(JTA) — Relations between British Jewry and the country’s Labour Party, which used to be their political home, appear to be at a historic low point.
Ahead of the June 8 general elections in the United Kingdom, a Jewish Chronicle poll from last week put support for the center-left party — which has seen repeated scandals involving anti-Semitic rhetoric in recent months — at 13 percent, compared to 77 percent support for the Conservative Party.
Despite the dismal results for Labour among the British Jewish community, that’s up from 8.5 percent in a similar poll from last month.
By comparison, 35 percent of the general population supports Labour and 44 percent of Britons said they would vote Conservative in a June 1 poll commissioned by The Independent.
The Jewish vote is of little consequence in electoral terms — Jews are a minority of 300,000 people in Great Britain — but it is widely seen as proof of the change that has gripped Labour since Jeremy Corbyn won the party’s 2015 leadership election. Corbyn is a far-left politician with pro-Palestinian sympathies who, critics say, has failed to address hate speech against Jews by his supporters.
Yet some prominent Jews, including Labour lawmakers Ruth Smeeth and Luciana Berger, remain loyal to the party under Corbyn — who was accused of being soft on anti-Semitism last year by an inter-parliamentary committee of inquiry on the problem.
For example, Corbyn did not kick out former London Mayor Ken Linvingstone, who was merely suspended for repeatedly suggesting that Adolf Hitler was in cahoots with Zionists. And then there was the suspension, readmission and re-suspension of Labour activist Jackie Walker, who said Jews led the slave trade and, later, said that there was no reason to offer special protection to Jewish schools. (Corbyn has refused to kick her out of the party as well, and she remains a member.)
Throughout these and other scandals, some Jews have remained loyal to Labour. Here are five reasons why.
1. Singled out for criticism?
Some of Corbyn’s supporters, including Jewish ones, believe Labour is being singled out for criticism on anti-Semitism, which they say occurs on the fringes of all political parties — including the ruling Conservative Party.
A case in point is Michael Segalov, the News Editor at Huck Magazine, a publication about art and politics.
“Since Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, unsupportive MPs, campaigning groups and journalists have been desperate to paint him and the movement who support him as anti-Semitic fanatics, despite knowing it’s really not the case,” Segalov, who is Jewish, wrote in September in a column published by The Independent.
Labour is certainly not the only British party with senior members who employ vitriol against Jews and Israel.
David Ward, a lawmaker for the Liberal Democrats party, was sacked last month for expressing a desire to see rockets hitting Tel Aviv and accusing “the Jews” of “inflicting atrocities on Palestinians”.
But the Liberal Democrats have taken “strong and decisive action” against such politicians, Leslie Bergman, the London-based former president of the European Union for Progressive Judaism, told JTA.
“It is irrefutable that Corbyn has not taken the decisive action that a party in a Democratic Western country would take when there is manifest anti-Semitism in its ranks,” he added.
2. This goes a long way back
The Jewish Labour Movement, a group within the party, was registered officially in 1920 — 20 years after the party’s establishment. It was the first non-Christian minority group within Labour, according to Christine Collette and Stephen Bird, the authors of the 2000 book “Jews, Labour and the Left, 1918–48.”
Once the party of choice for Jews, including impoverished immigrants from Eastern Europe, it lost some ground to the Conservative Party as Labour adopted an increasingly critical attitude towards Israel — part of a larger shift in the West of sympathy toward Israel from the center-left parties to ones on the right.
But in 2010, when the party was headed by Ed Miliband, who is Jewish, Labour was still slightly ahead of the Conservative Party among Jewish voters (31 percent to 30 percent), according to a poll.
3. Jewish values
Even Labour’s Jewish critics concede its mission aligns better with Jewish values than the policies favored by the Conservative Party, with its repeated cuts to welfare budgets and free-market economics.
Bergman, who does not support Labour under Corbyn because he believes Corbyn has failed to address hate speech in the party’s ranks, said he “can understand” Jews who vote for the party despite its problems. They “view Labour as more conscious of social issues, the need to support the less privileged in society. And that is a Jewish value,” Bergman said.
This is also one of the main reasons that Berger, a 36-year-old Labour lawmaker from Liverpool, who has come under pressure from the Jewish community to leave the party, has decided to stay, she told The Jewish Chronicle last week.
“On every level the Conservatives have failed because of the savage cuts they have dished out,” said Berger, an advocate of mental health issues who has cut short her maternity leave to campaign for Labour ahead of the election.
4. Not big on Israel? Not a problem!
Though they generally support Israel’s right to exist, British Jews are growing uneasy over its settlement policy and perceived occupation of Palestinian land – issues that are also key to criticism of Israel within Labour.
In a 2015 poll conducted among 1,131 Jewish respondents by the dovish Jewish Yachad group, 47 percent of respondents said the Israeli government was “constantly creating obstacles to avoid engaging in the peace process.” Three quarters of participants in that poll agreed that “the expansion of settlements on the West Bank is a major obstacle to peace,” and two thirds reported having a “sense of despair” whenever new expansion is approved.
Indeed, a Jewish anti-Israel lawmaker, the late Gerald Kaufman, who died in February, was among the Labour politicians accused of promoting anti-Semitic rhetoric. In 2015 he was recorded saying that the British government had become more pro-Israel in recent years due to “Jewish money, Jewish donations to the Conservative Party.”
5. It’s a local thing
In the United Kingdom, which is a parliamentary democracy, voters elect a local representative from their constituency to represent them in parliament.
Some Jewish voters who may be uneasy about Corbyn are happy to vote for another Labour Party member whom they do trust.
This certainly applies to Linda Grant, a Jewish Labour volunteer from London who said that, while she believes Corbyn is not the right man to lead Labour, she nonetheless plans to vote for a party candidate who she says has an impeccable record on fighting anti-Semitism.
“If I was a few streets away, in Islington North, Corbyn’s constituency, I can’t say how I would vote. Probably not Labour,” Grant wrote in a column that appeared last week in the Chronicle. “But I will have no difficulty voting for Catherine West and delivering even more leaflets on her behalf.”