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Jewish activists speak out: why we’re campaigning for Corbyn

Updated: Dec 15, 2019

Counterfire’s Kate O’Neil caught up with three Jewish activists campaigning for Jeremy Corbyn this week to hear what they had to say

Julia Bard, Aaron Crane and Nathan Widder

Throughout the General Election, the topic of antisemitism in the Labour Party has come up repeatedly in the press, and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, accused of not doing enough to confront it. Many voices have been heard in this discussion, but some important voices have not been heard enough – those of the many Jews in Britain who support Corbyn and are campaigning for a Labour government.


Julia Bard was born and raised in London and is a member of the Labour Party in Islington North. She is a journalist on the editorial board of Jewish Socialist magazine and sits on the National Committee of the Jewish Socialists Group.


Aaron Crane is a software programmer from Manchester who now lives in southeast London. He is not a member of the Labour Party but was active with the Scottish Greens while he lived in Edinburgh.


Nathan Widder is a political science professor from the United States who has been involved in various Labour Party campaigns since he moved to the UK in 1992. He is now active in the Wimbledon Labour Party.


How and why are you campaigning for Labour this election?


Julia: I’ve canvassed – mainly in marginals that Labour could win, but also in my own constituency – volunteered on stalls, stuffed envelopes and handed out leaflets every single day since the election was announced, as well as campaigning on social media. I have put most of the rest of my life on hold to do this because the stakes are so high: the tiny minority who are siphoning off resources from our public services have a lot to lose, and are ruthless in their attempts to hang on to what they’ve taken from us. The rest of us, whatever our background, culture, religion or community, have everything to gain. We need the ambitious changes that are in Labour’s manifesto, and we need each other in order to implement those changes. Redistributing wealth and repairing our public services will start to build the foundations of a civilised society.


Aaron: I’ve been doing a little canvassing and leafletting in my constituency, and I’m planning to do some more in a more marginal one, to try and tip the balance. I’d never previously considered canvassing — I avoided it even when I was a member of a party — and to be honest, I don’t feel that Labour really represents my political views. But my partner and I talked about the danger presented by five more years of a Johnson/Tory government, and I decided that I wanted to work to avoid that.


Nathan: I am an American Jew who was raised in the DC area where my family were members of a Conservative synagogue (which would be considered Reform in the UK), where I was also received religious training and had my bar mitzvah. My father and his parents left Hungary in 1938 and came to America, but most of his side of my family perished in the Holocaust.  My mother grew up in a Jewish family in South Africa, but her family origins are eastern Europe and Lithuania.  Many of her family who were in Europe faced a great deal of antisemitism but had the means to leave well before WW2.  I grew up in a heavily Jewish and pro-Zionist neighbourhood in the DC suburbs.  My father was a founding member of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), which was established after the 1973 war as a lobby group that aimed to ensure continued US support for Israel.


I never had a serious interest in campaigning for Labour until Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign. I voted for him in 2015 and 2016, and became involved in the 2017 election, though because of heavy work commitments wasn’t able to contribute much beyond donations until polling day itself. I am campaigning in part for the local candidate who I think is an excellent candidate, someone who really cares about the local community, and will be an excellent MP. But I am really involved with Labour because of Corbyn’s leadership and the party pursuing a politics that I support. I can’t say I was greatly committed to the politics of New Labour, though I supported and voted for the party during those years, and did appreciate many positive things that the 1997-2010 Labour government accomplished.


I have a four year old son and am concerned about the state of the country where I am raising him, about schools and public services and also rising levels of inequality and rising levels of racism and bigotry. I am ashamed with the levels of homelessness that remind me of when I moved to London in 1992. I have been ashamed for much of the 2000s and 2010s with both American and British misadventures in the Middle East. In all these ways Labour stands for values supported by myself and the hundreds of thousands of party members and campaigners who have come out to support the party under his leadership.


The Labour Party has received hundreds of complaints of antisemitism in the past few years and has been investigated by the EHRC for discriminationin its procedures in handling them. The press has labelled this a ‘crisis of antisemitism,’ with Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis even suggesting that British Jews have something to fear from a Labour government. What has been your experience as a Jewish activist? Why do you think these complaints are surfacing now?


Julia: I rejoined the Labour Party in the summer of 2015, when Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the leadership. I had left in the mid-1980s because I couldn’t tolerate the racism that was commonplace in the constituency where I lived at that time. That racism was mainly, and viciously, directed against Gypsies, but the two Jews, one Black person and a couple of other anti-racists in our branch at the time were outnumbered and overruled.


Jewish people, as well as other minority people, make up quite a significant proportion of members in my Labour Party branch now, and across the constituency, though it is not what is seen as a particularly “Jewish area”. The subject of antisemitism comes up often in informal discussions, usually in response to the latest accusation from the right of the Party or from people who have no connection to or knowledge of the Party. What worries me most about these discussions is people who I know to be good, anti-racist comrades saying: “I don’t know what I’m allowed to say.” I think that one of the aims of the campaign to repeatedly lob accusations at the left of the Labour Party, and specifically at the leadership, is to make people lose confidence in their ability to analyse the situation, to ask questions and to express their views.


The statements by Chief Rabbi himself must be seen in the light of his support for the Conservative Party – made clear by, amongst other things, the fact that he entertained Theresa May to dinner the night before she took office – and his increasingly shaky claim to speak for the whole Jewish community. His comments, made during an election campaign, are designed to stir up anxiety among Jewish people about the Labour Party in order to detach them from their historical support for Labour. Given the alarming rise of antisemitism along with other forms of racism from the far right and populist right, including from our own Prime Minister and members of his Cabinet, I see this as a shocking travesty of what the role of a rabbi is supposed to be: a teacher and moral leader.


Aaron: There is no shortage of antisemitism on the Left, nor has there ever been. It’s also true that, globally, antisemitic incidents have been increasing in both frequency and severity over the last decade or so, as the far right have become further encouraged and emboldened; I’m still grief-stricken by the Pittsburgh massacre, for example. I can also offer meaningful critique of Corbyn himself, and of Labour policy under his leadership. That said, I’m baffled by the idea that Labour in particular is experiencing a “crisis of antisemitism”, or that the prospect of a Labour government uniquely represents a reasonable source of fear for British Jews.


As for why these complaints are surfacing now: part of it is indeed that there have been some instances of antisemitic behaviour within the Labour party, and not all of them have been handled in suitable ways. But there’s also a significant issue stemming from the make-up and actions of the British media itself. Our media estate is extremely right wing and has been reacting extremely strongly to Corbyn, as a Labour leader with a chance of forming a government with even vaguely left-wing policies. The attacks on him have been ceaseless since he was elected leader. When the likes of the Daily Mail, a paper hardly known for anti-racist positions, dig around to find decade-old Corbyn speeches with problematic statements, it’s impossible not to understand this as the political right using Jews as a weapon to attack the Left. (Which, to be clear, I find utterly repellent and angering.)


Worse, the hyperbolic attacks from the right-wing press make it all the harder to meaningfully criticise Corbyn’s positions and actions. The two available narratives seem to be “Corbyn is uniquely and horrifically antisemitic, and would cheerfully see Jews wiped out” and “Corbyn is the best and most anti-racist imaginable Labour leader, and all critiques of him are right-wing or Blairite smears”. The truth is, unsurprisingly, significantly more nuanced than either of those.


Nathan: I am not in the best position to comment on this. I only recently have become a Labour member (during the current campaign in fact). I would not want to presume what others have experienced in terms of antisemitism in the party.  But I have of course followed the issue with great interest.


There have of course been several waves of complaints about antisemitism since Corbyn became leader. They are obviously surfacing now because of the election. To me, this is primarily an issue about Israel and Palestine. I think if you are Jewish and like me have become increasingly critical of Israeli policy and actions over the years in the West Bank and Gaza, this is pretty obvious, it’s a public version of something you probably experience with other members of your family, except in this public version there are so many non-Jews (some of whom seem never to have been very interested in antisemitism) who have decided to take up the issue. It would be nice if there was some honesty about this, though I suppose neither the public debate nor the debate within the Jewish community would handle that very well.


That hope aside, one could at least hope for some degree of balance with respect to how the issue is discussed in the media. It has been very frustrating to see how the voices of Jews who are supportive of Corbyn or who have a different story to tell about Labour and the allegations of antisemitism seem to get little to no airtime. The same is true more generally of secular Jews, socialist Jews, representatives of different denominations of Judaism (Rabbi Mirvis is a representative of the orthodox movement of Judaism), etc. Generally, it has become very frustrating to see how my heritage has been used as a political weapon.


Jeremy Corbyn has been severely criticised in the media for his handling of antisemitism. Do you think the Labour leadership's response has been adequate?


Julia: Jeremy Corbyn is a rock-solid antiracist and antifascist. The thread that runs through his politics is his humanitarianism; he works from an assumption that people have real concerns about real issues that affect them, and he wants to listen and learn from them. So his, and the leadership’s, first response to these accusations was to institute the Chakrabarti Inquiry to investigate what was actually happening in the Party and make recommendations about how to deal with it. The Chakrabarti Report was a thoughtful, measured response, which prioritised education while recognising the need for discipline in some cases. It was too measured for the accusers and their supporters in the press, who sabotaged the launch of the report. Right-wingers working within the Labour Party even surreptitiously removed it from the Party website (it was reposted when activists protested).


I think that should have been the signal for a more robust and combative response to the accusations alongside a clearer statement of support for justice for the Palestinians – both of which are now more in evidence. While continuing to root out antisemitism from the Party as they have done (it does exist, and some of us have been challenging it for years – within and beyond Labour, on the left, the right and all over the place) they could have turned the tables by painting a comprehensive picture of antisemitism and where it was emanating from. Just as one example, they might have mentioned the Tory Party’s formal links with far right, antisemitic, anti-Muslim, anti-Roma, anti-LGBT organisations through the European Conservative and Reformist Group. Nevertheless, they did sort out the chaotic disciplinary procedures within the Party, and now seem to be implementing at least some of Chakrabarti’s recommendations.


Aaron: No. I was unimpressed, for example, that when one video surfaced showing Corbyn conflating Jewishness with Zionism. His apology reflected not a new understanding, and a commitment to learn and improve in future, but a mealy-mouthed statement that he would take more care over his words in future — as if the problem had been the words, rather than his underlying ideas. 


That said, it seems from the perspective of an outsider that antisemitic behaviour from party members is currently being responded to, in general, in speedy and appropriate ways. I look forward to Labour continuing to work to combat racism in all its forms, both internally and externally. 


Nathan: Arguably the leadership didn’t respond as quickly as it could, and processes and procedures proved unfit for purpose and had to be changed. And of course, it’s impossible to disprove that more could be done to deal with antisemitism. Having said that, it’s unclear to me what great response the leadership could have made that would have silenced the critics who have continued to attack the party over the issue. And of course, the attacks on Labour have gone well beyond the reality that no one ever denied that there have been antisemitic incidents in the party to claims that the party is institutionally antisemitic, that Corbyn is somehow consciously or even unconsciously antisemitic, and more. How exactly is the leadership supposed to respond to speculations that Corbyn demonstrated antisemitism in the way he pronounced Jeffrey Epstein’s name?


The number of antisemitic incidents in Britain has been on the rise in recent years, as they have been in many parts of Europe. What do you think it will take to combat this? What does a 21st century movement against antisemitism movement look like?


Julia: This is a huge question, which I don’t have the time or space to answer right now.


Aaron: This is a difficult question, and I don’t really have an answer. We need to adapt to the ways that fascists organise in the contemporary world. We have to tackle all forms of racism: anti-Blackness, anti-ziganism, islamophobia, not just antisemitism. We also need to maintain solidarity with all marginalised people; anti-racism can’t be separated from seeking liberation for all — trans people, migrants, disabled people, the precariously employed, to name just a few.


Beyond that, the Left in particular, including Labour members, need to educate themselves about all the existing antisemitic (and other racist) tropes that have been around for the last thousand years or more and show no signs of abating. It’s all too common for well-meaning people to, say, unwittingly share cartoons on social media that use racist tropes to make what would otherwise be a left-wing point.


Nathan: I’m not sure what I have to say here will go much beyond platitudes. There needs to be adequate resources for policing and law enforcement; there needs probably to be a lot more education about antisemitism and the Holocaust (though the same is true about all other forms of racism and bigotry). While there are certainly aspects of antisemitism that make it a distinctive form of bigotry, it is not a privileged form. Pretty much everyone can be put into some category or another that could make them a potential victim of abuse, which is why we need to stand together to combat this.


Why should those who oppose racism and antisemitism, including members of the Jewish community, vote for a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party on 12 December? 


Julia: Jeremy Corbyn has been the most principled anti-racist in Parliament for many decades. But Jews along with everyone else have many reasons to vote Labour. Jews are users of and workers in public services. They are old and young, they need schools and hospitals, trains and buses, post offices and broadband. They are students and teachers, trade unionists and insecure workers on zero hours contracts. No other party is going to address their needs or concerns.


Aaron: The alternative is horrific. The only realistic outcomes from this election are that either Corbyn or Johnson will form a government of some sort, even a minority or coalition government. The Conservative manifesto includes specific promises to dismantle the rule of law for the government, and to subject specific ethnic groups (Roma, Sinti, and other travellers) to legal property seizure. The Tories will continue to enact policies that defund and destroy the NHS, and punish poor and disabled people for the situations they’re in. Pursuing the hardest of Brexits, as they seek to, will make life hardest for those who are already worst off, improving the lot only of the millionaires and billionaires sucking money away from everyone else.


The Labour manifesto, for the first time in years, offers a real hope of progressive policy, making life easier for ordinary people in a host of ways, big and small. I disagree with significant parts of it; notably, I’m still waiting for a Labour manifesto that argues against the inhumane injustice of national borders, including our own. But it’s a movement in the right direction nonetheless, and even if Labour still have lessons to learn about anti-racism, I believe that they’re overwhelmingly better than the explicitly racist alternative, and a much better place from which to continue that fight.


Nathan: Labour under Corbyn is firmly committed to equality and social justice and thus to combatting racism and bigotry in all its forms.


This article first appeared on the Counterfire Website. Reproduced with the interviewer's permission