Antisemitism, then and now | Part 1 of 2

Following a fresh wave of accusations against Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, socialists are again grappling with claims that the left has a particular tendency towards antisemitism. One of the accusatory stories published earlier this month focused on Corbyn’s links to David Rosenberg, a long-standing Jewish socialist who has been critical of official Jewish communal leadership bodies. rs21’s Lisa Leak caught up with David to get his thoughts on the controversies of recent weeks.

Labour Party antisemitism
Demonstrators at the recent “Enough is Enough” protest over antisemitism in the Labour Party (AFP/Tolga Akmen)

LL: Recently, you were attacked in the Daily Mail about a Passover Seder you attended that was hosted by Jewdas, which is left-wing Jewish collective. Paul Staines, or Guido – the right-wing blogger who unearthed the story – described Jewdas as “a fringe group that despises and is despised by mainstream Jews.” I was just wondering if you could talk about how you found the Seder, and how you find Jewdas as a group.

DR: I think they’re great. I’ve known of Jewdas from their early days. They were set up around 2005-2006, by young left-wing Jews who had got to a point where they had grown up in relatively ordinary Jewish families, some of them had gone through Israel ‘gap-year’ experiences, but they had emerged out the other side of that with a lot of questions about where their political values didn’t align with the political values that are treated by papers like the Jewish Chronicle, and spokespeople like the Board of Deputies, as representing what Jews believe. Jews are as politically diverse as anybody else, and so Jewdas was an expression of the left once again growing in the Jewish community. I think at the moment the parts of the Jewish community that are growing politically are to the further right and to the further left, and it’s the middle that is diminishing. I think Jewdas are part of that – part of that growing critical left movement amongst Jewish people. But what’s interesting is the generation they’re part of. These are people in their in their 20s and early 30s and some of them in their late teens. That’s encouraging because I’m 60 years old, I’m a member of the Jewish Socialists’ Group – I joined the Jewish Socialists’ Group when I was 18, but the demographics of our group is that we’re way towards the middle-aged and older end of the Jewish community, and a number of groups like Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Jewish Voice for Labour – are also of the demographic where we are the relatively older people. But here, with Jewdas, this is representative of very similar politics but from young people.

LL: Yes. You mention the Board of Deputies, and other official spokespeople groups. Obviously the specific claim that was made about you in the Daily Mail was that they noted that you’ve been critical of the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council, which as bodies have both gone along quite enthusiastically with attacks on Corbyn this time and on previous occasions. I know you’re a bit of a historian on this kind of thing – would you be comfortable talking a bit about why you think these, in a sense, self-established leadership groups tend to play along in these kinds of right-wing political manoeuvres, and maybe telling us a bit about the history of these kinds of groups?

Is Labour antisemitic
Jewish refugees from persecution – Liverpool, 1882

DR: The Board of Deputies was created in 1760 when the Jewish community was very small and perhaps a little bit more homogenous, and probably that was the last time it was representative. The bulk of the Jewish community of Britain today are descended from the Jews who came from the Russian Empire between the 1880s and the First World War, and the Jewish community they came into was one dominated by a smaller set of earlier Jewish immigrants, who were the Sephardic Jews that had come from Spain and Portugal, and also some of the wealthier German Jews that had come around the early 1800s. The Sephardis go back to about the 1650s. The old Sephardic Jewish community, which was a pretty well-off community, and the German Jewish community – a lot of them were in banking and insurance, in stockbroking, so were they were kind of a middle-class establishment that controlled all of the main institutions of Jewish life. The Board of Deputies was one such institution, there was another called the Anglo-Jewish Association. The Jewish Chronicle newspaper was set up in 1841 – well before the Eastern European Jewish immigrants arrived. So when those Jewish immigrants arrived, who were mainly pauperised working-class immigrants, there was a complete mismatch. They were in no way represented by those establishment organizations. And that was really obvious in the 1930s, when in the East End of London the anti-fascist battles were being fought on the ground by working-class Jews, and the Board of Deputies were worse than useless. And I’ll say worse than useless, rather than just useless, because – although they would speak out a bit every so often about antisemitism – they were very reluctant to criticise fascism. They pointed out that Jews in Italy were prospering well under fascism. Hardly any of the representatives of the Board of Deputies lived in the East End. They were mainly living outside of the areas of working-class Jewish communities.

LL: I’m just reading Nigel Copsey’s book on antifascism at the moment, he gives a lot of detail about this issue.

DR: Right. So basically, their advice when it came to the Battle of Cable Street was for people to stay indoors, pull the shutters down, ignore Mosley – and the only real effort they made was to turn their fire against some of the more militant and radical Jewish groups that were encouraging a radical and militant response. There was a group, the Jewish People’s Council Against Fascism and Antisemitism, which was a great mobiliser of Jews in the East End to fight the fascists, and because the Board of Deputies could not control them, they regarded them as enemies. People ignored all the advice of the Board of Deputies at that time and came out onto the streets. The synagogues, including the synagogues of the East End, read out messages from the Board of Deputies on the day before the Battle, telling congregants to stay indoors and all that, but again, it was ignored, and the Board of Deputies lost a lot of credibility in that time. It didn’t have much credibility anyway with the mass of the Jewish people then. But it was adjusting a bit; a small number of the East European Jewish immigrants were starting to get some small representation, but really the Board of Deputies’ behaviour during that whole period of the thirties really discredited them. What’s also interesting, though, in that period, is that the Board of Deputies at that point was anti-Zionist, but from a right-wing, British patriotic point of view. They didn’t want a question of dual loyalty to be raised about, “are they loyal to a Jewish state or to Britain?” Still, some of the members of the Board of Deputies made quite sound points about how, if Jews supported Zionism, it would be making a very negative statement about Jewish life in the Diaspora, and in a way I can’t argue with them on that.

Antifascists celebrate victory in the Battle of Cable Street, 1936

After the Second World War there was more support in the Jewish community for the Board of Deputies, found among more and more sections of the community because there had been a change, if you like. Gradually through the 1940s, 50s and 60, there was a shift in the class nature of the community – it became more middle-class, with that rising middle class also becoming more represented on the Board of Deputies, and some of the old establishment were fading away. And also – from, I’d say not immediately after the War, but from the late 40s and early 50s, the community became much more identified with Zionism, which it hadn’t been before the war. Zionism was a small minority opinion before the War in the Jewish community, in Britain and around the world, really. What shifted that was various factors; obviously the Holocaust had had a huge impact, but it was also what happened just immediately after the Holocaust, which was that hundreds of thousands of survivors were in Displaced Persons camps, and no country wanted to take them. The Zionists were very active within those DP camps, encouraging people to get out to Palestine. There were a lot of Jews who were not particularly inclined toward Zionism but were supportive of that in the sense of Jewish refugees finding somewhere to build their life again. It wasn’t that they were enamoured with Zionist ideology. But that prepared the ground for a much stronger alignment – the Board presenting itself as the official representatives, with ordinary Jewish people being more in agreement around Zionism.

The Board of Deputies claims to be democratic, but it’s not. It has a kind of parliament which is made up of, usually, the most long-standing and most conservative members of individual synagogues elected through their synagogue. But, many of those elections are not contested, only a proportion of community is active in synagogues, and then even that parliament is more a rubber stamp for decisions that are taken by the paid officials of the Board, who run the show, really. So it’s not in any way democratically representative. The Jewish Leadership Council is even less democratic. It just announced itself a few years ago. It was a group of Jews who were among the more economically comfortable members of the community, who were a bit fed up with the Board. They thought the Board was quite ineffective on various issues, so they just kind of got together and announced themselves as, almost, a rival body to the Board – but from a similar kind of social and economic background as the people dominating the Board.

So both of them, the Board and the Jewish Leadership Council, tend to be dominated by middle-class Tory supporters. And as for the actual Jewish community – it’s an amorphous thing. I don’t appear on any Jewish demographic statistics, because I’m not a member of a synagogue and I’m not a member of any organization that they would approve of. There’s lots of Jews in that situation: secular Jews, and also a number of people who are Jewish but have non-Jewish partners, who identify as Jewish. Every so often you get these official estimates of how many Jews there are [in Britain], but they could be very wildly out. I think the official estimate is about 260,000. I would say it could well be 350,000 – depending on who you include. But that wider Jewish community has no democratic input. So you get these terms like “mainstream” and “fringe” – but who’s defining that? The way Jewdas put it was that actually, the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council are the right-wing fringe, and actually the mainstream are people that don’t particularly trust or agree with them. I don’t think anyone in the community can claim to be representative of the bulk of the community’s views at the moment. There’s a struggle going on within it.

LL: Am I right in thinking you were involved in setting up Jewish Voice for Labour?

DR: I spoke at their launch meeting and I know the people who were involved in the launch. It came out of various sources in a way.

LL: One of the things I was going to ask was why it was felt that a new organisation was necessary, as of course there’s the Jewish Labour Movement.

anti-Zionism and antisemitism
A Poale Zion poster, 1946 | Source: The Palestine Poster Project Archives (PPPA)

DR: The Jewish Labour movement is a kind of reboot of a long-standing Labour Party organisation called Poale Zion, which means “workers of Zion”. It was a socialist Zionist group originally founded in Eastern Europe and then it appeared here as one of the places of emigration and affiliated to the Labour Party. They were a minority movement amongst the Jewish working class, both in the old country and here, as the Labour Party grew – and Jewish support for the Labour Party was very solid, very significant and solid, in Britain. It started to fall away a long time after the class shifts that had happened in the community. The 1979 election was quite an important one in that a significant section of former Jewish Labour voters seemed to have moved over to the Tories. When Thatcher first got elected she put in some Jewish Cabinet ministers, which was kind of a very rare thing – if you look at Conservative history, there’s not that many Jewish Cabinet ministers. This was welcomed by people like Jewish Chronicle and the establishment in the community as a sign of acceptance. It cemented a certain shift to the right, and a falling-away of Jewish Labour support. Although what was interesting is that the majority of Jewish Cabinet ministers that Thatcher appointed were from the old Sephardi establishment. So they were still a throwback to that sort of ‘old old’ establishment. And also, it was during the period of the 80s and 90s when the left, including the left of the Labour Party, became much more openly critical of Israel and Zionism. And so you had more of a disjunction appearing and more of a challenge to people who were Jewish and Labour. Poale Zion: constitutionally, they are Zionists. To be a member of them, you don’t have to be a member of the Labour Party, you don’t have to be Jewish, but you do have to be Zionist. So that rules out significant numbers of Jews. But they were falling into decline around the early 2000s and they kind of rebooted themselves, revamped themselves and called themselves the Jewish Labour Movement, but with quite similar politics to what had gone before. But it was a younger crowd that was coming more to the fore, probably a bit more competent in various technical ways, but in terms of their politics – they are very much on the right wing of the Labour Party. You have to sign up to Zionist statements to be to be involved in them. Any Jews in the Labour Party who are not Zionist, or anti-Zionist, are automatically excluded.

Now, when the Chakrabarti report was being written in 2016, there were various submissions from different Jewish groups. I was involved personally with my own personal submission, and also I was involved with one with the Jewish Socialist Group, but also there were a group of us who are Jewish and members of the Labour Party, who also put together a statement as one of the submissions for that inquiry in which we got signatures from Jewish Labour Party members around the country. We did it very quickly, but we had around 100 signatures. That statement focused on a particular thing, because one of the things that the Jewish Labour movement wants to do – and it’s very, very fearful of being challenged about this – is that they want to be seen as the spokespersons for Jews in the Labour Party and they want to keep hold of any training that goes on around antisemitism. Those of us who were putting together this submission to the Labour Party – focused on the Chakrabarti report – we were saying that they cannot be allowed to have that role because of the way they understand antisemitism only in relation to Israel/Palestine – almost entirely in relation to that. So for them, defending against antisemitism is about defending Israel, and we were saying that there needs to be either a more general Jewish body that is open to Zionists, non-Zionists, anti-Zionists, that would be open to all Jews from the Labour Party to play that role – or, the party itself plays that role. After those discussions we had a core of people, somewhere around 100 people who were Labour members who obviously were interested in having some sort of voice in the party as Jews, that couldn’t do that as part of the Jewish Labour Movement, and so that fed into Jewish Voice for Labour being formed. I was part of those kinds of informal discussions, but I am primarily involved in the Jewish Socialists’ Group, which is a group that has some Labour Party members. But it’s also got a lot of people that are not in the Labour Party, but are either in other left groups or are independent left. So the JSG is not directly connected to the Labour Party in any way, but we think that would be a good thing if there was such a body, so some people in the Jewish Socialists’ Group have become involved in Jewish Voice for Labour. We’re obviously encouraging that development and I’ve spoken at some of their meetings and I’m active on their Facebook group. But I’m not on the Executive Committee.

Click here for Part 2 of this interview.

In the forthcoming second part of our interview, David discusses the rising dynamic of modern-day antisemitism across Europe, the complicity of the Conservative Party with far-right political movements, and how socialists can help combat both antisemitism itself, and attempts to conflate it with the Palestinian cause.

You can like the Facebook pages of Jewdas and Jewish Voice for Labour here and here, and follow them on Twitter here and here (and the Jewish Socialists’ Group here), to keep up with the latest news and analysis around antisemitism and left-wing politics.


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