Understanding Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis

The new British Jewish left is mobilizing to reframe the narrative around antisemitism in Labour.

Arielle Angel
December 6, 2019
Photo courtesy of Jews Against Boris.

By all accounts, it’s an exhausting and agonizing time for the United Kingdom’s embattled progressive Jewish community. In response to a barrage of allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party—a veritable grab bag of legitimate instances of antisemitism in addition to bad faith attacks and confusion around anti-Zionist sentiment—the Jewish establishment has become suspended in state of hypervigilance and alarmism, embodied in the Jewish Chronicle’s front page op-ed exhorting non-Jews not to vote Labour, and Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis’s remarks in The Times characterizing the threat posed to Jews by a Labour-led government as “existential.” Meanwhile, the response from the Labour Party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been inadequate, favoring wholesale denialism over an acknowledgement of the existence of real antisemitic sentiment in British society at large and the deep feelings of fear and anxiety in the Jewish community. 

In the midst of this crisis, a new British Jewish left is getting organized, attempting to reorient the conversation around the dangers of a Conservative government led by Boris Johnson, and to build relationships with progressive and minority communities. To help decipher these events, I spoke with three US-based British Jews—two organizers and a journalist—who have been observing the events across the pond and have been in close contact with progressive Jewish organizers on the ground: Natasha Roth-Rowland, a contributing editor at +972 Magazine and a doctoral student researching the Jewish far right at the University of Virginia; Yael Shafritz, a Washington, DC-based campaigner with IfNotNow and Jews Against White Nationalism who previously worked as a labor, student, and Jewish communal organizer in London; and Carinne Luck, a freelance organizer and strategist for Jewish and non-Jewish political groups and social movements (including J Street and IfNotNow). Luck in particular has recently been working to bring American progressive Jews together with their British counterparts to support education and training around antisemitism and to fight its political weaponization. We spoke about the factors that deepened this crisis, both in Labour and in the Jewish community; what’s really at stake for British Jews; and who gets to define antisemitism. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Arielle Angel: How are you all understanding this antisemitism crisis?

Yael Shafritz: In 2015, Corbyn came to power in the Labour Party with a very progressive socialist agenda. The center of British politics and the moderates in the party were pretty upset about that, and they began lobbing all kinds of attacks at him—one of which was that he was an antisemite, mostly due to his pro-Palestinian views, and some of the people he had been vaguely connected to. I think a lot of those original attacks—that he’s a misogynist, a radical—were in bad faith. And most of them didn’t stick. But the antisemitism charge did, for a number of reasons, one being that this is how antisemitism functions: Jews are an easy tool with which to attack progressive politics.

What happened next—which is a big part of why we’re in this crisis—is that the Labour Party didn’t respond very well to these attacks. Rather than saying, “Okay, there may be some antisemitism in the party,” they got very defensive. And actually, a lot of real antisemitism did emerge from inside the party, but people in the party were insistent that any accusation of antisemitism was a smear; it couldn’t be real. So these attacks started in bad faith, by non-Jewish political actors who were interested in seeing the downfall of Corbyn. But the way it was handled by Labour has led to a very genuine fear in the Jewish community that one half of the political system is deeply antisemitic. 

Natasha Roth-Rowland: There’s also the broader context of the Jewish community in the UK, which is just not as “out and proud” as the Jewish community in the United States. I’ve had Jewish friends in the UK tell me that when they come to New York and see Jews everywhere, being really upfront about their identity, they’re taken aback. They feel it’s like painting a target on your back. So I think this issue has landed in a very uncomfortable way for British Jews, because they feel it’s drawing a level of attention to the community; they feel exposed and vulnerable. Any time there’s a flare-up of antisemitism, British Jews kind of say, “Well, when is it going to be time to leave?”

AA: According to the Jewish Chronicle, nearly 86% of British Jews think Corbyn is antisemitic. And I read another poll that said that 47% of British Jews would seriously consider leaving if Corbyn won. Those numbers are pretty striking. What would be your advice to Labour about how to respond?

Carinne Luck: I think Britain and Labour are completely ill-equipped to deal with this problem. Because it’s not out; it’s not a conversation people are having there, individually or institutionally. So it’s hard to recommend a course of action for Labour, because this isn’t actually uniquely a Labour problem.

But in terms of strategy, I think Labour shouldn’t try to handle it on their own. From the start, they should have reached out. Instead of circling the wagons, they should have treated this as an opportunity to say, “Absolutely, antisemitism is a problem. And we know we don’t have all the answers and that we have a lot of learning to do. But we have a better solution than our opponents, because we know antisemitism thrives when inequality is heightened, and we’re going to help fix this. We’re going to work with such and such institutions to do trainings, to reach out to people; we’re going to be so proud and in your face about the fact that we’re taking this on.”

AA: And if Labour had responded in this way that we all wish they had, how do you think the Jewish community would have received it? Is there a fear that this breach can’t be bridged for reasons other than antisemitism?

YS: One important piece of context is that the organized UK Jewish community is mostly Orthodox. It’s highly conservative. The majority of the UK Jewish community votes Conservative, so it’s not like they suddenly left the Labour Party because of Corbyn. 

I grew up in the Reform movement, and even growing up in the “progressive” Jewish community, the idea of doing solidarity work or actual progressive political organizing was unheard of. People do charity work: you do mitzvah day, you give money. And so I think one of the problems is that most Jews who grew up in, for example, North London, don’t know a lot of people from other communities. They probably went to a Jewish school. They went to university and spent their time in the Hillel. They didn’t interact with people doing progressive organizing, or with the Labour Party. So when this stuff started happening, we didn’t have preexisting relationships to be able to turn to others and say, “Hang on a second, what you just said was antisemitic. Let’s talk about why it was wrong.” Those relationships between the Jewish community and other progressive and minority groups just didn’t exist. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that in the UK Jewish community, like in the US Jewish community, there are institutions that are pretty unrepresentative and exclusionary, but that claim to speak for everyone. So when they say nearly 86% of Jews think Corbyn is antisemitic, they’re mostly talking about synagogue members, which therefore excludes a lot of working-class Jews who can’t afford high synagogue membership fees, and also people who may have one Jewish parent (in the UK, only two smaller denominations—Reform and Liberal—accept patrilineal Jews). So when we talk about the Jewish community’s response to this, we have to be clear about who we mean. Do we mean the institutional Jewish community, which we know can be unrepresentative and unwilling to listen? Or do we mean Jews as individuals getting organized and working together collectively to show that there is actually a grassroots Jewish voice?

CL: In the work I’ve done more recently in the UK, I’ve heard from rabbis who say in private, “I know Jeremy Corbyn, he’s not an antisemite,” but who haven’t spoken up because the cost in the community is too high. It’s just like it was when we first started J Street: we knew we needed 25 rabbis to hold hands and jump together. You need someone doing that organizing, making the space, and providing cover for people to be able to take risks. If that had been in place, I think the non-Jewish media would’ve had a much harder time hitting people over the head with this narrative. 

AA: In all this discussion of antisemitism in Labour, no one really seems to be articulating exactly what they’re afraid Labour is going to do to British Jews. What is materially at stake for British Jews in this election?

YS: Looking at what people back home are saying on Facebook, I’ve seen three things come up as potential consequences for Jews in a Labour-led government. One is a worry that people who have Israeli citizenship are going to find it harder to move to the UK. I was talking to someone about this, and I pointed out that immigration has gotten harder over the last 10 years, under the Conservative government. Meanwhile, Labour supports reducing immigration restrictions.

Another thing I saw was the idea that security for Jewish buildings would worsen—again, they couldn’t actually pinpoint a Labour policy. But there has been an actual uptick of far-right activity, including instances of people painting swastikas and threatening to attack synagogues.

And then the last one, which I found hilarious, was the idea that Jewish charities would receive less government funding. I asked someone who works for a big Jewish charity, “Has your charity lost government funding under the Conservatives?” And they said, “Yes, all charities have lost government funding under the Conservatives.” Again, it’s this fascinating thing where people are like, “Oh, this will happen under Labour.” But it’s already been happening under the Conservative government.

NRR: Not to mention that the direction the country’s taken because of Brexit—in terms of increasing nativism and anti-immigration sentiment—is something that affects everyone, including Jews. In any country where every kind of bigotry is on the rise, Jews are less safe.

YS: The institutional Jewish community and the media have created these made-up “stakes,” but when you dig down into them, the only thing they can point to with confidence is around Israel—that’s the only place where they actually think there’ll be policy changes. But they can’t say that out loud, because that’s admitting that this was all about Israel to begin with.

AA: Let’s talk about the way Israel plays into all of this. I know that a lot of the accusations of antisemitism have to do with young Muslim progressives getting involved in the political process and expressing anti-Zionist views in ways that sometimes cross over into antisemitism.

CL: A lot of it amounts to poorly worded complaints about Israel, stemming from a lack of education. And I think it’s important to remember that some of these comments are from Muslim candidates who have family or are refugees from areas where there is actually British, American, and sometimes Israeli involvement in war. So yes, you get poorly worded, ill-advised tweets—some of it from when they were teenagers—but about the fact that maybe some of their family members are being killed. 

Take [Labour MP candidate] Zarah Sultana, for example, who said something about the Iraq War being the “Muslim Holocaust.” Anyone with a PR company would be like, “Do not use the word Holocaust.” But, look, by some estimates, a million Iraqis were killed. That’s something we just do not contend with. The right wing is highly skilled at stoking a response to this justified anger, and I do think that the Jewish community is responsible for not allowing Muslims and Arabs to have their own perspective on what is happening to their homelands.

YS: It’s notable that, when it comes to these allegations against young Muslim candidates in progressive politics—people like [Labour MP] Naz Shah—generally they’ve responded really well to criticism, saying “Oh, I didn’t know this was bad, I apologize, I want to work with the Jewish community.” Compare that to how a lot of older, mostly white people in the Labour Party have responded to allegations of antisemitism. I think it’s really interesting who is bearing the brunt of these attacks—young Muslims and people of color—when it’s white Christian folks who are actually responsible for a lot of the denialism and circling the wagons. What is so sad to me is that [Labour MP] Chris Williamson still has a career for some reason. But how many young Muslim candidates are going to have their careers ruined by this? 

AA: There’s been a wave of new organizing on the emerging British Jewish left, with groups like [the anti-occupation movement] Na’amod and [the new progressive Jewish media outlet] Vashti and Jews Against Boris. Tell me about Jews Against Boris. 

YS: The idea of Jews Against Boris came out of a bunch of progressive Jews in the UK who thought: Knowing that our community’s incredibly divided over Labour, let’s focus on an area where we actually do agree. There is some general consensus among progressive British Jews that Boris Johnson is not just bad for the Jews, but an all-around bad person. In the UK, the way our parliamentary system works is that even the prime minister is elected by a local constituency. So Boris Johnson still has to stand for reelection in Uxbridge, northwest of London. And running against him is this young, Muslim, working-class guy, Ali Milani—another wonderful example of someone who did write [antisemitic] things on Twitter when he was 16 or so, and who has very proactively reached out to the Jewish community, apologized, and tried to work through it. Jews Against Boris are going out canvassing for him. Most recently, they joined up with a group called Indians Against Tory Division, who are similarly in opposition to their community’s institutional leadership, which is far-right and supporting Boris Johnson. 

As I mentioned, part of the reason this antisemitism crisis was able to fester is because there are very weak ties between the Jewish community and other groups. Jews Against Boris has been doing these Shabbat dinners, with the theme of “solidarity,” hammering home the point that the Conservative government is bad for the Jewish community, and that we have safety through solidarity. I cannot remember in my lifetime a voice in the British Jewish community or press saying the Conservative Party and right-wing nativism are bad for the Jews. That is actually very new and radical.

NRR: It’s important to remember that there isn’t a deep tradition of civil rights organizing in the UK in the same way that there is in the US. There isn’t an established toolkit that people can turn to, to emulate and retool for the 21st century. So what a group like Jews Against Boris is doing is groundbreaking—not just within the Jewish community, but also in terms of progressive organizing in the UK more generally. It’s really incredible to see progressive Jews, who are under fire from all directions, trying to advocate for something bigger than themselves. And it’s a really crucial part of moving on from this moment—positing an alternative vision that acknowledges everybody’s stake, that doesn’t try to brush antisemitism under the carpet, but actually looks at it holistically.

CL: In the States, we have more resources than the British do, and we’ve been doing this for so much longer. But I also think there are important lessons for the Americans to learn. Jews Against Boris started about five weeks ago. They have very little material resources, but they’ve looked at where they could actually make small, smart interventions just by showing up, knocking on doors. It’s amazing what they’ve been able to do. It’s like: find another group that is feeling similarly, and show up together. You don’t have to run through like 50 points to make sure everyone’s in agreement. Do we basically agree that our country is at stake, that our rights and safety are at stake? Then we go out together. Not everything needs to be so structured and nonprofity.

AA: All of this has made me wonder about the broader question of who gets to define antisemitism. There’s been a question about whether Jewish perception of antisemitism is sufficient, whether it can be trusted. But if it’s not Jews defining it, where does that leave us?

NRR: We need to remember the role that Israel/Palestine plays in formulating people’s ideas of what antisemitism is. And there’s a very sensitive aspect to this, which is that most Israeli Jews haven’t really grown up around antisemitism, because they live in a majority-Jewish society, and antisemitism is a condition of the diaspora, of Jews living in a minority among non-Jewish majorities—particularly white Christian majorities. But nonetheless, an extraordinary number of mainstream Jewish institutions have outsourced their understanding and policing of antisemitism to Israel, allowing the stakes of a political national conflict to construct our idea of antisemitism. That is incredibly self-defeating and incredibly dangerous, because it means that we’re impoverishing our understanding of something that we should be the experts in, because we’re the ones who experience it as a structural phenomenon in the diaspora.

YS: I think something we can learn from what’s happened in England is that simply opposing the Jewish right’s project of conflating antisemitism with anti-Zionism isn’t sufficient. Saying the IHRA definition is wrong doesn’t help us, even though it is wrong and we should oppose it. Because then you end up with a bunch of non-Jews telling Jews they’re wrong about their understanding of antisemitism, and that’s a bad look.

But what I think can work—and it’s slow work—is building an alternative. Let’s not spend our time focusing on opposing these IHRA bills, let’s not give them oxygen, because they’re only actually used when that this stuff blows up. Instead, let’s focus on building deep solidarity with the Muslims who are targeted by them, and with the Palestinian diaspora who is targeted by them, and start to work on our own definitions of what antisemitism is, and bring that into these relationships. 

NRR: That gets to another really important point, which is the human dimension of all this. The thing we have to remember is that even if we vehemently disagree on the analysis, the fact is that Jews are feeling real fear. And I don’t think we should ignore that. But that makes it our job to create an alternative vision that’s going to persuade them that hunkering down with these somewhat alarmist and rejectionist definitions of antisemitism is not the answer. We have to convince them that going out into the world and embracing solidarity and working in coalition with other groups is the key to defeating not just antisemitism, but every other form of bigotry as well.

Arielle Angel is the editor-in-chief of Jewish Currents.