What's Happened with British Jews Since Corbyn's Defeat?

It’s been one year since the anti-Semitic Labor leader stepped down. Things have much improved since then, but it’s also become clear that the forces he unleashed are in the U.K. to stay.

Then-MP Keir Starmer with then-British Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn on March 21, 2019 in Belgium. Thierry Monasse/Getty Images.

Then-MP Keir Starmer with then-British Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn on March 21, 2019 in Belgium. Thierry Monasse/Getty Images.

Observation
March 18 2021
About the author

Tamara Berens, a former Krauthammer Fellow at Mosaic, is the director of young professional programming at the Tikvah Fund.

Britain’s 260,000 or so Jews breathed a collective sigh of relief in December 2019 when Jeremy Corbyn, at the time the leader of the Labor party, suffered a decisive electoral defeat to now-prime minister Boris Johnson. For four years, the Jewish community had been tormented by Corbyn’s simultaneous encouragement and covering-up of rampant anti-Semitism in Labor and left-wing politics. As I wrote then, while anti-Semitism has long been an issue in the UK, it was under Corbyn’s leadership that it became an electoral strategy. Under him, as few as 7 percent of Jews were thought to vote for Labor in 2019, down from an even split between Labor and the Conservatives, according to a study from the Jewish Policy Institute nine years prior.

There was one pleasant surprise that came in response to those burdensome years: Britain’s Jews, hardly known for their outspoken activism, made unprecedented public and private interventions to stand up to Corbyn. Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis wrote a letter condemning the Labor party as “incompatible with the British values of which we are so proud—of dignity and respect for all people,” the Jewish community held a series of rallies and demonstrations garnering international media coverage, and various bodies and campaigns filed complaint after complaint attempting to force a ruling that would ensure friendlier treatment.

Through it all, the hope among the country’s Jews was: if Corbyn leaves, things can go back to normal, and we can retreat to our quiet comfort zone. The first part of the equation happened; in the wake of his defeat, Corbyn followed convention and resigned his leadership. But what about the second? It’s been more than a year now since Corbyn left the picture—what news?

Unfortunately, the mood in Britain’s Jewish community suggests that all is not over. Corbyn’s successor, new Labor boss Keir Starmer, has been in charge of the party for a year. In some ways he has lived up to his promises to turn the page, and in others not. Meanwhile, there are still dozens, if not hundreds, of open anti-Semitism cases against both Labor politicians and activists, as well as other controversies related to Jews popping up in the wider culture.

 

Starmer, who was elected by the party membership and took over as leader in April 2020, was heralded by the Jewish community and friends as a Gorbachev-like figure. The new leader’s background and demeanor suggest moderation rather than radicalism. Starmer has strong “socialist” credentials—he, like almost all Labor stalwarts, embraces the term—but he does not sit on the same anti-establishment throne as Corbyn. He made his mark on environmental issues rather than intersectional activism, and he didn’t rise to power as part of a Labor faction, having instead occupied a senior apolitical prosecutorial role for five years before winning a spot in Parliament in 2015.

Though disconcertingly quiet on the issue of anti-Semitism as a senior member of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, Starmer, whose wife is Jewish and who has family in Israel, seems to mean well. In December 2019 when a local synagogue in Starmer’s district was vandalized with graffiti, he showed up there to provide his personal support, without cameras. Upon entering the post-Corbyn leadership race Starmer spoke up and vowed to implement sweeping changes from “day one” of his tenure. The only incident in that race came from a gaffe Starmer himself made at a townhall hosted by a Jewish community center in which he purposefully did not describe himself as a Zionist. This was an unexpected choice of words; all the other candidates at the townhall responded in the affirmative to the Zionist question, even Corbyn’s staunch ally Rebecca Long-Bailey. But Starmer later clarified his comments to say that he did support the existence of the state of Israel, and a few days after the townhall, when the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (Britain’s main pro-Palestinian activist group), asked all the Labor candidates to sign a pledge, Starmer was the only candidate who refused. Shortly afterwards, he was elected with over 56 percent of the vote. Within his first week, British media reported Jewish community leaders saying that Starmer had achieved more in “four days than his predecessor in four years.”

From then, things on the anti-Semitism front were fairly quiet until the summer; April 2020 was, of course, a difficult month across the globe, but perhaps especially in Britain, where the country speedily about-faced from a loose coronavirus policy meant to achieve herd immunity to a strict nation-wide lockdown. In May, things picked up a bit. Starmer accepted the resignation of the Labor party’s General Secretary Jennie Formby, who was widely criticized for mishandling the anti-Semitism portfolio she was in charge of, a step which was seen as crucial in overhauling Labor’s broken process for adjudicating claims of anti-Semitism. But Starmer’s first real test came in June, when some British politicians rubbed up against some radical activists from the Black Lives Matter movement. Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Corbyn holdover and Starmer’s shadow education secretary, shared on Twitter an interview with an actress who claimed that U.S. police learned violent tactics from Israeli soldiers. Starmer acted swiftly, asking Long-Bailey to resign just three hours later. He said in a press conference that the article in question “contained an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory,” a clear statement clarifying his opposition to Israel-related anti-Semitism as well as more traditional forms of Jew-hatred.

This smaller drama was a prelude to a much more serious crisis this past October prompted by the release of a much-awaited government investigation into Labor’s anti-Semitism. Again Starmer passed the test. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), a public body with very real investigative and enforcement powers, had tasked itself with investigating Labor anti-Semitism following formal complaints filed by several Jewish bodies, in particular the Campaign Against Antisemitism and the Jewish Labor Movement. Their filing was an unusual step, born out of a new strategy from the aforementioned organizations who had exhausted all other regular channels of complaint. The report followed the leaking of an internal Labor dossier which sought to paint Corbyn opponents, many of them Jewish, as politically motivated in their opposition to anti-Semitism rather than genuinely concerned. (A case is now in front of the British High Court to force the Labor party to disclose the names of the people who leaked the dossier, which contained dozens of unlawfully released private messages from Jewish party members.)

The final EHRC report, released online in October, clearly identified Labor anti-Semitism as an infringement of British equality legislation and served the party with a rare “unlawful act” notice, meaning that the Labor party had breached British equality legislation. It declared that there had been “serious failings” in Labor leadership and pointed to a culture in the party which “at best, did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it.” The report was groundbreaking, detailed, and a significant improvement on an “independent” report—really a whitewashing—issued by a Corbyn appointee a few years prior.

In Britain today, anti-Semitism manifests itself as much in the denial of its existence as it does in explicitly offending acts, a favorite tendency of Corbyn’s and a tendency that the EHRC report itself called out. Corbyn’s response to the report proved it. After its release, he alleged that any complaints about anti-Semitism within the report had been fabricated for political gain. “The scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media,” he thundered on Facebook. It was evident that Starmer had to act, and he did, abruptly expelling Corbyn from the party. In doing so, and in standing up to his own predecessor, Starmer made a crucial step towards honoring the legally binding investigation of the EHRC, which holds that Labor must discipline or expel Labor members found guilty of anti-Semitism. (Three weeks later, Corbyn’s party membership was reinstated, but he remains excluded from Labor in his parliamentary role as an MP.)

 

In the months following, Starmer has continued to press forward in sacking and removing individuals who receive press coverage for their anti-Semitism. As of January, 30 percent of the formal anti-Semitism complaints handled by Labor since May had resulted in expulsion. And in recent annual meetings, held on Zoom, local Labor branches are perceived to have been taken back by sane individuals, as the radical grassroots lose ground. (The outside campaign group Momentum that helped propel Corbyn to stardom in Bernie Sanders-like fashion has particularly waned in importance, earning only 37 percent of the vote in Labor’s national executive elections in November.)

This might be a function of the pandemic; it’s hard to say definitively whether the radicals are routed or whether they will regain energy once local party meetings resume in-person. Jewish members are beginning to re-join the party and attend local meetings, but the environment on Zoom does not allow for the chatter that takes place face to face—chatter that often used to descend into toxic discussions around Jews. And even in the pandemic, Jewish Labor members appear to face real threats: a Corbynist group called the Labor in Exile Network has, according to a recent report in the Jewish Chronicle, set up an “anti-Zionist action network” promising to unearth the addresses of Jewish Labor activists” and to “take care of those individuals.”

Indeed, there is still a long way to go in improving the lot of British Jews. Despite the encouraging news over the last year, it is becoming clear that, however good one man’s will may be, the volume of anti-Semitism in the Labor party is, as the EHRC report proved, simply too great to bring every guilty party to account, especially those that do not pose a public-relations problem. Likewise, it seems clear that the four years of unfettered anti-Semitism, gaslighting, and humiliation under Corbyn has emboldened those outside the party itself.

The Jewish community has been preoccupied over the last month by a scandal at one of the country’s leading universities. David Miller, a lecturer in political sociology at Bristol University, one of the country’s better institutions of higher education and one with a comparatively large number of Jewish students, said that he supports the “end of Zionism” and accused Jewish students in the UK of being “pawns” of the Israeli government. In response, the Jewish community has called on the university, located in a city known as a Labor, and specifically Corbynite, stronghold, to fire him, so far to no avail. Once more ideological anti-Semitism has presented itself as an opportunity for the radicals to strengthen themselves; 200 academics from the UK and the U.S., including Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler, have signed a letter defending Miller.

Then, earlier this month, the BBC televised a panel broaching the question of whether Jews should still be considered an ethnic minority in the UK. The conversation followed a tweet by a Labor MP congratulating the new leader of the Scottish Labor party, a man of Pakistani descent, as “the first-ever ethnic-minority leader of a political party anywhere in the UK.” (Of course, there have been Jewish leaders of British political parties—Benjamin Disraeli, anyone?—for decades.) The panel, hosted by a Jewish television presenter, featured four non-Jewish pundits and one Jewish commentator, whose presence seemed like a courtesy. The Jewish host asked whether Jews’ political success in the UK meant that they did not “need to be seen as a group needing recognition in the same way as others.” It was a comment that evidently scraped up against old wounds: British Jews became immediately outraged and have been talking about it for weeks, and the Board of Deputies issued a statement afterwards decrying the panel.

Another flashpoint has come over the proper definition of anti-Semitism. Governments the world over have in recent years adopted the definition promulgated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. (I should say here I am currently a member of the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement, which advocates for the adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, and as a teenager volunteered with the Campaign Against Antisemitism.) This definition is widely considered the gold standard, which means that it was, of course, denigrated under Jeremy Corbyn, who initially refused to adopt it as the standard for Labor before controversy forced him to accept a watered-down version. Again, his influence spread outside Labor, where it still lingers. Today academics at universities around the country loudly oppose the definition on the grounds that it stifles freedom of expression, even though there is no evidence that the definition has ever been used in this way. Yet, under such pressure, one leading university, University College London, is re-evaluating its adoption of the definition.

In addition, Labor’s handing of anti-Semitism in its ranks still leaves much to be desired. In the wake of the release of the EHRC report, the Campaign Against Antisemitism filed complaints with Labor about fifteen members of Parliament other than Corbyn himself. These MPs hold power and influence on legislative matters and in the party. Despite that—or more probably because of it—the party has not properly acknowledged receipt of these complaints and, in the case of one MP, it appears to have dismissed a complaint regarding her promotion of Norman Finkelstein’s grotesque book The Holocaust Industry. Meanwhile, many await the fulfillment of Labor’s promise to introduce a new and independent disciplinary system later this year.

So there is good and bad news from Britain. In many quarters, particularly in universities and in the media, the anti-Semitism that Corbyn awakened shows no signs of disappearing. Jews are still treated as outsiders, unworthy of making trustworthy judgments on anti-Semitism or of claiming their own place in British society. On the other hand, the United Kingdom is a country that upholds the rule of law. No amount of ambient hostility to the Jews can take that away, and the EHRC’s ruling that anti-Semitism is a violation of equality legislation stands as a new and welcome precedent. Most welcome of all, British Jews have not gone quiet again, but remain active and vocal in their own defense.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, British Jewry, Jeremy Corbyn, Labor Party (UK), Politics & Current Affairs, United Kingdom