“Today, I have rejoined the Labour Party, returning to my political home,” Louise Ellman announced in September last year. Just two years prior, the former Member of Parliament (MP) for Liverpool Riverside in northwest England had resigned from the party. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, she said, antisemitism had become “mainstream” and Labour was “no longer a safe space for Jews” such as herself. But after Keir Starmer succeeded Corbyn in April 2020, she felt the party was once again being led by someone who had “shown a willingness to confront” Jew-hatred and whom, in her words, Britain’s Jews could trust.
Corbyn was a far-left fixture on Labour’s backbenches for thirty years after being elected MP in 1983 for Islington North—a densely populated Labour stronghold in north London where housing projects bump up against the gentrified terrace homes of Britain’s intelligentsia. Then in September 2015, at a time when the Labour Party was experiencing an identity crisis, he became the Leader of the Opposition in a landslide. He brought his particular brand of far-left political antisemitism—one that sees Zionism through the prism of apartheid, colonialism and racism as a paramount and powerful evil in the world—from the party’s fringes to its center. Hundreds of thousands of new members were drawn to his worldview and persona.
The result was Labour’s transmutation into a hostile environment for Jews. High-profile Corbyn supporters like former London mayor Ken Livingstone were going on broadcast media arguing that Hitler had supported Zionism “before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” Jewish members and MPs like Ellman and Luciana Berger were being bullied, abused, or driven out. A member of Berger’s own local party up in Liverpool Wavertree accused her of supporting the “Zionist Israeli government” whose “Nazi masters taught them well,” to give just one example. Those who pushed back were said to be “exaggerating” antisemitism to “undermine Corbyn,” something then-Labour member and activist Jackie Walker posted on Facebook in 2016. Fathom editor Alan Johnson declared the party “institutionally antisemitic.”
Rather than working with established representative Jewish organizations, Corbyn formed and gave preferential treatment to peripheral, schismatic political or religious splinter groups with whom he felt comfortable. The Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), for example—a socialist Zionist organization that has been affiliated with Labour since 1920—was both stigmatized and marginalized, seen as “fifth columnists” and a tool of the “Israel lobby” by Corbyn backers. Corby favored Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), which was set up in 2017 to support his leadership and “oppose attempts to widen the definition of antisemitism beyond its meaning of hostility towards or discrimination against Jews as Jews.” Widely perceived as anti-Zionist, JVL had little legitimacy in the British Jews, very few supporters and no institutional support.
After three years of Corbyn’s stubborn and implacable approach to antisemitism, the Jewish community began to sound the alarm. The Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), published an open letter in March 2018. “Again and again, Jeremy Corbyn has sided with antisemites rather than Jews,” it read. “At worst, [this] suggests a conspiratorial worldview in which mainstream Jewish communities are believed to be a hostile entity, a class enemy.” In July, in spite of the rivalry between the three papers, the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish News and Jewish Telegraph ran a joint front page warning that a Corbyn-led government would constitute an “existential threat to Jewish life” in Britain. By September, 86 percent of British Jews had come to the conclusion that Corbyn was antisemitic.
In 2018 and 2019, Jewish members and MPs began leaving the party. Adam Langleben had joined Labour back in 2006 and was active as a local councilor in Barnet, northwest London, and on JLM’s National Executive Committee. During the Corbyn era, the atmosphere in party meetings was “horrible,” he says, and campaigning locally, people who’d once voted Labour slammed their doors in his face. By March 2019, Langleben had decided enough was enough. “When Luciana [Berger] decided to walk, it was very important to me that she wasn’t walking alone,” he says. Berger was “someone who had suffered terrible abuse” at the hands of Corbyn supporters (she was accused, for example, of being a “paid-up Israeli lobby operative” engaged in “faux antisemite outrage”) and “there had to be people on the ground going with her.” And so Langleben left.
By the time the general election came around in December of 2019, the relationship between the Jewish community and the Labour Party was fundamentally broken. There was effectively no communication between Corbyn’s team and either the Board of Deputies or the Jewish Leadership Council. The JLM had ceased campaigning for their party. Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis had made an extraordinary intervention in electoral politics, asking “What will become of Jews and Judaism in Britain if the Labour Party forms the next government?” Prominent figures in communal life were talking privately of emigration. The veteran Jewish Labour MP Margaret Hodge had gone up to Corbyn and called him a “f…king antisemite” (though Hodge denies using profanity).
Those fears were subdued when the British electorate delivered its verdict on the man who’d associated with Holocaust deniers, laid a wreath on the graves of Palestinian terrorists and spread anti-Israel conspiracy theories on Iranian state television. Labour was handed their worst general election defeat since 1935, with 60 percent of voters saying in a YouGov poll that Corbyn was “untrustworthy,” in part because of the party’s antisemitism crisis. Corbyn announced his intention to resign, triggering a leadership contest that was won the following spring by Starmer, a former public prosecutor. “Antisemitism has been a stain on our party,” he said in his victory speech. “I will tear out this poison by its roots and judge success by the return of Jewish members and those who felt that they could no longer support us.”
The feeling among senior figures in the British Jewish community toward Labour’s new leader remains one of cautious optimism. There was a certain amount of suspicion about him in the beginning since Starmer had campaigned for a Labour government in 2019, the successful consequence of which would have been Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn. Starmer has thus had to win their trust.
Launching his leadership bid in January 2020, he said: “We should have done more on antisemitism. If you are antisemitic, you shouldn’t be in the Labour Party.” Starmer signed up to the Board’s Ten Pledges for tackling antisemitism, which included the adoption of the full IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, something Labour refused to do under Corbyn. “At the next election, I do not want a single member or activist to knock on a door and be told that a member of the public is not voting Labour because of antisemitism,” said Starmer.
His first major test as leader came in October 2020, when the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published the findings of its investigation into Labour’s antisemitism crisis. The EHRC’s damning report “identified serious failings in leadership and an inadequate process for handling antisemitism complaints” as well as “unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination for which the Labour Party is responsible.” Their analysis found “a culture within the Party which, at best, did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it.”
Starmer accepted the report’s findings in full and pledged to implement all its recommendations, arguing Labour had “failed Jewish people.” But Corbyn—once more a backbench MP—took to Facebook to defend himself. “One antisemite is one too many,” he wrote, “but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media.” For refusing to apologize and denying the scale of the antisemitism crisis, Starmer suspended Corbyn from the Parliamentary Labour Party. Two years later, Corbyn remains an independent MP, and senior party sources recently told the Guardian: “Jeremy Corbyn is never getting back in.”
For British Jewish organizations, Labour’s current direction is a positive one. Starmer is seen as sincere, and once again, the party is working with them to tackle antisemitism, ensure British Jews feel included and welcome, and to understand communal concerns on a number of issues above and beyond antisemitism. The party has stepped up antisemitism awareness training for its members, of which the JLM is the sole provider, which was not the case under Corbyn. High-profile Corbyn supporters have left Labour of their own volition, while Starmer has also proscribed a number of groups such as Labour Against the Witchhunt who have denied Labour’s antisemitism crisis.
JLM chair Mike Katz says that there is a “night and day” difference between the way his organization has been treated under Starmer’s leadership versus Corbyn’s. “As opposed to being sidelined, we have been central to all the discussions around the Labour Party’s reform program. [Starmer] has listened to us in talking about how best to tackle antisemitism in the party: both the institutional change that was needed but also the cultural change.” On Starmer’s part, Katz sees “a will and determination to acknowledge there’s a problem, to deal with it, and deal equally with those who downplay and deny the scale of the problem.”
After Ellman’s return and the party passed rule changes reforming the disciplinary process, Starmer boldly declared Labour had “closed the door on a shameful chapter in our history.” For all the encouraging signs, Langleben, who himself returned to the party 18 months ago, thinks it’s too early” to say that, a sentiment with which other British Jewish leaders would very much agree. “All you have to do is look at the complaints figures,” which show that 72 percent of recent internal disciplinary cases were related to antisemitism. It is “still the dominant issue internally in the Labour Party,” Langleben concludes. Starmer has to continue the work of tackling antisemitism and changing the party’s culture while, at the same time, showing British Jewish voters that Labour is a party they can trust again. The Corbyn period was an extremely painful and bitter one and the healing process will be long.
Top Image: 2019 General Election Campaign Launch October 31, 2019 (Credit: Wikimedia / CC0 1.0)