Will anti-Semitism accusations sink Corbyn and the Labour Party?

“People want to excuse it by saying these are small numbers, but what happened to the principle that one racist is one too many?”
Image: Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn as he appears on the BBC political programme The Andrew Neil Show o
Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in an interview with the BBC's Andrew Neil on Nov. 26.Jeff Overs / AFP - Getty Images

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By Rachel Elbaum

LONDON — Social inequality, resolving Brexit, investment in the struggling National Health Service — these are some of the issues Britain’s opposition Labour Party had hoped would top the agenda during the election campaign.

Instead, the party is mired in a continuing anti-Semitism crisis amid accusations that it has mismanaged bigotry among its own members ahead of the Dec. 12 vote. Many, including activists, lawmakers and the mainstream Jewish community, say the blame for the scandal lies with the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, an unabashed socialist and self-described anti-racist.

Anxiety is running so high in the Jewish community that the United Kingdom's chief rabbi made an unprecedented intervention last week, calling the party’s response to anti-Semitism allegations “utterly inadequate” in a letter to The Times newspaper.

Britain's chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, said the "very soul of our nation is at stake" in this election in a comment piece in The Times newspaper on Nov. 25.Simon Dawson / Reuters file

Some of the most stinging criticism has emerged from the heart of the movement.

“There seems to be no willingness to engage with the fact that many Jewish people have left the party, that they feel it’s not a safe space,” said Mike Katz, the national chair of the 99-year-old Jewish Labour Movement. In April, the group deemed Corbyn unfit to be prime minister.

In May, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the country’s equality watchdog, launched a formal investigation into allegations of anti-Semitism in the party and to determine whether unlawful acts have been committed.

The Jewish Labour Movement, or JLM, says it knows of 130 outstanding anti-Semitism complaints against Labour. During a debate Nov. 19 with Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the ruling Conservative Party, Corbyn said Labour had “investigated every single case” of anti-Semitism. The JLM has provided a list of action points to root out anti-Semitism, including regular updates on the number of complaints and anti-Semitism training for the disputes panel, but says they have not been addressed.

“People want to excuse it by saying these are small numbers, but what happened to the principle that one racist is one too many?” Katz said.

Labour did not respond to NBC News’ requests for comment via email and telephone over the course of several weeks — including on the claim of outstanding anti-Semitism complaints. On Tuesday, Corbyn responded to questions about apologizing to the Jewish community in a BBC interview, saying that his government would “protect every community against the abuse they receive."

In a video released August 2018, Corbyn apologized “for the hurt that has been caused to many Jewish people,” and said the party has been too slow to process disciplinary cases.

‘Despair and trepidation’

Britain’s Jewish community — just 0.5 percent of the population — has been largely split politically in the elections prior to 2017. The anti-Semitism crisis, however, has left many Jews fearful that the election outcome could directly affect their community’s well-being and comfort in the U.K.

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In October, one poll for the Jewish Chronicle newspaper found that only 7 percent of Jewish respondents would consider voting for Labour.

An activist holds a placard denouncing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn outside the launch of the party's Race and Faith Manifesto on Nov. 26.Isabel Infantes / AFP - Getty Images

Ephraim Mirvis, the U.K.’s chief rabbi, gave voice to many of these fears in his open letter in The Times newspaper Nov. 25.

“When December 12 arrives, I ask every person to vote with their conscience. Be in no doubt, the very soul of our nation is at stake,” the spiritual leader of Britain’s Orthodox Jews wrote, saying that he spoke out with “the heaviest of hearts.”

Mirvis’ letter followed nearly four years of complaints by Jewish members of the party who say there is a culture of anti-Semitism among the Labour Party membership.

Corbyn, who long inhabited far-left fringes of the Labour Party, became its leader in a surprise victory in 2015 after the party’s defeat in a national election, and is popular with the party’s rank and file. But he is profoundly unpopular with many of his parliamentary colleagues, who tried unsuccessfully to oust him in 2016. He has faced accusations of not just failing to deal with anti-Semitism within the party's ranks but also of potentially harboring anti-Semitic views himself.

A poll for the Jewish Chronicle newspaper in March found that around 87 percent of respondents regarded the Labour leader as anti-Semitic.

He once questioned on Facebook a decision by local officials to remove a mural depicting hook-nosed bankers playing monopoly on the backs of the poor — widely reviled as a bigoted work that deployed well-known anti-Semitic tropes and symbols.

Corbyn, who has long championed Palestinian rights and opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, was pilloried in August 2018 after video from 2013 emerged of him accusing British Zionists of not “understanding English irony.”

His associations with organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, whose representatives he invited to an event in Parliament in 2009 and called “friends,” have disturbed the mainstream Jewish community. Corbyn later said he regretted his choice of words. Both groups are classified by the U.K. and the United States as terrorist groups and have repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel.

Former Labour Party lawmaker Luciana Berger is now running as a candidate for the Liberal Democrats.Niklas Halle'n / AFP - Getty Images file

Labour isn’t the only party in Britain facing allegations of racism at the moment. After criticism from the Muslim community about Islamophobia within its ranks, the British finance minister, a member of the Conservative Party, said last Tuesday that the party would investigate the claims.

But the anti-Semitism crisis has engulfed Labour in way that claims of Islamophobia have not hurt the Conservatives. Corbyn has repeatedly said he abhors anti-Semitism and his supporters accuse foes of using the accusations to undermine his leadership.

‘Internal and manageable’

There are Jewish people who feel that although there is an issue in the party, it is not reason enough to vote for another party.

“The problem of anti-Semitism in Labour is not an existential threat, which is how it has been characterized in other media,” said Rivkah Brown, 27, a Labour supporter who lives in Corbyn’s district. “The Labour Party problem is internal and manageable.”

But that is not sufficient for Rebecca Simon, 38, a former Labour activist. For the first time, she is planning to vote for another party.

“I look at this election with despair and trepidation,” she said.

She is now backing her local Liberal Democrat candidate, Luciana Berger, a former Labour lawmaker and ex-parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement who left the party in February, saying it was institutionally anti-Semitic. She had faced severe online harassment, as well as efforts from her local Labour Party to run her out for her lack of support for Corbyn.

Placards protesting anti-Semitism at a protest in Parliament Square, London on July 19, 2018.Vickie Flores / In Pictures via Getty Images file

“I feel anxious,” Simon added. “The best thing that ‘good’ looks like to me is that Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t get to form the next government. On a national level, it doesn’t feel like there is a positive position to get behind.”

Adam Langleben was also a longtime party activist and served as a Labour representative on a London council from 2014 to 2018. He said that after Corbyn assumed the leadership of the party, he received constant harassment both online and in his local party, where fellow members repeatedly asked him to pledge his loyalty to Corbyn. He also said he received at least one death threat as well as hate mail saying that he was trying to take down “JC” just like the Jews did before.

“It’s become so routine that you become used to it and immune to it,” said Langleben, 32, who resigned from the party in February because of its failure to tackle anti-Semitism among the membership. Langleben said he had submitted the evidence to the Equality and Human Rights Commission and was unable to share the letters and threats with NBC News.

Langleben said that for the first time, he will not vote for the Labour candidate in his area and will instead support the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats in the election.

“For these people it doesn’t matter if you’re a Zionist Jew that supports Palestinian independence,” he said. “It matters that you’re a Jew.”