The Jewish Groups Campaigning for Corbyn

JVL Introduction

A brief overview of the Jewish groups campaigning for a Labour victory, focusing on Jewish Voice for Labour and Jews Against Boris

This article was originally published by Novara Media on Wed 27 Nov 2019. Read the original here.

‘The Tories Pose an Immense Risk to Us and to All Minorities’: The Jewish Groups Campaigning for Corbyn

On Tuesday, the country’s chief Rabbi criticised Jeremy Corbyn on antisemitism, saying he had allowed “a poison sanctioned from the top” to take root in the party. Earlier this month, the UK’s oldest and largest Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, published a front page editorial that asked non-Jews to do the same. Before this, in October, Jonathan Romain – one of Britain’s best-known Rabbis – sent an email to his Shul urging members to vote against Labour.

Major figures and institutions in the British Jewish community are pushing publicly against Labour,reiterating what has become one of the dominant narratives of this election: because of antisemitism, genuine or perceived, Jews don’t vote Labour.

But there are also progressive Jewish groups that are still supporting Corbyn, and others that have sprung up specifically to challenge the Jews v Labour mantra. Like me, these groups feel that attempts to further divide the leftwing community from the Jewish community, which has a long history of socialist activism (just google the Bund, the Battle of Cable Street, the Workers’ Circle – there’s too much to detail here), are damaging to both, and erase a not inconsiderable feature of British Jewish existence.

Different organisations are tackling the narrative of division in different ways. Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), for example, which was founded by a group of Jewish Labour party members, has advocated since 2017 for an “open, democratic and inclusive” party, but have also been damning of recent accusations which it says seem increasingly “disconnected from reality”. The stretch to read Corbyn’s pronunciation of Epstein during the Leaders’ Debate as evidence of antisemitism has, they suggest, “perhaps won the prize for the most confected accusation to date”.

In the run-up to the election so far, much of JVL’s activism has taken the form of myth-busting. In October the group published a briefing for Labour canvassers outlining the true stories behind the events most commonly cited as examples of antisemitism, such as the “mural debacle”. In their words, they seek to “expose the inaccuracies and distortion” at play in Labour’s public image “by developing and putting out there calm, factually-based analyses”.

They’ve also been drawing attention to the bloated impression of antisemitism in Labour given by the mainstream media. “We now have a situation where the average British citizen is convinced that a third of Labour Party members have been accused of antisemitism,” a spokesperson tells me, quoting a study from Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, The Party and Public Belief, a book written by five academics, two of whom are Jewish. “The true proportion is 0.06%.”

While JVL tackle the characterisation of Labour, Jews Against Boris (JAB) has taken a stance that focuses on its opponent.

JAB started its campaign in November. While not officially affiliated with Labour, it’s attempting to topple the prime minister from his Uxbridge seat by canvassing for his Labour opponent, Ali Milani. Members of the group are also attending Labour canvasses in other marginal seats, particularly those with Conservative incumbents who have helped to normalise far-right rhetoric, which JAB considers the true threat to British Jewish life.

“Boris Johnson and the Conservatives pose an immense risk to us and to all other minorities,” a member of JAB tells me. Their campaign is fuelled by frustration at the Tories’ attempts to paint Corbyn as racist while ignoring bigotry within their own ranks, and from their own leader. “Our safety, our real safety, comes when we are in solidarity with other communities who are also threatened by the far right.”

Where JVL and JAB come together, along with others, is in their rejection of attempts to paint political sentiment amongst 300,000 self-identifying British Jews as monolithic. Outlets like the JC claim to speak for all British Jews, JVL points out, so their narratives are echoed by the UK mainstream, and an environment is created in which Judaism and support for Labour appear mutually exclusive.

This is an impediment to Jewish Labour activism. Jewish groups and individuals seem, in some ways, to have been barred from simply contributing to the battle to get the Tories out and a progressive government in, having instead to first justify their existence as leftwing Jews.

JAB tells me that since its launch, the Judaism of its members has been interrogated multiple times. Over the weekend, I attended a canvass with JAB in North London, after which we debriefed in a café. One member told me he’d visited a house where the occupant opened his door, saw Labour pamphlets, and said, “No thanks, I’m Jewish”.

JAB’s members don’t generally bring up their Judaism while canvassing unless it’s relevant. The canvasser didn’t have time to respond with “I’m Jewish too,” before the door closed again.

Another canvasser spoke to an individual who claimed they didn’t see any point in voting Labour since the party had “lost the Jewish vote,” and so won’t win. Around the table, this sparked concerns that Jews are not only being divided from Labour activism: Jews could actually end up being blamed for a Labour defeat. JVL acknowledged the same issue, speaking of the danger inherent in British Jews being perceived as “collectively hostile to a party that is so progressive on social issues generally”.  The impression that Jews won’t vote Labour not only further divides Jews and Labour supporters, then, but threatens to pit them against each other.

Both JAB and JVL challenge the dominant narrative by emphasising a lack of Jewish exemption from the problems caused and exacerbated by Conservative governments. “There are many Jews whose lives depend on defeating a Tory government: Jews who live in poverty, Jews with disabilities, Jews who rely on the NHS, Jews of colour and migrant Jews,” a JAB spokesperson told me, and JVL echoed the sentiment, saying that “like all people, Jewish people can only be harmed by five more years of austerity”.

You can sense a frustration in these circles: the repetition of the narrative Jews don’t vote Labour by both Jewish figures and institutions and the wider media makes Jewish Labour activism and visibility simultaneously more challenging and more necessary. The biggest obstacle to be overcome is that of false perception – both of and amongst Jews, of and within the Labour party, and in the wider political world. But the continued existence and passion (or, maybe, ruach) of leftwing Jewish groups with varying relationships to Labour – not just JAB and JVL, but Jewdas, JLM, JVP and more – under difficult circumstances creates hope for a positive future relationship between a truly socialist Labour party, and a thriving Jewish community, who are free to engage with politics based on their true values and beliefs.

Francesca Newton is a freelance journalist based in London.

Comments (3)

  • Philip Ward says:

    It would be interesting to know what is meant by “300,000 self-identifying British Jews”. The national census counts 264,000 Jews in England and Wales in 2011, so I presume the figure of 300,000 is an extrapolation to include Scotland.

    There is a problem here: it is possible to be a Jew and an atheist (e.g. me) and the census is a question about religion. (I think this can probably be true for other ethno-religious-cultural groups as well). I would have thought that most Jews who are in the same position as me would not want to pretend to be religious. I have no idea how many of us there are, but we should be counted in addition to the “300,000”. And clearly the Jewish religious establishment does not speak for any non-religious Jew.

  • Stephen Mitchell says:

    If the Jewish community is seen to have lost Labour the election then I firmly believe there will be a significant rise in antisemitism. in our country. Not necessarily among Labour members but among impressionable younger people whose lives have been blighted by neoliberalism and were hoping for real change if Labour won . The far right will be delighted if Labour lose but will soon use the intervention in the election of a religious figure as proof of Jewish power. The Jewish community is always at risk when the Far Right is in the ascendant. This Rabbi has all but ensured its best hope of protection is reduced to impotence.

  • Miriam Yagud says:

    Just want to point out that Jewish Socialists’ Group is another Jewish organisation that has declared support for Labour in this election.
    Here is their statement issued last week:

    Jews for a Labour victory
    Statement by Jewish Socialists on the UK General Election

    Jews for a Labour victory

    We live in dangerous times. In the USA and many countries in Europe, populist right wing governments and movements, preaching ultra nationalism, racism and other bigotry, have consolidated power or are gaining more support. There have also been shocking terror attacks in the last two years on Jewish and Muslim targets in the USA, Europe and New Zealand perpetrated by individuals who are inspired by neo-Nazi ideology.

    When Donald Trump stood for the US presidency on a Republican ticket in 2016, some 70% of American Jews voted against him. Mainstream Jewish bodies in Poland and Hungary have strongly criticised antisemitic tendencies in their governments.

    Here in Britain, all Jews are rightly concerned that antisemitic incidents have been rising year on year over the last decade. That has happened under a Tory government which maintains close relations with the governments of the US, Poland and Hungary, and has itself openly declared a Hostile Environment against migrants and refugees, the policy that spawned the Windrush Scandal.

    Uniquely, though, in the British case the governing party has managed to deflect responsibility for rising antisemitism on to the opposition – the Labour Party. Since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader in 2015, pro-Tory newspapers and Jewish leadership organisations have made repeated allegations of antisemitism against Labour members, or those believed to be Labour members. Despite his longstanding record of outspoken opposition to racism, Corbyn himself has been branded an antisemite, and these allegations against him have been conflated with his outspoken support for Palestinian rights. Jews who question this narrative and who are critical of Israeli government policies have themselves been accused of colluding with antisemitism.

    Antisemitism exists in all classes of the population and it is likely that there are pockets of antisemitism in all political parties. The most reliable survey information suggests it is far more common on the right rather than on the left of the political spectrum, where it sits comfortably alongside Islamophobia and anti-refugee sentiment.

    While it is true that there have been some proven incidents of antisemitism among a small number of individual Labour members, these members have been subject to a disciplinary process resulting in sanctions, including expulsions. But it is also true that many allegations have been found to be without substance, or to relate to actions that were perpetrated by people who were not Labour members.

    Many members of the Jewish Socialists’ Group also belong to the Labour Party, and have participated in anti-racist and anti-fascist initiatives with fellow party members.

    We can see no evidence that a victorious Labour government would persecute, disadvantage, hurt, oppress or delegitimise Jewish citizens. On the contrary, the party’s commitment to equality and to challenging racism and discrimination, are key to its values and manifesto commitments. As are its commitments to benefit the majority of the population, especially the working poor, disabled people, those who are homeless, unemployed or young, as well as disadvantaged ethnic minority groups and refugees.

    The manner in which Jewish establishment bodies and the most prominent Jewish newspapers talk about the political needs of Jewish people in Britain seems to treat us as a community apart and even accept some stereotypical portrayals of Jews as a homogeneous and wealthy group. It is as if Jewish people have not shared any of the hardships of the last 10 years of Tory austerity, aided and abetted between 2010 and 2015 by the Liberal Democrats.

    Unemployed Jews, struggling Jewish single parents and pensioners, young Jews facing spiralling tuition fees for higher education, Jewish users of the NHS and mental health services that have been cut to the bone, all need a radical reforming Labour government to help and support them, in the same way as their counterparts in other communities.

    The many Jews who work in the fields of health, education, social care and other public services know that they, along with their non-Jewish colleagues, will benefit from Labour policies that support these services and defend them from cuts and privatisation.

    We call on Jewish people in Britain to be vigilant and to act against all antisemitism. We also ask them to recognise that the source of most antisemitism, along with other forms of racism, is coming from a resurgent nationalist right wing that is firmly embedded in today’s Conservative Party.

    We call on Jews in Britain to vote for a better, more just and equal future for everyone, and especially for those suffering poverty and discrimination.

    Vote Labour on 12th December!

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