dismissed.

But it is important to talk about how such consensuses get formed, about what constitutes what Pollard calls the “mainstream community” – and about what that term excludes.

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The 87% figure is alarming, not least because it reflects a sort of uniformity that arguably doesn’t come naturally to Jews. No ethnic or religious group is a monolith, but Jews often tend to consider themselves more disputatious than most. Agreeing with one another is a profoundly goyische custom, and not one we’ve picked up in the few short centuries we’ve lived on this island.

Accounting for that figure, then, requires an honest reckoning with every issue in play. At minimum, it seems to me that Labour has been institutionally complacent on antisemitism, that an alarming number of its members hold antisemitic views, and that many others (Corbyn included) have an impoverished understanding of how antisemitism functions.

But Corbyn doesn’t stand accused of just having an impoverished understanding of antisemitism, and the pitch of panic and fear that has been reached in many Jewish households is impossible to understand on the basis of that alone. To fully grasp how this has happened, you would have to look at the front page the Jewish Chronicle ran in 2018, in concert with two other leading Jewish newspapers, warning of the “existential threat to Jewish life in this country that would be posed by a Jeremy Corbyn-led government”. You would have to look at the comments of former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks comparing Corbyn to Enoch Powell, and his remarks on Zionists lacking “English irony” to the “rivers of blood” speech, and then imagine what it is like as a member of a minority group to have perhaps your most trusted leader encourage this perception in you. You would have to look to Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who has accused Corbyn of declaring “war on the Jews at home”.

You would also have to account for the unrelenting barrage that has been unleashed by the mainstream press. You would have to look, specifically, at some of the 95 examples of misleading media coverage of Labour antisemitism found by the Media Reform Group at Goldsmiths university, or the two-thirds of TV news segments that they found contained at least one substantive factual distortion. And you would have to understand how all this had muddied any attempt to tackle antisemitism within Labour, because it has licensed paranoia and encouraged insularity amongst party activists, and given rotten apples a place to hide.

This is not to let Corbyn off the hook on antisemitism (for the record, I agree with every criticism of the leadership made by Brian Klug in Jewish Quarterly last year). But disentangling genuine incidents from distortions, educating party members, punishing antisemitism while preserving free speech on Israel/Palestine, even honestly confronting the antisemitism that exists on the right – all these necessary and urgent tasks have been rendered impossible by our grim antisemitism debate. And the effect of this unbroken frenzy of noise and alarm has been to drive a profound fear into the heart of British Judaism. Perhaps even more startling than the 87% who think Corbyn an antisemite is the 47% who are considering emigration if he becomes PM. Heartbreaking, yes; but I was surprised to read Stephen Pollard expressing his shock at the figure in the New Statesman. Emigration seems a rational response to a looming “existential threat”.

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It’s important to clarify here that I’m not presenting Jews as mute objects of a media conspiracy. To do that would deny individuals the agency to make up their own minds on Corbyn; more than that, it would help obscure a problem internal to the Jewish community that has sped this crisis on its way. Rather, the problem is one of homogeneity: that for all the inherent diversity of the Jewish community, its mainstream institutions – the ones seen as kosher by the media – are in fact deeply uniform, and too often speak with one voice.

Take, for instance, Israel, the most obvious point of antagonism between Labour and many Jews. That all prominent Jewish organisations in the UK are explicitly Zionist might not come as a surprise; after all, you might think, most Jews themselves are Zionist.

In a 2015 survey, the number of British Jews identifying themselves as such was 59%, though a much larger number (90%) supported Israel maintaining itself as a Jewish state. A high enough number, perhaps, to justify the Board of Deputies’ claim to speak on all Jews’ behalf when approving Israel’s latest bombardment of Gaza, or the steadfastly pro-Israel stance of every university Jsoc, youth movement and Cheder. But it’s worth interrogating the terms of this support, and asking how closely it resembles the Zionism that emerges from our official mouthpieces whenever Israel makes the news.

It’s telling that in that same 2015 poll, a clear pro-peace, anti-occupation majority emerges amongst British Jews. From a list of nine policy options for the incoming Israeli government, 97% chose either ‘pursuing peace negotiations’ or ‘halting settlement expansion’. 72% thought the Palestinians have a right to a land of their own. British Jews want a Palestinian state! This fact is hard to square with the stance of the Board of Deputies, who react to every expression of Palestinian national feeling with unchecked condemnation. If they honestly represented the community, they wouldn’t have denounced the peaceful March of Return in 2018, nor blamed Gazans for their own deaths at the hands of IDF snipers. They wouldn’t have deplored the Quakers’ decision to divest from companies profiting from the occupation (not, crucially, the state itself) as “appalling” or “divisive”.

British Jews desperately need new leadership; in order for the variety that actually exists within the community to flourish, we need prominent institutions that will foster feelings currently seen as heretical. Young Jews are decidedly not pro-Israel, but for that impulse to develop they need a way of interacting with the Jewish state that isn’t just Birthright or Hashomer Hatzair. Rather than the Jewish Chronicle or the Board of Deputies, the organisation that most accurately represents British Jewry might in fact be Na’amod, a coalition of anti-occupation activists known for protesting right-wing pro-Israel conferences. Yet although Na’amod’s anti-occupation mission has the implicit statistical support of British Jews, their protests are never received as an example of unity – the Jewish community speaking in one voice. That is a luxury that belongs to Jewish Chronicle editorials alone.

None of this makes the 87% figure easier to stomach. But it’s important to understand that we arrived at it via a poisonous combination of authentic antisemitism, the cynicism of a media willing to trade Jewish fear for clicks, and a set of moribund Jewish institutions that stifle diversity and encourage insularity. None of these factors alone can sustain this awful situation; to move forward, we must confront them all.

Douglas Gerrard is a writer based in London.

Published 9th November 2019

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