Jews4Labour and me

Reproduced from "The stick they beat us with", 26 November 2019

JVL Introduction

Jews4Labour and me is a new blog – a sensible, reflective take on the rage that is swirling round us.

Only four posts on it so far, two of which are reproduced below: Why I support Labour and The Difficulties with Counting Jews

This article was originally published by Jews4Labour and me: My rambling thoughts on the Labour anti-Semitism debate. Read the original here.

Why I Support Labour /The Difficulties with Counting Jews


 

Why I Support Labour

16 November 2019

Let me start with this. I am Jewish and I support the Labour Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn.

When I last stuck my neck out on this subject I was accused of being stupid, a “turkey voting for Christmas” (surely matzos voting for Pesach?), an enabler of anti-Semitism and “that useful Jew”. A mere blip compared to what many other people have to endure on social media, but a drag nonetheless. Worst of all, it achieved nothing other than giving me a headache. I did, however, escape the accusation that I wasn’t actually Jewish, which I have seen levelled at other left-wing Jews.

There are many ways in which I could demonstrate my Jewishness. Describe my family and their convoluted journeys across Europe and the world. Reel off a list of the incredible women and men who are my ancestors (some of whom are simply the stuff of legend for me). I could scan and publish old documents written long ago. Jewishness is complicated and every person’s identity is different, but all you need to know is that I am proudly Jewish. And although no-one needs me to bless their identity if someone else says “I am Jewish”, that is good enough for me.

So, I’m going to try to explain how I feel. I believe this is the biggest political fight of my life. We face a Conservative Party that is an enabler of the far right, that has presided over (with occasional Lib Dem enabling) almost a decade of vicious cuts that have disproportionately affected the most vulnerable in our society and degraded everyone. The Tories have cheerfully expropriated the argument that Labour is anti-Semitic for their own gains. That is why I felt it was essential to lend my voice to demonstrate that there are Jewish people who do not believe that the Labour Party or Jeremy Corbyn are anti-Semitic.

I speak only for myself (although I have been inspired to write this by the #Jews4Labour and #Jews4Jeremy campaign and my mum 100% agrees), but I am compelled to say these things because there is a narrative about the Labour Party which has taken root with which I not only disagree with on a factual level but that I consider risks making this country a more dangerous place for Jewish people. The urgency of an upcoming General Election has raised this to a level that I could no longer put off speaking out. The narrative of anti-Semitism in the Labour party deflects attention from the aggressive behaviour of the right (Jewish people’s consistent enemy) and undermines one of the safest political spaces for Jews.

The situation was thrown into sharp relief by something that happened with my nine-year-old son last week. The radio was on in the kitchen with the news from the Jewish Chronicle and other right-wing newspapers that Jews would leave the country if Jeremy Corbyn became Prime Minister. My son asked me if we would have to leave too. This malicious campaign caused a child to feel less secure in the country of his birth.

The Labour Party and socialism are entwined with the aspects of Judaism that I most relate to: support for the downtrodden and marginalised, a love of community, the spirit of debate, disagreement and dissent and an abhorrence of tyranny. I was a Jew first, then a socialist and now I am a socialist Jew.

I’m finding my feet with how my politics and Jewishness intersect. I’m a mechanical engineer not a political scientist, but I know this: Jews and radical left-wing politics have a long common history and I’m looking to find my own place in this.

Socialism is marked by a broad solidarity with humanity, tolerance, identification with others and generosity of spirit, which seems absolutely absent in this discourse. This debate is so narrowly and intolerantly focused that Jews like me who have other opinions are often silenced and denigrated.

I’m going to end on a positive note. The Labour Party is inspiring and particularly so in its current form. The manifesto is yet to be released as I write this, but from the policies announced so far I’m truly excited by the transformative vision for our country (and its place in the world): improvement to workers’ rights, access to adult further learning, FREE BROADBAND! and improved funding of our NHS to name a few. I’m eagerly anticipating the manifesto itself.

On December the 12th, I will be voting for Labour utterly comfortable that this complements my Jewishness and eager to see transformative policies implemented.

 

The Difficulties with Counting Jews

30 November 2019

Swathes of the past week have been dominated by anti-Semitism as the media took the opportunity to ignore the shortcomings of the Tories to give Labour a sustained hammering. This happened as the polls began to narrow and Labour tried to launch its race and faith manifesto (which was drowned out in the cacophony). I don’t intend to go over all the same ground again. You can read that here.

Having shocked you all by claiming that Jews can be Tories, what should I tackle next?

During a previous Twitter foray into the topic of anti-Semitism on the Labour Party, one thing that was levelled at me was “But what about the 86% of Jews who think Jeremy Corbyn is anti-Semitic?”. The best I could do on the hop was point out that this didn’t apply to me and that polling is quite often a “load of old pony” anyway.

Now I’ve finally got my act together enough to write this blog (and thanks to the indomitable Michael Rosen, who provided inspiration for aspects of this), I’d like to tackle the prevailing orthodoxy around these poll figures which are (and you may be beginning to detect a theme here) used to whip left-wingers in general and left-wing Jews in particular.

I’m going to avoid resorting to anecdote in this post, (my mum says this, my gran says that, Uncle Abe thinks the other, and so forth) and try and look at some of the facts. But I’m going to lead with something controversial. Even if we were to take at face value the high figures for Jews believing Jeremy Corbyn and Labour are anti-Semitic, this does not mean that they are right. People’s opinions and feelings on this are, of course, relevant and have to be treated with respect but just because a lot of people believe something, does not make it true and it certainly does not make it beyond reproach.

But let’s look at the polls themselves. As with all polls it’s all too easy to take them at face value. People have become increasingly suspicious of them particularly as their accuracy has waned in recent years. I’m going to look at one poll in particular. Published by the Jewish Chronicle in September 2018 it stated that 85.9% of British Jews regard Jeremy Corbyn as anti-Semitic and a similar proportion said the same of the Labour Party in general. What piqued my interest was how do they find Jews to ask?

Survation’s website says the following of its Jewish Panel:

To establish these indicators, Survation worked in consultation with Jewish community expert consultants, academics, as well as Office for National Statistics data.

This is presented as being authoritative, but could still have massive gaps. This is the line that gives me concern:

Using these indicators, contact data was originated of a random selection of individuals who met the criteria.

The people who form this panel will have to have their details (and specifically their telephone number) listed on a database. This would narrow it to people who are members of synagogues or other Jewish groups and institutions to whom Survation were permitted access, which immediately narrows the breadth of the field. Then, the only other official source of data that contains contact details of any sort (let’s remember that the most recent fully published census is from 1921) is the electoral register. Polling companies are not entitled to access the full electoral register, therefore it can be assumed that further information would come from the open register. This would only give them access to people’s names and addresses but not telephone numbers, so this is unlikely to be the source. The question is which reliable databases include people’s religion/ethnicity? It seems more likely that they made some assumptions around their names and where they live. Michael Rosen goes into some depth about how “leaky” the use of names is to conclude that someone is Jewish and area is little better.

To summarise, in order to have people’s telephone numbers Survation appear to have only been able to work on the following:

People who are members of Jewish organisations and had given permission for their telephone number to be shared
People who are on other databases that state their religion or ethnicity and include a telephone number (unlikely)
People who are on other databases but using other indicators to find Jews(e.g. names and locations) which is more likely

These people then had to agree to take part in the survey after being told what is for and at the end asked if they wanted to join the panel. This means that those with the strongest feelings are more likely to want to spend the time responding, but also those who feel more marginalised may feel less confident to speak out.

And in terms of the use of information from the “Jewish community”, this is likely to exclude the large numbers of Jews who do not attend synagogue or Jewish groups (bear in mind only about 56% of Jewish households have anyone who is a synagogue member.

So, from the evidence provided online by Survation, I am yet to be convinced that this is the last word on Jewish opinion on the matter (if someone can evidence (i.e. no anectdotes, please) why this is wrong, I will happily update this). There was also bias in the questioning as there was only a question about whether people would consider leaving the country if Jeremy Corbyn became Prime Minister. No other party leaders (or, obviously, future party leaders in the case of the Tories) were subjected to this question.

But, I’m going to get a bit more philosophical here. I believe there is a fundamental risk associated with counting Jews. The counting of Jews is actually prohibited as interpreted from passages from the Torah and when King David messed it up 70,000 Jews died of the plague (or so the story goes). As I see the Tanakh not as a history textbook or an instruction manual, but thought-provoking writings, my interest is in what this may be a warning against.

In the UK, Jews make up a very small percentage of the population. By splitting us down further and then leveraging these polls as a political tool, the message goes out: there is a way of thinking that is common to Jews. In a larger population group the dissection of polls is essential to ensure that dissenting voices are heard and opinion is properly represented. But for a small group the opposite is true. It pits Jew against Jew, and although fervent disagreement is part of the wonderful aspects of Jewish life, to have this utilised in mainstream political discourse puts us all at risk. Jews become a monolithic block that thinks in a particular way, and this is actually an anti-Semitic trope in its own right. Individual dissenting voices can then dismissed as irrelevant, or more offensively, un-Jewish.

Rabbinical scholars said that when individuals are counted, each person is judged independently and loses the protection of the many. The fact that some of these thoughts were postulated over 700 years ago do not make them irrelevant.

A common theme running through my posts has been this: there is a diversity of opinion within the Jewish community and to exploit that puts us as risk. It is no coincidence then that this is exploited by the Tories and their cheerleaders who are interested in one thing: power.

I want to put the last week behind me. The polls are narrowing and even if that wasn’t the case we have no alternative but to fight the menace that a Tory government would be. The alternative is capitulation at this crucial time, and I have no intention of doing that.

Comments (2)

  • Mike Scott says:

    Interesting stuff! There are of course a number of definitions of “being Jewish”, including:
    1. having a Jewish mother 2. being a member of an orthodox synagogue 3. being a member of any sort of synagogue 4. having one Jewish grandparent of either gender 5. self-identifying as Jewish.
    My personal view is that being Jewish is about three things: perm any two from three and you’re in! These are ethnicity, religion and culture – I qualify via the first and third.
    Maybe we should try to establish a list of people who are prepared to be questioned about our views on various issues and send it to the polling/media organisations?

    What do you think?

  • Philip Ward says:

    I do not think you need to perm any two of the three to “qualify” as Jewish and I am not sure ethnicity is the right term to use: I would prefer to say that a person is Jewish if they have Jewish antecedents or if they have converted into the religion, full stop. These “qualifications” were enough for a Jew (including converts to Christianity) to be subject to Nazi persecution. In a repeated radio programme this week, Jonathan Miller argued that he would not be a Jew were it not for antisemitism (https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000cqhy at 24:35). I would make an additional qualification: if Israeli law allows you to “return” you are a Jew. That is the basis on which I signed the “Return” statement in 1988 (I think) renouncing this “privilege”. For our pains, many of the signatories were included on the S.H.I.T. list, which eventually was put onto the internet (now no longer there).

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