The Labour Party Was Once a Haven for British Jews—What Happened?

A spate of anti-Semitic scandals is forcing the U.K. to reassess the history of one of its largest political parties.

Protesters hold placards and flags during a demonstration against anti-Semitism in Parliament Square in London on March 26, 2018. 
Protesters hold placards and flags during a demonstration against anti-Semitism in Parliament Square in London on March 26, 2018.  (Henry Nicholls / Reuters )

For most of the 20th century, most British Jews voted for the Labour Party. It seemed like a natural fit. This was a party that championed religious minorities, emphasized workers’ rights, and condemned anti-Semitism—all stances that appealed to a Jewish population that grew along with immigration from Europe. Yet now, a spate of anti-Semitic scandals is plaguing the left-wing party, and many British Jews are fed up with its leadership’s perceived failure to address the problem.

Frustration over the Labour Party’s handling of anti-Semitism within its own ranks dates back years, but reached a boiling point this week following two back-to-back scandals, one of which implicated the party’s own leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Last week, a Facebook comment Corbyn made in 2012 resurfaced, in which he defended a mural that was removed from London’s East End for its use of anti-Semitic tropes. By the artist’s own admission, the mural depicts a group of Jewish bankers playing Monopoly on the backs of the working class. Corbyn issued a statement Sunday apologizing for his comment, adding that he should have “studied the content of the mural more closely.”

The scandal prompted hundreds of people to gather outside parliament Monday in protest. Then, on Thursday, a leaked email suggested that Christine Shawcroft, the head of the party’s disputes panel, had lent support to a prospective Labour candidate who was suspended last week after being accused of anti-Semitism, including a social-media post that called the Holocaust “a hoax.” Shawcroft resigned from her role Thursday night.

Corbyn attempted to set the record straight in an interview with weekly British newspaper Jewish News, during which he reaffirmed his commitment to stamping out anti-Semitism within the party. “I’m not an anti-Semite in any way, never have been, never will be,” he said. He also addressed past associations with groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, which he previously referred to as “friends”—a statement he has since said he regrets. If the interview was meant to rebuild trust, it didn’t quite go as planned. On its front page Thursday, the newspaper declared that Corbyn’s answers were “NOT GOOD ENOUGH.”

Many British Jews shared this sentiment. “Things have just gone too far, and the Jews have finally said it’s enough,” Joel Greenbaum, who attended the Monday protest, told me, adding that while he appreciated Corbyn’s apology, the leader would have to do more to win back the community’s trust. “Good on him to say those things, but it’s very easy to say anything in the midst of a scandal. Actions speak louder than words, so we’ll have to see how he takes it forward.” Edwin Shuker, an executive member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, one of the organizations behind the protest, said the demo wasn’t just an appeal, but a warning to Corbyn. “This community that you see here is a united community—it’s old and it’s young, it’s rabbis and it’s lay leaders, it’s Reform and it’s Orthodox,” he told me. “Everybody is here today and we just want him to understand that a red line has been drawn.”

It’s a far cry from the way most British Jews spoke about Labour in past decades. “Labour was considered the party that stood up against racism and anti-Semitism,” said Dave Rich, an anti-Semitism expert at the Community Security Trust and the author of The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel, and Anti‑Semitism. “It was also the most pro-Israel party for a long time. And of course for the early part of the 20th century, Jews were largely an immigrant community and the Labour party has always been a party that stands up for the poor and downtrodden.”

Jewish support for Labour persisted for much of the postwar years, but started to shift as British Jews began entering the middle class. Geoffrey Alderman, a professor of history and politics at the University of Buckingham and the author of London Jewry and London Politics, told me that 50 years ago, between 60 and 70 percent of British Jews voted Labour. From that high point, Jewish support for the party declined, dwindling to between 18 and 22 percent by 2015—a meager proportion made all the more glaring by the fact that the Labour leader that year was Ed Miliband, who is Jewish (he describes himself as a Jewish atheist). During the U.K.’s general election last year, only 13 percent of British Jews said they would vote Labour.

Rich attributed the decline to Labour’s shifting stance on Israel, which coincided with the period between the Six Day War in 1967 and the Lebanon War in 1982. “You had people like Ken Livingstone starting to make waves in London politics in ways that really upset the Jewish community,” Rich said, in reference to the former London mayor who was suspended from the Labour party in 2016 for suggesting Hitler was a Zionist. With the election of Corbyn, who became Labour leader in 2015, Rich said anti-Israel attitudes and Holocaust rhetoric like Livingstone’s only became more prevalent within the party.

In April 2016, prior to Livingstone’s suspension, another Labour lawmaker was reprimanded for comments she made about Israel. In 2014, prior to her joining parliament, Naz Shah shared a Facebook post which suggested solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by relocating Israel to the United States. Shah apologized for the post, which she said was made “at the height of the Gaza conflict in 2014 when emotions were running high,” and was temporarily suspended. Both suspensions prompted Corbyn to commission an inquiry, led by human-rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti, into the matter. Two months later, the inquiry concluded that anti-Semitism and racism were not endemic to the party, but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere.”

Some Corbyn supporters I spoke to said that the Labour leader is being targeted not for unchecked anti-Semitism within the party, but for his critical stance on Israel. “Jeremy Corbyn has been the most vociferous member of Parliament against all forms of injustice and racism,” said Jean Apps, a Labour party member taking part in a counter-protest in defense of Corbyn on Monday. “Some people are targeting him because of his support for the Palestinians against their oppression by the Israeli state, but that’s different from being anti-Jewish. That’s talking about a state like any other state.”

Many Jews would agree with Apps that it’s possible to criticize Israeli government policies without being anti-Semitic. Indeed, a 2015 poll found that a majority of British Jews disagree with the Israeli government’s policies in the occupied Palestinian territories, including its settlement expansion in the West Bank. And some tension between Labour’s politicians and Israel’s ruling politicians is to be expected. “The Labour party is a left-wing party, Israel now has a right-wing government—of course, the Labour party is going to disagree with some of the policies and actions of the current Israeli government,” Rich said. “And they can express that in very simple normal political language, without being anti-Semitic.”

But whether all Labour members are limiting themselves to that “normal political language” is another question. Although the party has renewed its vow to eradicate anti-Semitism, its past efforts have been at least partly unsuccessful, so who’s to say it will work this time? And how can the party hope to weed out a problem even its own members have apparently failed to recognize in the past—just as Corbyn seemingly failed to recognize it within the mural? “So far,” Rich said, “we haven’t seen much evidence that they even understand what the problem is.”