Many in the UK Jewish community had hoped Thursday’s general election would be the last nail in the coffin for Jeremy Corbyn. A predicted resounding loss for the controversial Labour chairman, and his subsequent ousting, would end a period of perceived lingering anti-Semitism within the party and uncertainty over its attitude toward Israel, they anticipated.
But as exit polls were published at 10 p.m. local time and the real election results flowed in overnight, those hopes were dashed, with the news that the Conservatives had unperformed and, while still securing the most seats, lost their parliamentary majority.
Taking to the podium in his home constituency of Islington North, a buoyant Corbyn said Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May had not received a mandate to lead the country and called on her to step down. Corbyn’s party, which had sensationally gained 29 seats rather than suffering the collapse his critics had anticipated, was “ready to serve,” he declared. Far from being finished as Labour leader, his position at its helm was cemented.
While Labour stunned pollsters and pundits by clawing back from a deficit that at one point stretched to 26 points, no party gained the necessary 326 seats in the House of Commons to form a majority government, and none can therefore claim the election was an absolute triumph.
For the Jewish community and Israel, however, the result was unequivocally a “loss,” at least according to Jonathan Arkush, the lay leader of British Jews as the president of the Board of Deputies umbrella group.
“If the governing party, which is a strong supporter of Israel, loses so much ground, then of course it has to be something of a loss for Israel and the Jewish community,” Arkush, who is currently in Israel, told The Times of Israel in an interview Friday morning.
And that loss is compounded, he said, when it comes to the gains by Labour. Corbyn’s party, said Arkush, “has policies that are supportive of Israel, supportive of the two-state solution,” but will see its “far-left faction, which is far less sympathetic to Israeli concerns,” bolstered by the strong showing.
Corbyn’s Jewish problem
Corbyn, who became the head of Labour in 2015, is a hard-left politician whom Arkush has previously said “most people in the Jewish community can’t trust” due to his past praise for Hezbollah and Hamas and perceived failures in addressing anti-Semitic rhetoric by some of his supporters.
In the year and a half since Corbyn became Labour leader, controversies about anti-Semitism in the party, and his continued criticism of Israel’s policies, have dogged media coverage. Many Jews who were lifelong Labour voters said they couldn’t bring themselves to put a cross next to the Labour candidate’s name on the general election ballot. Some have questioned Corbyn’s sincerity in his efforts to reach out to the Jewish community.
May’s Conservative Party on the other hand, is perceived as taking a much more pronounced pro-Israel stance, and has won wide-support among many in the Jewish community. In a 2016 Rosh Hashanah message, her first direct address to the Jewish community since she succeeded David Cameron, May praised the relationship between the UK and Israel and reaffirmed the British government’s long-held position of support for Israel’s right to self-defense.
“Overall, without question, the result will be disappointing for Israel and disappointing for the Jewish community,” Arkush said Friday, adding that “the smell of anti-Semitism still lingers around some sections of the [Labour] party.”
Criticizing the “lackluster” Conservative campaign for an “uninspiring manifesto, a downbeat message and a series of serious errors,” Arkush conceded that despite Jewish concerns, much the UK population chose to overlook reports of Labour anti-Semitism in rallying behind the “hopeful” message that Corbyn projected.
“Remember,” he advised, “when you are one half of one percent of the population, the overwhelming majority will probably have no idea about Jews and may have never even met one. The anti-Semitism discussion probably meant rather little to them.”
‘I think the issues will go on and continue to plague Labour, I don’t think that will change very much,’ Arkush says. ‘Equally, I think Corbyn’s seeming reluctance to address these issues with a genuine desire to get past it, I don’t think that’s going to change either.’
Questioning whether a roaring Labour loss would have forced the party to reassess its position toward Israel and the Jewish community, Arkush — who noted that the party as a whole had worked to remove members perceived to have made anti-Semitic comments — said he believed the tension was likely to persist.
“I think the issues will go on and continue to plague Labour. I don’t think that will change very much,” he said. “Equally, I think Corbyn’s seeming reluctance to address these issues with a genuine desire to get past them — I don’t think that’s going to change either.”
But Arkush rejected the notion that if Corbyn had won outright — or even if he manages to shock the establishment again and form a coalition to become prime minister in the coming weeks — some in the Jewish community would be reconsidering their place in the UK.
“I don’t think we’d have necessarily liked his attitude to Israel, but I don’t think he presents a threat to the Jewish community, and I really thought those conversations were overdone,” he said of the suggestion that a prime minister Corbyn would force Jews to consider aliyah (immigration to Israel).
After all, Arkush noted, Corbyn’s Labour is supportive of shechita ritual slaughter and faith schools and, ultimately, his manifesto policy on Israel (which included a promise to immediately recognize a Palestinian state) was “basically much the same” as in previous years.
“Although of course many people would have been unhappy about some of the policies, I think it would be business as normal with something like a recognition of the Palestinians,” Arkush said. “But no, I don’t think it would be anything like a driver to aliyah.”
Change from within
Despite the animosity from many within the community, Jewish rejection of Labour was not all encompassing.
A poll of voting preferences before the election showed that while only nine percent of Jews over the age of 55 supported Labour, that number rose to 23% among the 18-34 set. Still low, but not negligible.
In an attempt to utilize the Jewish vote for the party, two leaders of the Jewish Labour Movement ran against two pro-Israel Conservative MPs in areas with large Jewish populations.
JLM Chairman Jeremy Newmark and Vice-Chairman Mike Katz challenged Mike Freer and Matthew Offord, respectively, in the adjoining London constituencies of Finchley and Golders Green — Margaret Thatcher’s old seat — and Hendon. Both seats are in the Barnet heartland of the northwest London Jewish community.
Both Newmark and Katz ended up coming short but succeeded in increasing Labour’s share of the vote.
Some in the Jewish community criticized JLM for targeting the constituencies of pro-Israel MPs. Arkush said that while he was pleased so see Freer and Offord retain their seats, he understood and commended the “controversial” efforts to influence Labour from within.
JLM’s strategy, Arkush said, “was to say after the election, hand on heart, that we did everything to work for a Labour victory, even despite our very clear and open opposition to the leader of the party.” No one from within the party could accuse them of being “traitors” or have having tried to damage the Labour cause in any way, he added.
“That will enable Jewish Labour Movement members to say loudly and proudly: ‘We worked hard for this election, you must take our concerns seriously. This is our party just as much as anyone’s party and you must listen to us after the election, even more carefully that you did before,’” Arkush said, calling it the correct strategy.
Accepting a narrow defeat of around 1,600 votes, Newmark, speaking in his Finchley and Golders Green constituency, pledged Friday to “continue to fight racism and anti-Semitism in society, in Parliament and, if necessary, in my own party. The results across Barnet indicate that many people think it is.”