On 12 September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn, a hard-left politician with little public profile and no tangible achievements in a parliamentary career stretching back almost a third of a century, was elected leader of the Labour Party and set about transforming British politics, perhaps forever. Corbyn’s election stunned Britain. In hindsight, it turned out to be the beginning of a larger global anti-liberal backlash that would see Corbyn joined by Donald Trump and other fringe politicians who would rise to power on the strength of their disdain for perceived elitist norms.
A lot has happened since Corbyn arrived: The Tories have changed prime ministers twice, the Corbyn-led Labour Party lost a national election to Theresa May’s Tories; Britain voted to leave the European Union 52%-48%. And the Labour Party, once the natural home of British Jews, has seemingly gone to war with them.
On Thursday, Britain will again go to the polls. According to a recent survey conducted by the Jewish Chronicle only 7% of British Jews are considering voting Labour– an astonishing collapse of support for what was once British Jewry’s party of choice.
A Timeline of the British Labour Party’s Anti-Semitism Crisis Over the Past 18 Months (click through to expand image)
If Corbyn wins, 47% say they might leave Britain. On Friday, Dec. 6, 2019, YouGov, Britain’s most famous polling agency, gave Boris Johnson’s Tories a 43% to 33% lead over Corbyn’s Labour. Yet polls put the previous Prime Minister Teresa May far ahead of Corbyn in the 2017 election, only for him to outperform expectations. If there is a no clear winner this time, Labour can enter a coalition with the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish National Party. The Tories remain alone.
Labour anti-Semitism has cleaved Britain’s political and intellectual classes; it has sundered friendships, and further divided the country’s elite. But it has done something else, too. It has forced British Jews to reconsider what it means to be British by making them confront an undeniably resurgent anti-Semitism. This confrontation has in turn helped to elevate a new group of unofficial Jewish leaders, a group of accomplished women—all secular, and all for whom their Judaism was once only secondary to their lives.
Labour anti-Semitism has made many British Jews question what sort of country they are living in. This is unsurprising. Anlglo Jewry correctly has two histories. Britain is the home of the blood libel, first given form in 1144 when the Jews of Norwich were falsely accused of the ritual murder of a young boy called William. It is also the home of the 1190 massacre of the Jews of York. In 1290, Edward I expelled the entire community from the country, in which they were not to legally set foot in again until 1656. It is the country of Shakespeare’s Shylock and Dickens’ Fagin. At the same time, Britain is also the country of the Balfour Declaration and the home of the armed forces that stubbornly resisted and eventually helped defeat Hitler, as well as the source of the Mandatory Authority that fought a bitter war against the Jewish underground in Palestine while banning Jewish immigration to the country before and during the Holocaust. It is also the country of Benjamin Disraeli and Amy Winehouse.
So how dangerous is Labour anti-Semitism? How does it manifest in the digital age and how much worse will it get? How are Jews fighting back? And in the end, what truly defines diaspora communities in the age of the Jewish state?
* * *
“My mum is Jewish and my dad is Manchester United,” says Rachel Riley as she sips a cup of herbal tea. Riley is the star of Channel 4’s cult TV program Countdown. With a math degree from Oxford, she solves number puzzles at vertiginous speed for viewers across Britain. She is blond-haired and blue-eyed: the embodiment of the photogenic daytime TV star, and now one of the most high profile voices in the fight against Labour anti-Semitism. I first met Riley back in February at a pub in West London right by the Chelsea soccer stadium, and the story she told me was one that I would come to hear again and again over the following months: about how anti-Semitism has birthed an awakening of her Jewish identity.
If you want to understand what Jeremy Corbyn has done to British Jewry then Riley is the exemplum. Before he came to power, her Judaism, while present, was peripheral. “As a kid I knew I was Jewish, but I didn’t do anything particularly religious,” she says. “And I have blond hair, and my name is Riley—I don’t look like a typical Jew,” she says with heavy sarcasm. “In school, I knew not to sing to Jesus during morning hymns but that was about it. And as soon I knew what the term atheist meant, I thought: That sounds like me.”
“And Jewish identity is different anyway, because it is not just a religion, it’s not just a race, it’s not just a culture, it’s not a simple identity, it’s everything and nothing at the same time—and it’s all mixed up.”
And then she pauses, and says evenly and clearly: “But the stuff to do with anti-Semitism: I own that part of my identity absolutely. There is no conflict. None.”
She leans back and starts to talk more. “I’ve always known that to have one Jewish grandparent meant you would be killed in Auschwitz. I look at my nephew who is 2 years old and he doesn’t know what being Jewish is, this little blond-haired, blue-eyed kid running around, chasing his cats. And I know that he would have been killed, and he wouldn’t have been allowed to have cats.”
This type of uncompromising, historically informed self-identification is now more or less normal for British Jews. When Corbyn came to power he was an unknown to the British public, although some watchers of the extremist space in the U.K. were alarmed: Here was a man who had spent 30 years supporting the worst kind of Holocaust deniers and Islamists and anti-Semites; who had referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as his “friends”; invited the blood libel cleric Raed Salah to the Houses of Parliament, and indeed campaigned for him; had associated with Holocaust denier Paul Eisen and had laid a wreath for the Munich terrorists, to name just a few episodes in a long career of squalid political interventions, of the type associated with the university left. But did any of that matter?
The answer has turned out to be yes. Since Corbyn took power, anti-Semitism has seeped into the bloodstream of the Labour Party. To list all of the scandals would be impossible here, but since 2015 Labour has suspended its twice-elected former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone (he eventually quit) for saying that Hitler was a Zionist “before he went mad”; expelled its MP for Derby North Chris Williamson for saying that the party had been “too apologetic” in its handling of the anti-Semitism issue; seen footage of Corbyn saying that British Zionists, despite “having lived in this country…probably all their lives…don’t understand English irony,” and witnessed him defend an unequivocally anti-Semitic mural. Perhaps most egregious of all, the party is now under formal investigation by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission over charges the party has systematically and unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimized people because they are Jewish. To put this in perspective: The only other party to have gone before the ECHR is the British National Party—a Nazi-adjacent party.
Riley, like so many other Jews (and indeed non-Jews) was appalled. She began to tweet her horror, and to embrace her long-dormant Jewish identity; and she began to study the history of her people. But she didn’t read Josephus or study the Torah or the Talmud. She looked at something else entirely. “It’s not about religion,” she says, leaning across the table. “It’s not about wearing a hat and having curls. It was anti-Semitism that made me look at Jewish history and everything I’ve had to learn about this whole horrible saga has nothing to do with religion. Zero. I’ve had to learn history; I’ve had to learn geopolitics; and I’ve had to learn about anti-Semites stretching from Russia through Germany through England and through the Islamic world to ancient Rome.”
“I’ve not had to learn anything about the Jews,” she concludes, “because it’s not about them. It’s about the anti-Semites.”
Identity is based on dichotomy; we create its foundations through demarcation from the other. But Riley was doing something more; she was seeing Jewish history as constructed by its enemies: the anti-Semites—that constant of the Jewish story—because what defines non-religious, assimilated, diaspora Jews as Jews if not those who would single us out?
And so Rachel Riley, enemy of anti-Semitism, was born. Talking to her, occurs to me that, along with a few others (all of them women) she is in her own, small way, a modern-day Esther, the Persian princess who lived in the land of Shushan (modern-day Iran). Like the biblical Esther, Riley lives among the diaspora, is not religious, and has happily assimilated, until one day a threat to the community forced her to embrace her Jewishness in the face of sustained and intense hate.
The response is of course predictable. “It ranges from Jews bite the dicks of babies, give them herpes, suck their blood to I’ve got the blood of Palestinian children on my hands, I’m evil and I call everyone an anti-Semite without any evidence,” she sighs. And then there is the misogyny. “It has been suggested that the only explanation for me not liking Jeremy Corbyn must be that I was abused as a child; I have a fear of all men. I saw a woman, a grandma, tell me that I was doing this to get the attention of Jeremy Corbyn because I wanted to give him a blowjob.”
And of course, no modern troll’s toolkit is complete without gaslighting. “They’ll say, ‘where’s your evidence?’ at the bottom of the thread of evidence,” Riley relates. “It doesn’t matter where you get the evidence from, they’ll discredit the publication, and they’ll post links to their fake news websites as proof because we are really living in parallel universe of information with websites that just pump out poison and don’t care about facts.”
* * *
In the digital age, trolls have an ability to flood the public sphere. But why are they so successful? I spoke with Imran Ahmed, the chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, an organization that works to combat online misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and anti-black racism. Organized hate actors use trolling for three reasons, he told me. First, to intimidate opponents into shutting up; second, to gain new recruits through the inadvertent amplification mechanism by which people, outraged, retweet or quote tweet trolls, thus giving them exposure.
The third reason people troll, Ahmed explained, is to change social norms. “The most powerful thing about social media is that likes and re-tweets have replaced expertise and experience as social proof,” he said. “Now we look to the number of social interactions to prove the worthiness of an idea, and to prove that it’s a normal belief and therefore, OK for us to believe too. And this incredibly potent social mechanism is rapidly changing societal norms and behaviour for the worse, because they are being exploited most ambitiously by hate actors.”
Ahmed believes that we are witnessing an outbreak of virulent, Nazi level anti-Semitism in British politics made possible because of the power of popular social media platforms that give ideologues access to everyday people. As Ahmed explains it, under normal circumstances, no one would knowingly put themselves in a position where they were listening to propaganda by hate actors. But that’s precisely what we do when we start to use social media. We allow hate actors to proselytize to us, and to shape our understanding of the world and our political beliefs.
Trolling also allows fringe believers and haters to punch above their weight. While the number of dedicated trolls is actually small it only takes a few to cause havoc. “And of course when something major happens, for example, a flashpoint incident in British politics, or in the debate of anti-Semitism,” says Ahmed, “what you will often see is coordinated targeting of specific individuals in what are called troll storms, which then gain further attention because of the trending mechanisms within social media platforms which both identify trends and promote them to more users.”
But there is a particular link between trolling and anti-Semitism—one I first noticed when I began to research my last book War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. As I trawled the chat boards and forums, I found that anti-Semitic conspiracy theory often dominated the political conversation—and it did so because anti-Semitism isn’t simply another form of hatred. It is the theological loadstone of the fringe. As Anthony Julius, the lawyer for Deborah Lipstadt in the David Irving trial, told me: If you want to play a political game, anti-Semitism is incredibly attractive because of its immense plasticity. You can complain about Jews as capitalists, you can complain about Jews as communists or internationalists. You can complain about Jews in relation to Middle East politics, you can complain about them in relation to international banking institutions. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, which is why anti-semitism has become a central organizing principle for haters and certainty-seekers on both the left and the right.
Understanding how anti-Semitism functions as the theological loadstone of the fringe helps explain how Jeremy Corbyn was able to mainstream hard-core anti-Semitism among the supposed anti-racists of the Labour Party in such a remarkably short period of time. Corbyn was the leader of the Labour fringe, for whom anti-Semitism is a key organizing principle. When he came to power, they came with him—armed with the online trolling and meme-generating abilities that they had honed over years in order to be heard. The result is a perfect storm of hate, with Jewish women being the most prominent targets.
Riley has been attacked daily ever since she began speaking out. “I’m not known as being political, not known as being a Jew,” she tells me. “I’m known as being an advocate for girls in maths, doing animal charity stuff, and just being a geek. I’m a TV
presenter but a lot of my work is with corporates where I lend my image or name to projects. And my timeline is now just overrun with Labour anti-Semitism and hatred and there’s all kinds of smears and lies and rumors and stories about me. But I can’t just sit around and wait and see what happens. In the beginning, a few of us spoke out and then we waited for the Labour heavyweights to come along and take the reins. But they never came.”
In the beginning, a few of us spoke out and then we waited for the Labour heavyweights to come along and take the reins. But they never came.
* * *
Whenever I give lectures on social media I make an analogy. There is an old saying: The guy who invented gambling was brilliant, but the guy who invented chips was a genius. I say that the people who invented social media were brilliant but the people who invented the language around social media were geniuses. Why, for example, is it called social media when in reality it’s more anti-social than social? Why is a news feed called a “news feed” when it usually contains little in the way of real news?
But the greatest word of all is ‘platform.’ This little word conjures up lovely images of neutral spaces where we can all chat as equals. But in reality Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are not platforms they are businesses – and it is not their responsibility to educate us or to ensure we don’t fall for fake news. In truth, they have one responsibility only: to make money for their shareholders from their sole product, which is us: their users. And they don’t want to kick users off their sites because the simple fact is that anti-Semites and Islamists and Nazis buy sneakers, too.
Riley has learned—she has had no choice—how to fight back against lies, and the fake news sites that peddle them. She is now involved with an organization called Stop Funding Fake News, which targets the fake news sites, which work on funding models reliant on advertising from major companies like Amazon. Prominent Labour-supporting fake news sites like The Canary and Squawkbox, subsist on such ads, often without those companies knowing. Stop Funding Fake News approaches those companies and asks if they are happy to be associated with these sites—the answer is almost invariably a horrified “no.” The advertising stops, and alongside it, the revenue.
I conclude by asking Riley if she has anything to say to the American Jews that read Tablet. She pauses, and then once again speaks with utter clarity and certainty. “Someone said to me that I was the first person to say on camera that I believe Corbyn is an anti-Semite. Everyone else was reluctant. They said you don’t have the fear: Because I wasn’t brought up in the community I haven’t got my suitcase by the door. But there are a lot of Jews around Europe that have that fear. I went to a Jewish school in London full of French kids whose families have left France; there are little French kids in schools in London because they don’t feel safe in France. The more silent you are, the more this is allowed to spread, so you need to nip it in the bud with conversation and education. I think there’s more of a culture of being loud and proud in places like New York. I just think we all need to be louder.”
“Other parts of the world show us how dangerous the hard left can be, but they’re still being underestimated. People are still assuming this is business as usual, but it isn’t. And the more I see organized pile-ons, the more I see lies to try and silence pregnant women, the less I like these people, and the less I want them anywhere near power.”
* * *
“So you called Jeremy Corbyn a fucking racist and anti-Semite?”
I never said “fucking.”
Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for Barking, sits in her loft room high up in the modern surroundings of Portcullis House, the glass and steel building on the Embankment just opposite the Houses of Parliament, which serves as the offices for 213 members of Parliament and their staff. Photographs of her family, including several grandchildren, dot the room. An assistant buzzes around handing her papers. I want to know how an Esther who is a Labour MP and one who came up through the ranks at the same time as Jeremy Corbyn feels about what is happening, and critically why she has chosen to stay in the party.
Our talk begins with her famous words to him. She smiles. “I’ll tell you what happened: It was when I found out he was planning on dropping the International Human Rights Association definition of anti-Semitism,” she says. “So I was pretty pissed off about that. And then when the news came back as we were voting that they had rejected the definition, I just lost it. I really did get cross. And we were in the House and I had two of my very kind colleagues sitting on either side of me, and we were talking about it, and I said I’m going to go and call Corbyn a fucking anti-Semitic racist. And they said ‘go on Margaret go for it.’”
“He was sitting on the front bench so I said I would wait until he came out of the chamber and then one of my wonderful colleagues went off and briefed the Huffington Post. As he came out the last thing I said to myself—because I do occasionally use bad language—is “don’t swear Margaret” because that would undermine the importance of the message. So I approached him and said that I thought refusing to accept the definition was anti-Semitic and therefore he was a racist. And he’s just passive aggressive, he doesn’t really engage. And then he went off, and I went to the theatre. Then it was all over the news that I’d sworn at him.”
Do you genuinely think Jeremy Corbyn is anti-Semitic? I ask. “I have seen absolutely nothing since July that does anything other than confirm my view,” she answers, “if not to actually reinforce it.”
“It was his election which gave permission to anti-Semitic attitudes that have always been present in the hard left to shift from the extremes into the mainstream.”
The afternoon light is blazing through the long loft windows, which bisect the room at 45 degrees. Hodge is bathed in a whitish gold light that gives the room an almost cheerful aspect that seems incongruous as she continues, in the same even and pleasant tone, to detail the mess Labour is now in.
Hodge understands the left—she is of it, and she came through the party’s struggles with its extreme factions in the 1980s, when her and the other Labour moderates, led then by Neil Kinnock, eventually prevailed, paving the way for the eventual election of Prime Minister Tony Blair.
“It’s this weird cult thing,” she tells me. “Some of which I understand. You’ve got the old hard left, Trots, the people I fought in the ’80s. But then you’ve got young people who came into politics who were born under a Labour government who never knew Britain when the hard left was a force and who fell let down by Blair’s Labour and in an odd way I can understand that because I know what I felt in 1979.”
Given Labour’s capture by the hard left and its anti-Semitism problem, how, I wonder can she continue to stay in the party? “Because I’m a fighter,” she replies. “I’ve demonstrated that I never run away from a fight. I believe I am fighting for the heart and the soul of what made me a Labour Party member 56 years ago and I want to carry on fighting and give it my all.”
I ask her how anti-Semitism has come to define her life in the contemporary moment, and once more she smiles, perhaps a little more mournfully. “I never thought my Jewish identity would be so central to my political work, she says, “but it is.”
“Can I tell you my funny story? In 1994 when I was standing for a by-election in Barking [in East London] the Jewish Chronicle wanted to speak to me, and I said, ‘I’m not talking to the Jewish Chronicle, what am I going to say to them.’ But in the end I did, and they said to me ‘and what are you going to do for the Jewish community’ and I said ‘not a lot.’ And when the Labour anti-Semitism started the press officer who had arranged the call sent me a postcard saying ‘do you remember what you said in 1994?’”
But this is who she is, she tells me. She lost relatives in the Holocaust, and she has internalized the lessons of history. “What I keep wondering is what was Germany like in 1930, ’32, what was it like then. Because I know my parents [who lived there then] were so integrated. And they probably always suffered a degree of anti-Semitism. But they never probably thought it would it would lead to the Holocaust. So I feel you can’t tolerate pretty shitty abuse, even if the people say the abuse can’t lead to real harm, the abuse in itself is harmful, but could it lead to more. And that’s what is so unforgivable about Corbyn is that he’s given a permission for it to reemerge.”
“I fought the BNP [the Nazi party] in 2010 and, I thought I’d get loads of anti-Semitic abuse during my fight and I did but I’ve had far, far more since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader.”
And finally I ask about how anti-Semitism has come to make her feel about her own identity. And once more she smiles; a deep, broad grin. ”I’m a secular Jew. Neither of my husbands were Jewish. I’ve never even done the Jewish festivals. We’ve never been integrated into the Jewish community in any real sense.”
“But can I tell you something?” she asks, smiling still.
“My father tried to make me a Jew and he failed. The family rabbi tried to make me a Jew and he failed. My friends tried to make a Jew and they failed…it took Jeremy Corbyn to, finally succeed in making me a Jew.” She pauses.
“I would laugh,” she continues. “But obviously I have no sense of irony.”
* * *
Tracy-Ann Oberman is late. I sit at a table on the first floor of a members club in the center of West London’s arty Soho district, long home to the country’s creative industries. Oberman is a successful TV and theatre actor who gained national fame when she joined the BBC’s longest running soap opera Eastenders, playing the wife (and eventual killer) of ‘Dirty’ Den Watts, the program’s anti-hero. Like Riley, Oberman is yet another Jewish woman from a world far removed from politics who, because of Jeremy Corbyn, has found herself cast as a modern-day Esther.
She is, like so many now, a lifelong person of the left who is at war with Labour anti-Semitism, and I want to hear how once Labour-supporting Jews who are not politicians think about what is happening. She arrives, slightly flustered—it’s been a busy morning with parental and work commitments. But she is keen to speak—this is her subject. Most immediately, it is clear that Labour’s problems are a source of great sadness to her.
“I think the current labour Party is a huge problem,” she says. “I did Fiddler on the Roof a while back and did an enormous amount of research into my great grandmother and great grandfather. I hadn’t realized that both of them started out being Bolsheviks and became Mensheviks. One of the reasons they had to leave was that they were massively political people. They came to England and played a huge part in setting up the labour Party instead. All they talked about was the suffering of the working classes and workers rights. What worries me was that this Jewish history—especially its long involvement in the Labour Party—was being erased.”
At the center of this erasure is an idea that subverts the battle against modern anti-Semitism: Jews are irretrievably privileged and therefore cannot be victims. The comedian David Baddiel told me about his early years in stand up, how when he used to highlight his Jewishness—making him almost unique in Britain at the time—it caused discomfort. “It was clear,” he told me, “that Jewishness was not quite acceptable as an identity by the forces that understand identity politics, which is basically the left.” This state of affairs, present in both Europe and the United States, has been compounded in Britain because being Jewish here, with a community of only 260,000, was for a long time a somewhat amorphous and nebulous identity, and, critically, unmoored from easily discernible cultural reference points. (As opposed to the United States where, for example, American literature and humour, to name just two areas, bear the strong hallmarks of Jewish influence.)
Oberman agrees. “This is [former mayor of London] Ken Livingstone’s idea that all Jews are rich, all Jews are white, all Jews are middle class and all Jews are protecting their own assets,” she says. “And it is made worse now because of the sheer volume of lies that are quoted as facts. And you have a generation of young people who have no nuance, who have no understanding, who have been fed by Facebook and Twitter, and issues like the entire Middle East conflict have been reduced to a 140 characters, and that’s all you see.”
Oberman still cannot believe what has happened to the party she loved so much. “People say to me but what about anti-Semitism on the right? I don’t give a shit about the right; it’s not my party—I never aligned with them,” she explains. “I find Trump abhorrent. I never expected any different from [Brexit Party leader Nigel] Farage or from The Tories with their Islamophobia and racism. But the left let me down.”
If there is one motto that the Esthers live by it is: Be louder. All have suffered for their public stance.” It’s very interesting, “ says Oberman. “We all get the death threats, the sex threats, the body comments. But John Mann [a former Labour MP and campaigner against anti-Semitism] doesn’t get attacked for who he is, his daughter gets attacked or his wife gets attacked. The misogyny tied in with it is revolting: We’re just “blond bimbos,” we “shouldn’t be allowed to speak.” “There’s some man who’s obsessed with me who has managed to get every single vaguely sexy photo shoot I’ve ever done and just tweets out every single day. It’s hysterical but also deeply misogynistic.”
Has it been worth it? She replies without hesitation. “I had Danny Baker [a British media personality] on my podcast the other day, yesterday, and he said, Why do you bother? It’s like going around Oxford Street [with a sign], Have you changed anybody’s mind? I replied, actually, I have. I found that speaking out has emboldened many others to do the same. I’ve had cards and letters, actual handwritten, old-fashioned letters from people, who’ve said, when you first started speaking out I thought that you were mad and now, even as a hardened Labour Party supporter, I agree.
She continues: “Look, politicians are paid to do this, myself and Rachel are not, and that is because it comes from a truly authentic place. There’s nothing to be gained by doing it for me at all, other than absolute conviction.
“I used to be quite scared about how it would impact on my life, professionally and personally, and, I guess, mentally, but the more I’ve spoken out and the more this debate has become centerstage, the more I know that I’ve done the right thing.”
And of course, it has only made her more assured in her identity. “Ironically, nearly everyone of us who has spoken out has been the type of person who has said, you know I’m Jew-ish, which is hilarious as the trolls seem to think we’re all running into synagogue every two minutes wrapped in our Zionist flag and Star of David. I think it has galvanised the community.”
What does she hope will happen” I ask finally. Again, she doesn’t need to pause to think. “I pray and hope that I can come home to the Labour Party,” she replies. “I pray that finally this moment of madness and racism and misogyny that this man has allowed to flourish, that he’s brought out of the corners of pubs and houses, will disappear. I hope that that hard left with its umbrella of protection that covers up a far-right anti-Jewish sentiment will disappear back into the corners where it had to hide itself for so long.”
* * *
Today I have resigned from the Labour Party. It has been one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made. But I am convinced it is the right one. Letter to my constituents here >>> pic.twitter.com/DOI5iUhsU2
— Luciana Berger (@lucianaberger) February 18, 2019
On Sept. 23, 2018, Luciana Berger, the Labour MP for Wavertree, walked into the Labour Party annual conference in Liverpool flanked by a policeman specially assigned to protect her following the number of anti-Semitic threats she had received since Jeremy Corbyn was elected party leader. She was pregnant at the time. Almost five months later she finally had enough and resigned, citing “institutional anti-Semitism” and what she called “a culture of bullying, bigotry and intimidation.” In 2019, in Britain, an MP from a major political party had been driven out of her job for being Jewish. It was utterly without precedent, and I wanted to speak to her.
We finally managed to arrange a time just before she was due to give birth. Berger remembers the conference well. “People said that I paid actors or paid the police officers to accompany me.” It’s a salutary lesson on today’s public sphere—not even photographic evidence of something will stop those who seek to deny it. When Berger resigned, Labour MP (and fellow Jew) Ruth Smeeth stood up in Parliament alongside her, and thundered at the state of her party. “I am deliberately staying in the Labour Party because we desperately need to fix it, because the Labour Party can’t be institutionally anti-Jewish. It just can’t be,” Smeeth told me some months back. She believed that the party would be found guilty by the EHRC of anti-Jewish discrimination, but she was determined to persevere.
Berger, though, was done. She first sat as one of the the Independent Group, which then became the Independent Group for Change. Now almost 10 months later she is standing as a candidate for the Liberal Democrats (Britain’s third party) in the heavily Jewish constituency of Finchley and Golders Green.
Berger’s story is in many ways the story of the evolution of contemporary Labour anti-Semitism. When it emerged that Corbyn had defended an anti-Semitic mural in East London, she spoke out, challenging Corbyn to provide an explanation. Just days later, on March 25, 2018, British Jews held the “Enough is Enough” rally in Parliament Square. It was, as Berger, explains, yet another cataclysmic event in British Jewish history. “It was staggering,” she tells me. “You had a minority community who gave up their evening to take to the streets to demonstrate against Her Majesty’s Opposition. That for me was just staggering.”
“And you would have thought,” she continues, “that any organization, let alone a mainstream political party, would have sought to do everything possible to mitigate against further outrage, and yet they did nothing. Indeed, what happened throughout the course of this past year is extraordinary. Every month there was something. There was the battle over the IHRA definition, which even at the last moment they still tried to quash. Then there was the summer of anti-Semitism, when there wasn’t a day that went by where Jeremy Corbyn and his previous activities weren’t featured on the front page of a British newspaper.”
A Timeline of the British Labour Party’s Anti-Semitism Crisis Over the Past 18 Months (click through to expand image)
“I was a parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement,” she says, “one of the oldest affiliates of the Labour Party supposed to be celebrating its centenary affiliation to the Labour Party and I felt that I did everything I possibly could to try to change things from within, and was unsuccessful.”
Even Smeeth, who is determined to say in Labour, recognizes that there has long been an anti-Semitic undercurrent on parts of the left. “My favorite George Orwell book is The Lion and the Unicorn, and obviously there’s a section in there about middle class anti-Semitism, and indeed working class, anti-Semitism on the left,” she told me. “But it had pretty much gone, and if people were vile, they were through the prism of Israel/Palestine. We are no longer in that sphere; we are definitely in the arena of modern-day anti-Semitic tropes.”
When I spoke to the Jewish historian Simon Schama, he agreed. “Anti-Semitism is lodged into the capillaries of certain aspects of the left, which has seen a modernization of ancient prejudices against Jews as, for example, money lenders morph into the socialism of fools,” he told me.
For her part, Berger is through with the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn. “He and the people around him are not fit to hold the keys to Number 10,” she told me. “I never anticipated having to leave the Labour Party, let alone at 37 weeks pregnant, but I had to do so because I had to be true to what I believe.” And so, she has become, inescapably, another Esther. “I certainly didn’t put myself forward for selection back in 2010 to see myself on the news ticker of BBC News or Sky News, described as ‘Jewish MP,’” she told me. “I’m incredibly proud of my Jewish heritage and my Jewish identity; it’s just part of who I am, but I never sought to be identified by it.”
But she remains as determined as ever. “Anti-Semitism is the canary in the coal mine,” she says thoughtfully. “And if we don’t contend with it then greater problems will come.”
* * *
Britain is deeply divided. The country waits for Friday morning to find out what sort of future it is likely to have over the next four years. Because it’s not just about anti-Semitism it’s about Brexit and the economy and the National Health Service, and what kind of country we want to be. But even if Corbyn is defeated, the anti-Semitism crisis won’t be over; things have gone too far for that. The Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth summed it up best when we met in her office a few months ago. “It is now a generational issue,” she told me. “And compounded by fake news, by social media, compounded and by the lack of analytical skills in British society. But they opened Pandora’s box and we can’t shut it,” she explained. “I have said it directly to Jeremy.”
She continued, “that’s why I’m angry on so many different levels. I’m angry about the people who have had horrible experiences, who have been threatened, that have been bullied and harassed for being Jewish in the Labour Party. I’m angry about how my colleagues are treated,” she said. “I am angry about how this is now an issue that the whole country will have to deal with for a least a generation to come.”
Britain is undergoing a crisis that the country’s Jews would once have thought inconceivable. But it is here, and it is nasty and grubby and painful. Yet, amidst it all, British Jews, led by a few outspoken women who refuse to be silenced, have found their voice. Some say they have overshot, that they are too much, that it’s undignified. But their message has undoubtedly been heard.
In every single interview he does, in every debate he stands in, Corbyn faces accusations of anti-Semitism he cannot answer. Print journalists attack him for his record on anti-Semitism; TV pundits attack him for his record on anti-Semitism. There are only 260,000 Jews in Britain; this is a considerable achievement, and a public service to Jews and non-Jews alike, in a country that is going through bad times that are almost certainly going to get worse, which means that anti-Semitism is likely to get worse.
But as the Esthers have shown us, the darkness also contains some rays of light. British Jews are fighting back, and they are proud to be Jewish.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.