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Can You Still Be Jewish on the British Left?

Labour voters forced to choose between their party and their support for Israel: Part four of Tablet’s series on anti-Semitism in the U.K.

Josh Glancy
March 25, 2015
Britain's Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband.(Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Britain’s Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband.(Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

This is the fourth of a five-part series, A Polite Hatred. Sign Up for special curated mailings of the best longform content from Tablet Magazine.

In a packed conference hall in Islington, north London, the disembodied voice of Omar Barghouti is calling in over Skype. The co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement exhorts the crowd to renew their efforts for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), which is holding the meeting. He derides and denigrates Israel, the apartheid state. And then, his rhetoric building up to a pitch, he delivers his killer line: “Balfour is dead, now let’s bury his damned colonial legacy.” A loud cheer echoes around the room.

Listening to Barghouti, I wondered how many people in the room understood the import of his words. The Balfour Declaration was a statement in favor of a “national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.” To advocate the destruction of Balfour’s legacy—whether it is a colonial one or not—is to advocate the disestablishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, in other words, the destruction of the State of Israel.

Either the people in the room didn’t fully understand the implications of what they were applauding, which is a concern, or else they did, which is even more of a concern. Does the PSC officially support this position? The chairman didn’t respond to my email. But one of the organization’s stated aims is to “campaign in opposition to the Zionist nature of the Israeli state,” which sounds like the end of the idea of a Jewish national home.

This kind of rhetoric makes Jews—even ones who are ambivalent toward or unhappy with aspects of life in contemporary Israel—feel threatened, denigrated, and isolated. They don’t feel comfortable sitting in a room where people applaud a call for Israel’s destruction, and they don’t feel comfortable with a movement that seeks such an outcome. This was not the rhetoric of a peace movement, but the rhetoric of Palestinian nationalism—“from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

The language of Barghouti has become common currency on the hard left in Britain, where Zionism is a dirty word and Israel has replaced apartheid South Africa as the embodiment of all evil. In the wake of recent wars in Israel and Gaza, this sentiment has reached a pitch that has left many left-wing British Jews feeling politically isolated.

Most liberal Jews believe that the plight of Palestinian Arabs inside and outside Israel presents the Jewish State with an important test of its commitment to social justice—a test that Israel is failing. Many wish to be publicly critical of Netanyahu’s Israel. But all too often they hold back, because in the vehemence of left-wing Israel hatred they sense something besides concern about Israelis or Palestinians. When liberal British Jews see anti-Israel marchers holding signs saying “Jews back to the gas” and “Hitler was right” and they don’t hear loud and universal condemnation of such bile from the left, they begin to fear that there is another agenda there that is not about social justice. They sense anti-Semitism.

Yet for many British Jews, the vehemence of leftist anti-Zionism—minus the Nazi slogans—is a problem, too. When liberal British Jews hear of organizations like the PSC applauding a call to destroy Balfour’s damned legacy, that doesn’t feel like a constructive critique of Israel and its policies—the kind that could be justly leveled at both Britain and America in recent history; it feels like blind rage and deep loathing.

Because here’s the thing that is rarely said: If your anti-Zionism is such that you hate Israel’s very existence, then for most British Jews the effect of this is similar to anti-Semitism, because to a greater or lesser extent, most British Jews are Zionists, meaning that they believe that the project of collective Jewish existence is a legitimate one, or as legitimate as the existence and aspirations of any other nation, including the Palestinians. And because Israel is the Jewish state, British Jews take Israel-hatred personally. Asking them to disavow their affiliation to Israel in order to maintain their liberalism therefore presents an agonizing choice.


There was a time in Britain when Jews overwhelmingly voted for the Labour Party, much as Americans do for the Democrats. In the old East End of London, Jewish support for Labour was as high as 80 percent. “They handed you your Labour Party membership just after your circumcision,” said the father in Jack Rosenthal’s 1976 television play, Bar Mitzvah Boy. “They gave with one hand and took away with the other.” When the Irish dockers gathered to fight Oswald Mosley’s fascists at the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, they held signs saying “hands off our Jews.” That day Communists, trade unionists, and Jews (sometimes all three) came together to fight the threat of black-shirt fascism.

The postwar British left has for generations contained the overlapping circles of the Labour Party faithful, much of the media, and assorted anticolonial protest movements. Today, rightly or wrongly, many liberal Jews are now connecting the dots between the rhetoric of groups like the PSC and the current leadership of the Labour Party. They identify the left not just with criticism of specific Israeli policies or politicians but also with a visceral loathing of the state’s existence. When he made his acceptance speech for the party leadership in 2010, Labour Leader Ed Miliband mentioned one foreign policy issue most prominently: the Gaza flotilla. Since then, many Jews in the community feel that Miliband has been unfairly critical of Israel. And it’s not just him. Last week Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary and a leading Labour figure, tweeted his concern over Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection. Nothing wrong with that in principle—except looking back over his Twitter, that tweet was the only time he mentioned a foreign policy issue in 2015. He hasn’t mentioned ISIS, or Ukraine, or Syria, or Iran, or death on the streets of Paris and Copenhagen. Only the election of Netanyahu roused him into looking beyond Britain.

There are good electoral reasons for the Labour Party’s focus on real or imagined Israeli crimes. Miliband’s Labour Party is deploying a “core vote” strategy for the upcoming general election in May, which involves trying to nail down the 35 percent of the vote they need to win. This means appealing to the party’s base, which includes the trade unions, groups like the PSC, and Britain’s growing Muslim vote. Railing against the iniquities of Israel is a good way of garnering support in these constituencies. The sense of a disproportionate, unfair focus on Israel has left many Jews who might typically have voted for the Labour in the past feeling adrift.

“For the first time in five decades,” wrote veteran British actress Maureen Lipman in November, “I shall not be voting Labour.” Her primary reason was simple: Israel. She excoriated Miliband for his demand that the British government recognize a Palestinian state without a peace deal. She also disapproved of his party’s double standards attacking Israeli aggression when it was responsible for launching a war in Iraq. “Come election day,” she wrote, “I shall give my vote to another party. Almost any other party. Until my party is once more led by mensches.

Lipman is not alone. Last August Kate Bearman, the former head of the Labour Friends of Israel, resigned her membership to the Labour Party, citing the fact that its “leadership issues simplistic statements that are at odds with the realities Israel faces.” She felt that she was “forced to choose between my party and my support for Israel. And I’ve chosen.”

Many younger Jewish liberals also no longer feel they have a political home. Alex Tenenbaum, 27, is a comedy writer living in north London. His politics have always been liberal, but he has moved further to the left after spending much of the past two years working in disadvantaged London state schools confronting vast inequality. Despite this, he sees no place for himself in today’s Labour Party.

“I couldn’t imagine a time when I wouldn’t vote Labour and yet at the point in my life that I’m at my most fair-minded on many social issues, I don’t feel I’ve got a party to vote for,” he said.

“Some people on the left, educated people, are so quick to use the word Holocaust against Israel, almost with a grin because they think they legitimately can. Don’t get me wrong, Israel does a lot I don’t agree with, but I don’t find myself criticizing them to anyone who isn’t Jewish because I don’t want to be associated with people who freely use words like holocaust and ethnic cleansing.”

Ben Bowers, a 19-year-old student, describes himself as politically liberal. “In the past I may have voted for Labour, but a few years ago I started to move away from them,” he said. “I would never say that I switched allegiance based on Israel, but it undoubtedly makes me feel uncomfortable when I see ultra-liberals joining in alliance with homophobic and sexist Islamists to denounce a democratic country under a veil of anti-Semitism.”


The irony of all this is that Ed Miliband is the first Jewish leader of the Labour Party. His parents were refugees from the Holocaust, and he has family in Israel. Some even feel that he is the victim of a subtle, almost unconscious anti-Semitism in the right-wing press, where words such as “weird,” “alien,” and “north London intellectual” are regularly used to describe him. In 2013 the Daily Mail, a right-wing newspaper, launched a scathing attack on Miliband’s dead father, Marxist intellectual Ralph Miliband, that accused him of “hating Britain,” which some felt implied a Jewish disloyalty to the “host” nation. Both Ed and his brother David were ministers in the last Labour government. It was the elder David who expected to become leader, until Ed became the Jacob to David’s Esau and took his patrimony in a hard-fought leadership battle.

Despite his Jewish ancestry, Miliband has described in interviews how politics not religion was the dominant creed in the Miliband household. The family home is in Primrose Hill, London, which was a focal point for leftist intellectuals; the boys grew up around figures such as Tariq Ali and former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, who are known for their dislike of Israel. Their mother, Marion Kozak, is also an anti-Israel campaigner. Ed does not practice Judaism, to the point where the most famous (and disastrous) photo of him to date shows him clumsily trying to eat a bacon sandwich.

Yet Miliband has apparently gained some feeling of connection to Judaism during his leadership. As all would-be prime ministers do, he has fleshed out his personal story, visiting Yad Vashem and speaking of his desire to become Britain’s first Jewish prime minister (a mantle some feel is already held by Benjamin Disraeli). None of this has made much difference to his standing in the Jewish community though, where people tend to prefer the philo-Semitism of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. “The truth is that Jews in this country prefer to have gentiles representing them in parliament,” said Geoffrey Alderman, a historian of Jews and British politics. “The perception is that a Jewish MP runs the risk of bending over backwards to please the non-Jews and show that he doesn’t favor Jewish interests.

“As for Miliband, publicly eating bacon butties, betraying his brother, the remarks he has made about Israel,” Alderman continued, “these things have not endeared him to Jewish voters. He is seen as a prisoner of a left-wing tradition of anti-Zionism, and, dare I say it, anti-Semitism.” This sentiment was confirmed in many people’s eyes when Miliband was asked if he was a Zionist at a Board of Deputies event in 2013. “Yes, I am a supporter of the state of Israel,” he replied. A day later, his office appeared to reverse his position, stating that he wasn’t describing himself as a Zionist but merely affirming his support for Israel.

Of course not all liberal Jews in Britain see Miliband as disloyal or as a captive of anti-Semites. In 2011 Hannah Weisfeld founded Yachad, a left-leaning advocacy group that pushes for a two-state solution, much like J-Street does in the United States. She believes it is essential that liberal Jews be able to distinguish between hard-left anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel from leading Labour politicians. “There is a fundamental difference between politicians being critical of another foreign entity, which they are fully entitled to be, and the hard left, which can morph into anti-Semitism,” she said. “Criticism from Labour Party leaders of Israeli government policy is not the same as walking into the deepest darkest parts of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.”

Weisfeld agrees that the word Zionism has been poisoned by the hard left but also thinks the Jewish community must bear some responsibility for this too, recounting an occasion last summer when the chief rabbi conflated anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel on BBC radio. “We totally blur the lines between what is valid criticism of Israel, what is anti-Semitism and what is anti-Zionism,” Weisfeld said. “The discourse is so muddied partly because we’re so unwilling to invite nuance on this issue.”

But what of the seemingly disproportionate focus on Israel? “There are legitimate reasons for this and also illegitimate ones,” she said. “But it’s there, Palestine has been the cause célèbre of the left for two decades. No amount of complaining about why people focus on Israel when there are 200,000 dead in Syria is going to change that. Liberal concerned members of Anglo-Jewry have got to find their voice and not stay silent when they disagree with Israel, because otherwise you support the status quo, which is untenable.”


Weisfeld is a compelling new voice in the Jewish community. But though she may wish it to be otherwise, it’s undoubtedly true that many liberal Jews don’t feel happy or welcome on the British left anymore. In the last general election, in 2010, the Jewish vote for Labour was just 21 percent, a figure that will almost certainly be considerably lower in this year’s election. The Conservative Party received 58 percent of Jewish votes, a figure that is likely to rise.

This is a stark contrast to America, where most Jews have stayed loyal to the Democrats. In Britain this transition has happened over several decades, and for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with anti-Semitism or Israel. Geoffrey Alderman points to three major factors that have driven British Jews to the right. First, the community has been upwardly mobile and become more and more established as an upper-middle-class group in British society, making it naturally more conservative. Secondly, philo-Semitic Tory leader Margaret Thatcher also came to power in the north London constituency of Finchley, appointing several Jews to her cabinet and ushering in an era of market-driven economics that has been kind to the Jewish community. Many Jews living in north London and voting in the upcoming election will be just as exercised by Labour’s planned “mansion tax” on expensive houses as they are about Israel.

But another major reason for this shift is that the Labour Party has been perceived as having an increasingly strong anti-Israel stance, which has developed over several decades. “In the 1970s and ’80s it looked like Marxism had had it, the left had had it. Communism was finished, it had no cause,” explained author Howard Jacobson. “But then they found anti-Zionism. And it is perfect when you think about it. It’s anti-American, it’s anti-capitalist, you have a new proletariat: the Palestinians. For an English leftie, there is no English proletariat. Mrs Thatcher blew that one. Most of them want to buy their own council house and that’s it. You’re worried about revolution? Give them a council house, it’s over. So, with anti-Zionism you’ve got a new proletariat, proven to be suffering, and they are cruelly done by, it all just fits perfectly. And into that can go a little bit of the old Jew hatred that always hung around the edges of the left.”

Jacobson is right that there has always been more than a hint of anti-Semitism on the British left, usually woven into anti-capitalism and conspiratorial thinking. It goes back at least as far as the famous 19th-century radical campaigner William Cobbett, who described Jews as “living in all the filthiness of usury and increase,” and as “extortioners by habit and almost instinct.” The Chartists, radical Victorian campaigners for equality, continued this tradition, railing against Jewish jobbers and stockbrokers. It continued into the 20th century, when Labour leader Keir Hardie refused to condemn the anti-Jewish Tredegar riots by Welsh miners in 1911.

More recently, as mayor, Ken Livingstone became widely despised in the Jewish community after a series of comments that were perceived as anti-Semitic, including one occasion when he accused a Jewish reporter who was questioning him of behaving “just like a concentration camp guard.” When Tony Blair—Britain’s answer to Bill Clinton—and Gordon Brown, both notably pro-Israel, led the Labour Party in the 1990s and 2000s, many left-leaning Jews still felt comfortable in the party. Now many of those same left-leaning Jews simply don’t.

There is undoubtedly a danger that some liberal Jews are being oversensitive: That they will start to view all criticism of Israel as anti-Zionism, and all anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism, and will give up on a long and proud tradition of Jewish Labour in this country that still produces MPs such as Luciana Berger, Louise Ellman, and Ivan Lewis. But when one stops in at a meeting of the Palestine Solidarity Committee and listens to the rhetoric, that sensitivity is not hard to fathom.

The other main speaker at the PSC meeting I attended was Owen Jones, a fiery young writer and activist who is also now a columnist for the Guardian, perhaps the most prominent political voice on the left. He supports Labour and described the PSC as “pushing at an open door” regarding their agenda and the Labour leadership.

“It wasn’t a conflict, it wasn’t a war, it was a massacre,” he declaimed, in the course of his anti-Israel philippic. Coming from an intelligent man, such a lack of nuance is alarming. I wonder if Jones would stand in front of the thousands of Israeli families who spent their summer huddled in makeshift bomb shelters and tell them that there was no war. Would he stand in front of the mother of 4-year-old Daniel Tragerman, who was killed by mortar shrapnel in southern Israel, and tell her that there was no conflict—simply a brutal massacre perpetrated by the IDF, in response to nothing whatsoever?

The Jones perspective denies both Israeli humanity and Palestinian agency. There is no mention of trained Hamas fighters, only helpless victims. There are no Palestinian exterminationists, only Jewish ones. There is no nuance at all. If this is the voice of the new left in Britain, then the liberal Jewish exodus from the Labour Party will only continue apace. Because if Israel is accepted as unquestionably evil on the British left, then you can be a liberal, or you can be a Zionist, but you can’t be both.


Next, part five of A Polite Hatred will report on anti-Zionism is Western Europe.

Josh Glancy is a feature writer at The Sunday Times.

Josh Glancy is a feature writer at The Sunday Times.