Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn protest the Labour Party’s adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism in 2018.
On September 26th, 2021, Leah Levane discovered that she’d been expelled from the British Labour party. A former Labour councilor from Hastings and Rye, in England’s southwest, Levane was attending the second day of Labour’s annual national conference in the city of Brighton when she was turned away at the door. She had missed the email, sent at 9:00 pm the night before, in which the party had notified her of her expulsion and, she said, offered no right to appeal. Levane’s offense, according to the party, was that more than a year earlier she had signed an open letter organized by Labour Against the Witchhunt (LAW), a group that protested stridently against the suspension of Labour members facing accusations of antisemitism; she had also appeared on a panel organized by the Labour in Exile Network (LIEN), a group comprised of suspended party members—including those sanctioned over allegations of antisemitism—and their supporters.
The issue of antisemitism has defined Labour’s intraparty conflict since the unlikely election of septuagenarian socialist Jeremy Corbyn as party leader in 2015. A lifelong anti-imperialist activist and advocate for Palestinian rights, Corbyn almost immediately faced accusations of antisemitism from Britain’s conservative press, the British Jewish communal establishment, and, especially, Labour’s centrist and right-leaning factions. Corbyn did not always help his own cause. His attempts to address the issue were sometimes gaffe-prone and maladroit; his recapitulations of his opposition to antisemitism and “any other form of racism” read to some as an unwillingness to offer a straightforward apology. Antisemitic posts on social media by Labour members, some identified with the left, began to surface shortly after his election—often dug up by hostile journalists—and then began to increase in number. Though the members implicated never represented more than a fraction of the party, Corbyn’s adversaries took the opportunity to denounce him as antisemitic, while Labour’s detractors accused the party as a whole of anti-Jewish sentiment. The furor became, as Matt Seaton wrote in the New York Review of Books, “a ruinous proxy” for the struggle between Labour’s left and center. The party’s byzantine internal disciplinary apparatus, which deals out formal censures and expulsions, became the battleground.
Some members, Levane among them, attempted to organize as Jews to contest the antisemitism allegations against Corbyn and the party’s left flank. In 2017, a group of veteran Jewish socialists and Palestine-solidarity activists founded Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), of which Levane is a co-chair. Their stated goal was not only to bolster support for Corbyn, but also to push the party leftward on Israel/Palestine, and to provide a non-Zionist alternative to Labour’s official Jewish affiliate, the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM). (The JLM, which is part of the British Israel-advocacy ecosystem, is allied politically with the center-right wing of the party associated with former Prime Minister Tony Blair.) Despite their efforts, the JVL could neither displace the JLM nor meaningfully reduce its power within the party. If anything, the ongoing conflict seems to have enlarged the JLM’s role: Last summer, at Labour General Secretary David Evans’s invitation, the JLM was tasked with running an online antisemitism “awareness” training for party members.
The JVL members’ own standing, by contrast, seems to have fallen. According to Mike Cushman, a JVL officer, as of January 2022 the Labour Party had initiated 55 internal investigations of Jews on the grounds of antisemitism allegations, and 43 members of the JVL had been sanctioned. One JVL member, Diana Neslen, an 82-year-old Jewish South African émigré and former anti-apartheid activist, has been investigated three times; on Monday, the party dropped its case against her after she threatened to sue Labour for discriminating against her on the basis of her anti-Zionist beliefs. Two JVL members—Mike Howard, 72, a 40-year Labour member, and Riva Joffe, a South African-born anti-racist activist in her 80s—have died while under investigation for alleged antisemitism, Cushman said, “before they could clear their names.”
In the past year, efforts to discipline the Corbynite left have intensified under the leadership of Keir Starmer, a former prosecutor and member of the party’s “soft-left” faction who replaced Corbyn as head of the party in 2020. Last July, Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) banned its members from joining LAW and LIEN (which merged in November 2021), as well as two other left-wing socialist groups known as bastions of support for Corbyn. Roughly 1,000 left-wing members are thought to have been expelled from the party. Levane said she suspects it was the leadership’s desire to avoid formally proscribing an explicitly Jewish group that kept the JVL off the list of banned organizations. Instead, she said, “what they’ve done is to pick us off one by one.”
Marginalizing the JVL members seems to be a matter of realpolitik as much as principle for Starmer. With Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson plagued by a scandal involving a breach of Covid rules, Labour is outpolling the Tories for the first time in nearly a decade. As Johnson attempts to weather the revolt brewing within his party, Starmer has sought to demonstrate that he has made a definitive break with both the substance and style of his predecessor’s politics. He increasingly refers to the values of patriotism and pragmatism, rhetorical gestures to the more conservative Labour voters who Corbyn is said to have lost. Meanwhile, he has instituted a “zero-tolerance” policy—in keeping with the recommendations put forth by the 2020 Equality and Human Rights Commission inquiry into antisemitism in the party—under which any member, Jewish or not, who disputes, questions, or minimizes the extent of antisemitism in Labour’s ranks risks potential disciplinary consequences.
For Jewish anti-Zionists like the members of JVL, it is not only politically frustrating but personally infuriating to find themselves designated as antisemites, their Jewishness impugned by the political party to which they once belonged. The British Jewish establishment has helped foster the notion within Labour, Cushman said, “that unless you are a Jew that complies with their stereotype of what a Jew should be, i.e., a supporter of Israel, then they [can] define you as not a Jew.” “I have been gripped by the most terrible rage and misery,” said Jenny Manson, a retired civil servant and JVL co-chair who received a “notice of investigation” from the party in August following a TV appearance during which she stated that claims of antisemitism in Labour had been exaggerated. “My mother, who was a survivor of the pogroms, would say, ‘Are these people mad?’ It’s utterly mad, for an old Jew to be called an antisemite,” she said. With the latest wave of expulsions, Starmer has left little doubt that he is prepared to bury the anti-imperialist, socialist left, and with it a generation of Jewish activists, in order to end Labour’s factional fight and ultimately defeat Johnson. “There is a general drive to exclude the socialist left from the Labour party,” Cushman told me. “And any excuse is good enough to get rid of people.”
Corbyn’s campaign for party leader brought an influx of hundreds of thousands of new members into Labour, making it the largest party in Western Europe by 2016. These new members helped Corbyn win his first Labour election in 2015, and then defeat a 2016 leadership challenge from a centrist candidate, both with around 60% of the vote. While media attention tended to highlight that many new voters were young people radicalized by the anti-austerity protests of the early 2010s, much less remarked on was that many were also older people: lifelong left-wing activists who’d returned to Labour after years, even decades, in the political wilderness. This latter group included a large portion of current JVL members—committed trade unionists, socialists, and longtime anti-imperialist activists who are mostly in their 70s. Some are veterans of now-defunct Trotskyist groupuscles; others are South African anti-apartheid veterans. Many, though not all, are anti-Zionists. For them, Corbyn’s takeover of Labour signaled that after decades on the margins, their politics had, almost miraculously, entered the mainstream.
Despite Corbyn’s popularity, the party’s top unelected officials and parliamentarians fought him at every turn. Labour’s paid, professional staff deliberately made the daily tasks of party management difficult for Corbyn’s team. A 2020 leaked report containing Whatsapp messages and emails of party officials revealed not only that they had sought to undermine Corbyn’s 2017 general election bid, but also that they routinely referred to Corbyn, his team, and his few political allies in defamatory and degrading terms. “To them,” write journalists Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire in their book Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn, “Corbyn and Corbynism was never legitimate.”
This intraparty fight fed—and was in turn fed by—the struggle within British Jewry over the meaning of Zionism and support for Israel. In the UK, the British government recognizes an organization called the Board of Deputies of British Jews, whose mission and politics are explicitly Zionist, as the official representative of the British Jewish community. The Board of Deputies leadership fiercely opposed Corbyn throughout his tenure, denouncing him as “ideologically fixed within a far left worldview that is instinctively hostile to mainstream Jewish communities.” The Board also squared off against the JVL, which sought to contest its claim to speak on behalf of all Jews and challenge the idea that all Jews are Zionist or supportive of Israeli government policies. In a characteristic December 2020 op-ed for The Jewish Chronicle, Britain’s main Jewish newspaper, sociologist David Hirsch lambasted the JVL, charging them with claiming their Judaism solely to rebut allegations of antisemitism, calling them inauthentic “asaJews [sic] who fight for antisemitic politics” and demanding their expulsion from Labour. Marie van der Zyl, the current president of the Board of Deputies, has referred to the JVL as “those on the fringes of our community” and “a small left-wing fringe group full of conspiracy theorists.”
After 2016, as Corbyn and Labour faced growing hostility from the British Jewish establishment, the demands that the party find a way to distance itself from the antisemitism allegations mounted. In 2018, under intense pressure from the Board of Deputies and other Jewish communal organizations, Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) adopted the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism—viewed by many as a means of quashing criticism of Israel—including its 11 appended examples, which deem it antisemitic to claim that the State of Israel is “a racist endeavor” or to apply “double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” During the reportedly heated meeting, Corbyn attempted to add a clarification that “it should not be considered anti-Semitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact,” but was overruled.
In the years since, the ensuing expulsions, suspensions, and investigations have illustrated what happens when the antisemitism definition—which its author, Kenneth Stern, never intended to be used as a speech code—is adopted by the disciplinary apparatus of a political party, and becomes an instrument with which to silence dissent. Under the current rules, it appears that one cannot be both a party member and an open anti-Zionist. Several JVL members showed me the notices they’d received from the Labour Party informing them of their expulsions or suspensions, which explained the grounds on which they had been censured. Some were being pushed out for strongly criticizing Israel or the party, for belonging to one of the several newly banned groups, or for posting on social media that allegations of antisemitism had been weaponized for political purposes. In a notice of investigation sent to Cushman, for example, the party cited as evidence of anti-Jewish bias a podcast episode in which he suggested that Israeli intelligence had aided the “smear campaign” against Corbyn, and a blog post that condemned both the JLM and former London Israeli Embassy employee Shai Masot. In more than one case, the party cited criticism of the IHRA definition itself as a potential act of antisemitism.
Although many left-wing Corbyn supporters have watched the JVL members’ censure with consternation, others harbor their own criticisms of the group. In a 2018 interview with Jewish Quarterly, Jon Lansman—a founder of Momentum, the left-wing pressure group within Labour that strongly supported Corbyn—warned that some of Corbyn’s most ardent defenders could end up doing him harm by counseling him to push back too forcefully against the antisemitism allegations. “We’ve now got quite an aggressive group on the left, including within Momentum, of people—many of them by the way are Jewish, or Jewish anti-Zionists—who deny the problem, describe it as just a smear, as purely opportunistic,” he said. But, Lansman continued, “If people are exposing a valid problem, you have to deal with it. The motivation of the person exposing the problem is irrelevant.” Other left-wing British Jews expressed similar frustration with the JVL, arguing that they have harmed the credibility of the larger Palestine solidarity movement through their insistence that the antisemitism allegations constitute a “witchhunt.”
Some of these critiques seem to come down to a question of political style. The JVL members’ rhetoric can be sharp and pugnacious, and they are not afraid to pick sectarian fights with others on the left. At the same time, many have an expansive sense of loyalty that can make them unduly tolerant of comrades who demonstrate poor judgment: Within the JVL’s broader orbit, there is no shortage of polarizing figures, such as the pugilistic activist Tony Greenstein (full disclosure: he has strongly criticized my previous reporting on Labour) and former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who was suspended from Labour in 2016 for claiming that Hitler “was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” When I asked Levane why left-wing Jewish groups led by younger British Jews seemed to have distanced themselves from the JVL, she said, “I feel as if people don’t understand solidarity. It’s like, you can only have solidarity if you agree with every comment that the person’s saying, that they’ve got to be 100% right.”
These days, the JVL members are consumed by the work of challenging letters of investigation or termination, which is perhaps the point. It is, as JVL members describe it, an opaque process, carried out mostly over email. Cushman, who recently received his third notice of investigation, said he had not heard back from the party in the 18 months since he had filed a counterclaim alleging that the accusations against him were themselves antisemitic, since they implied the stereotype that a Jew must support Israel. Levane’s response to her expulsion—one of several such responses that JVL members have made public online—is a protest of the direction that Starmer has taken the party, and a denunciation of his treatment of the JVL’s cohort of Jewish socialists. “My anger,” she wrote, “is for what this leadership and far too many in the bureaucracy . . . have done to the Party and to the hope and enthusiasm that so many people, especially young people had.”
During my interview with Levane and Manson, both were eager to discuss new legal avenues and tactics in the continuing fight within the party and with the British Jewish establishment. One idea circulating among JVL members is to advocate for the classification of anti-Zionism as a “protected characteristic” under British anti-discrimination law. And, in the case of the JVL’s Neslen, the threat of legal action along these lines may have been responsible for Labour’s decision to drop the charges against her. But this strategy remains an uphill battle. Earlier in January, the BBC was scheduled to air a segment debating whether anti-Zionism should be a protected belief, featuring Neslen. It pulled the program before it could air under pressure from Board of Deputies president van der Zyl, who called it a “grotesque insult to the overwhelming majority of British Jews.”
After more than five bitter years, the fight within the Labour Party is ending, with Corbyn’s backers on the losing side. As the long-distance runners of the British left, the JVL members are accustomed to defeat. Their grief this time is palpable. “We went through ’68, and we went through the hopes of the ’70s and the disillusionments of the ’80s and ’90s,” Cushman said. Many had seen the Corbyn years as a rare moment of promise: He represented the possibility that, for the first time in recent memory, Labour might be a vehicle for a genuine socialist agenda. “One huge gain of the Corbyn project was that all of these disparate and argumentative groups came together on a common program within the Labour Party,” Cushman told me. Now they have nowhere else to go. “None of us have given up yet,” Naomi Wayne, a JVL supporter, told me. Still, she said, “People feel desperate. I think my generation is now afraid we will have achieved nothing.”
This story has been updated to reflect that the Labour Party dropped its case against Diana Neslen. A previous version of the story misspelled her name.
Joshua Leifer is a Jewish Currents contributing editor and a member of the Dissent editorial board. His essays and reporting have also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Jacobin, +972 Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about American Jewish identity. He lives in New Haven, CT, where he is a history PhD student.