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“JEWISH people use the NHS, education, the police and other public services. Jewish people who work in these services have seen their wages fall in real terms and colleagues resign because of the stresses of staff cuts. Jewish people use utilities. They kvetch when their broadband goes down. They have elderly parents and mental health problems and children who cannot afford high rents on low incomes so remain at home.”
Ruth, a working-class Jewish Labour Party member in Walthamstow, east London, is fuming about a particularly pernicious aspect of the “debate” in recent years around Labour, the Jewish community and antisemitism, typified by the Chief Rabbi’s partisan political intervention last week.
It is not only the repeated message that Jews today should fear the Labour Party, and treat it as toxic, but the assumption that they no longer need a party that stands up for ordinary low-earners; the view that Jews en masse have stepped out of poverty into comfortable middle-class lives where the free market works just fine for them.
This is a crass antisemitic stereotype that the Jewish establishment has internalised. Britain’s Jews are a diverse community, economically, and politically, with similar needs to other communities.
Lev joined the party in 2015, after Labour’s first Jewish leader, Ed Miliband, lost the election. Those accusing Labour of “institutional antisemitism” forget that just a few years ago the party elected a Jewish leader who defeated his Jewish brother!
For Lev, Labour’s fundamental commitment to a well-resourced health service free at the point of need is vital.
“I depend on the NHS for medication that enables me to walk,” he says. “Boris Johnson’s sell-off of the health service to Donald Trump terrifies me.”
Julia, briefly a Labour member in Camden in the mid-1980s, rejoined the party in 2015 and is one of many Jewish members in Jeremy Corbyn’s own constituency, Islington North.
She says: “Jews are no different from anyone else — some of us are disabled, some have children with special needs, some of us are old, some are young, some of us are parents, some are alone, some of us are rich and some are poor. None of us know what life will throw at us and when we will need support.”
If you only read the mainstream media or dominant Jewish community press outlets, you might think that Jews today are a rarity in the Labour Party; that they deserted in droves when Corbyn won the leadership, while those that remain are marginal Jews, uninterested in their heritage.
Not true. Since the Chief Rabbi’s intervention, I have interviewed numerous Jewish Labour Party members, most of whom consciously joined the party precisely because Corbyn became leader. They are comfortable with, and proud of, their Jewish and socialist identities. It is time their voices were heard.
When I asked what they dislike most about the Tories, class conscious arguments came to the fore.
For Julia it is “the dishonesty, greed and ruthlessness that have led to them draining our public services dry so private companies can profit from our need.”
For Abby, a ward secretary in Norwich South CLP, who teaches performing arts, it’s their “born-to-rule attitude and disregard for working people.”
She describes the effects of Tory policies in her sector: “Constant budget cuts, higher tuition fees, rising student debt and increased pressure on university staff, whose wages have stagnated year on year.”
Oxford-based writer and activist Dana cites “austerity and racism,” adding: “The rise of racism has been really scary.”
The youngest activist I spoke with, Dan, a kippah-wearing Jew, and regular synagogue attender, who also joined the party in 2015, made a similar coupling. He decries the Tories’ “destruction of the public services” and their “use of race-baiting to build a toxic core vote.”
Mike, who grew up in working-class Kilburn in the 1950s, condemns the collusion of Tories and Lib Dems “with all the reactionaries, whether in the Jewish leadership, media outlets or billionaire investors, to portray the party and its leader as a threat to British Jews,” while they ignore “the same fears and anguished cries from the Muslim communities. Their parties are rife with bigots, including antisemites,” he says.
None of the Jewish Labour Party members I spoke to pretended that Labour was free of all antisemitism, but as Simon argues, “the relentless hostility to the Labour leadership around antisemitism feels really unjust,” especially when many instances display ignorance more than malice.
He notes that the rise in allegations came as the party was “trying to make a necessary shift to be supportive of Palestinians and more critical of the Israeli state.”
To those who claim that Labour is an increasingly “unsafe” space for Jews he says: “In Hackney North I have found a political home amongst a diverse group of people I enjoy being with.
“We have some sharp disagreements, but it’s a lively, radical, ambitious socialist place to be.”
He, his partner and three daughters are all canvassing enthusiastically during the election campaign. On November 17, 30 young Jews wearing “Jews Against Boris” T-shirts joined the canvass in Johnson’s Uxbridge constituency.
Daniel, a university lecturer and trade union activist, chairs his local CLP. He had previously been a Green member but was enthused by the Corbyn project.
“I was born under Thatcherism,” he says. “All I have seen is the gradual marketisation of our society under neoliberalism, increasing inequality, engagement in unnecessary foreign wars and the disintegration of our health and education systems.”
But next month he’ll be voting Labour with real hope: “For the first time in my life I get a sense that this trend will be reversed. There is a party genuinely willing to stand up for millions of people against the corporations.”
The Corbyn project chimes with his conscious commitment to Jewish ethical codes: “Labour values and my Jewish values are inextricably linked: the centrality of pursuing justice and tikkun olam — our duty to repair the world.”
Abby concurs: “To me, to be Jewish means always standing with the oppressed, not the oppressor. To have a sense of social responsibility.”
For the younger Dan, Labour’s vision absolutely expresses “the Jewish ethical imperative: feed the hungry, care for the weak, shelter the homeless.”
Lev claims that “every prophet in Neviim (the Biblical Book of Prophets) would have voted Labour!”
As a secular Jew, Julia locates these values in Jewish experience: “We have always lived among other people and learnt over the last 2,000 years that the best way to protect ourselves and others is to have strong relationships with our neighbours, especially other minorities. Labour genuinely values diversity. Its policies promote hope, creativity, respect and solidarity.”
Daniel agrees: “As a Jewish community, our wellbeing is intrinsically linked to that of other minority groups. From Cable Street in 1936 to today, we know that we will never be able to thrive if others forget us, or if we forget them. The struggle is one and the same.”
David Rosenberg is political education officer of Islington North CLP and international solidarity officer of Islington NEU.
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