When the leaders of the British Jewish community sat down for a two-hour meeting in late April with Jeremy Corbyn, head of the opposition Labor party that has been dogged by accusations of anti-Semitism, the event ended badly. Jewish leaders proclaimed disappointment, dismissing Corbyn’s apologetic words and saying they would prefer actions. It was a moment of truth for British Jewry in some ways, a symptom of a situation that has gotten worse through misplaced outrage and mismatched expectations. And it seems to have exploded because of a seder.
I hardly expect news from Europe these days to be good for the Jews, and—spoiler alert!—Britain is still part of Europe until March 2019. But in Italy over Passover, reading the English newspapers, even I was taken aback by the torrent of criticism against Corbyn for attending a seder—albeit a wildly unconventional one.
The seder was held by Jewdas, a little-known anti-establishment Jewish group (the name says it all) that has published spoofs such as “The Protocols of the Elders of Hackney.” Officially, it is non-Zionist, with all too many unfortunate rhetorical slips by individual (inebriated?) members into anti-Zionism, as well as comments that evoke the old stereotypes of Jew-as-capitalist.
A constituent invited Corbyn to attend the Jewdas seder and to bring some of the beetroot he grows in his community garden for “bitter herbs.” He spent four hours there, reading, at one point, a Jewdas version of the prayer for Elijah’s cup, in which the coming of the messiah brings revolution and socialism. Attendees’ names were not to be made public, but in this iPhone age, someone leaked.
The British Jewish establishment was outraged, though it wasn’t clear at exactly what. One Labor MP charged that Corbyn was “deliberately baiting the mainstream Jewish community.” The Holocaust Education Trust found attending the seder “disrespectful.” Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain, said he would have refused to sit down with Corbyn. Jonathan Arkush, executive director of the Board of Deputies, charged that Jewdas was a “source of virulent anti-Semitism” and also, perhaps more to the point, that “they are not all Jewish.”
British Jewry has a tortured relationship with the Labor party, which was founded by unions, Marxists and Jewish intellectuals in 1900. It was the antifascist party before World War II, and most Jews continued to support it based on that history up through the 1980s, though gravitating to its moderate wing as they joined the middle class. When Tony Blair, starting in 1997, pulled the party away from its doctrinal Marxist roots and made it a centrist social democratic party, the Jewish establishment followed. But signing onto George Bush’s Iraq war lost Blair his popular support, and the Labor electorate turned to left-wing “crank” Corbyn in 2015, swinging the party to the left.
No one can deny that both Labor and Corbyn have been insensitive (at best) to anti-Semitism within the party’s ranks. The many left-wing activists who joined the party to support Corbyn in recent elections mostly buy into the Palestinian narrative of Israel as a colonialist enterprise. Their rhetoric unfortunately slips into anti-Israel, anti-Jewish and, on occasion, anti-Semitic territory. (As in America, the problem is amplified by social media and by an increasing push by all kinds of groups to hold politicians accountable for things their supporters have said online.) Corbyn himself has been unconscionably slow to repudiate or expel the purveyors of extremist rhetoric, perhaps because they were his comrades in the political wilderness. All this has scared the Jewish community and turned many away.
For months, Labor took the position that the party did not have a Jewish problem, just a few bad apples. But this denial ended when the Jewish community held an “Enough Is Enough” rally before the House of Commons, and even more so when the House held an extraordinary three-hour debate on anti-Semitism in April. The Tories had called the debate to embarrass Corbyn, but it quickly electrified all watching when two female Labor MPs, Luciana Berger and Ruth Smeeth, rose to speak of the abuse they experienced on social media after they criticized Corbyn for his reluctance to face up to anti-Semitism.
So outrage about the seder arises from legitimate fears, but at the same time it suggests a certain confusion over both tactics and goals. Perhaps Jewdas meant to mock traditional seders, but why that should make it “far, far worse” than the neo-Nazi British National Party, as The Daily Mail wrote, is beyond me. Perhaps Corbyn’s visit gave too much publicity to a group pro-Israel organizations have tried to marginalize. Or perhaps establishment Jewish leaders were frustrated that Corbyn spent an evening with “radical” Jews instead of issuing the apologies and expulsions that the establishment had demanded as preconditions for a meeting when Corbyn previously offered one.
After the seder, Corbyn reiterated the offer to meet with establishment Jewish leaders, and this time they accepted it without preconditions—and with disappointing results. It reminds me of the mess I witnessed in January 1998 when the Holocaust Museum in Washington invited Yasser Arafat for a tour, then pulled the invitation in response to outrage from Jewish leaders, and then, facing further backlash, reluctantly reinvited him—only to be told that his schedule would no longer permit him to attend!
Dealing constructively with Corbyn is a real challenge for Britain’s Jews, who have felt buffeted by support for the Palestinian cause at levels unheard of in America. Plainly, the British Jewish establishment and the pro-Israel community would like the political elites to uphold a generally positive stance on Israel, something like the long-standing (though also imperiled) American bipartisan consensus. But the politics of Britain are different from ours, and I doubt this will be possible. The most that British Jews can hope for is the enforcement of civil discourse on social media by organizations connected with Labor and Corbyn. And, of course, an extra guest at the seder.
Marshall Breger is a law professor at the Catholic University of America.