Although nobody in the Labour Party wants to admit it, this election will be the first firm reminder that Britain’s Jewish voters may be about to desert the party that, on the whole, has been their traditional home since before the Second World War. Of course, there have always been Conservative Jews just as there will be Socialist Jews in Corbyn’s new party, but it is clear that his pro-Palestine stance has already alienated much of Anglo-Jewry, and will probably continue to do so.
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When Sir Mick Davis, Chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), told the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee in July last year that, “if you attack Zionism, you attack the very fundamentals of how the Jews believe in themselves,” there was nothing particularly wrong or unusual about his claim. “Zionism is,” after all, “so totally identified with how the Jew thinks of himself, and is so associated with the right of the Jewish people to have their own country and to have self-determination within that country.” Fair enough, but it must also be said that while British Jews identify with Israel, British Muslims identify with Palestine and British Christians identify with Christians persecuted across the Middle East; so too do socialists identify with their political bedfellows around the world, and communists likewise, and so on.
To Davis’s statement, though, we must add a disclaimer that not all British Jews think his way. Groups like the JLC are notorious for imposing their own staunchly pro-Israel stance on other British Jews. A liberal Jewish friend of mine from Manchester, who is involved heavily with his local community, described the organisation to me recently as “thought police”; the JLC has, he claimed, stamped out any public dissent about support for Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The statistics suggest that my friend is right, but with one caveat – casting doubt on the efficacy of JLC “thought policing.” Between 2010 and 2015, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and IPSOS Mori found that the number of self-described “Zionist” Jews appeared to have fallen from 72 per cent to about 59 per cent of Britain’s Jewish community.
Davis — who is also known as “Mick the Miner” — is also far from impartial. Aside from his ore-based (but troubled) business empire, he is also the Conservative Party Treasurer, a party which was sceptical about Israel when it was founded in 1948 and continued to be so inclined until Margaret Thatcher became the first serving British Prime Minister to visit Israel in 1983; she was the MP for the old constituency of Finchley in north London, which had a sizeable Jewish electorate. Thatcher left her indelible mark on the party, particularly her sycophantic brand of Atlanticism which pushed the Conservatives away from their natural allies in the US Democrats, and more towards the crass Republicans, whose overt displays of patriotism, faith and free market extremism were antithetical to traditional, countryside Conservatism.
The famous Reagan-Thatcher friendship came at a time when the US Republicans had been infiltrated by neoconservatives, previously allied to the Democrats. It was these neoconservatives — many of whom were the children and grandchildren of Jewish refugees who fled from Bolshevik and Nazi terror — who convinced the Republicans to stop being anti-Semitic and start being pro-Israel. This phenomenon percolated across the pond to London, and soon the Conservatives — whose views about Jews were generally anti-Semitic — went one step further; Israel joined Saudi Arabia at the centre of their Middle East foreign policy.
British Jews were rightly sceptical and less than convinced that the Conservative Party was their natural political home, given its general reputation for racism. Major Jewish financiers —working class entrepreneurs such as Sir Emmanuel Kaye, Sir Trevor Chinn and Lord Michael Levy — all backed former Labour Party leader Tony Blair. Combined with his own personal support for the Zionist state, in turn he kept his party on the pro-Israel course.
Twenty years after Blair took office as Prime Minister in an electoral landslide, the Labour Party is now left with a conundrum. The antithesis of Blair is now leading the party, in Jeremy Corbyn. Owing to the fantastic talents of largely working class London and Manchester Jews, Labour’s coffers should have continued to swell. Although many of Corbyn’s top team are Jews, his ardent pro-Palestine stance has seen many donations from the better-off sections of the Jewish community heading towards the Conservatives, or being left in bank accounts around the country.
Michael Foster, the entertainment industry agent who may run against Corbyn in the upcoming General Election, already claims that Jewish donors he knows “have not given Labour a penny under Corbyn.” Foster has given £400,000 to the party over the years, but not since Corbyn became leader. He lost eight relations in the Holocaust, and his grandfather was held in Dachau concentration camp. Those who impugn him as a cynical agent of the Israeli state ignore the fact that many Jews in Britain support Israel because of their familial experiences, not because of orders from the embassy in London.
Corbyn is likely to lose this election, for a number of reasons that are not worth elucidating here. He will do better than his naysayers predict, I think, but he will still lose. There is then likely to be yet another Labour leadership contest, and if his successor turns out to be deputy leader Tom Watson, it will be interesting to see who is backing him. Trevor Chinn, for example, confounds Foster’s theory that British Jews have stopped donating to Labour; the entrepreneur and philanthropist is one who has stuck by the party, and is a Watson fan.
Of the £49,500 given to Corbyn’s deputy since he was elected, £25,000 has come from Chinn; a further £4,500 in kind came from Labour Friends of Israel. When Watson was the guest of honour at the most recent Labour Friends of Israel dinner, Chinn was thanked personally during his speech, and described as his “friend and mentor”. The men are said to know each other reasonably well, but these donations are the first that Chinn has ever made to Watson’s various political activities.
Chinn’s relationship with New Labour dates back to the Blair years; he was amongst those whom Lord Levy, introduced to Blair by an Israeli diplomat, convinced to fund the young MP’s initial pitch for the leadership role. Read the speech and you’ll see that Levy was also thanked by Watson for his support. Both men are prominent supporters of Israel.
This may seem like something lifted from a conspiracy theory; it isn’t. This is merely how politics works; a confluence of personal beliefs, commercial interests, geopolitical concerns and money, with foreign countries involved on occasion. It is one of the reasons why Britain’s trade unions have enjoyed political influence for so long even though their “collective bargaining” is irrelevant in most of today’s workplaces, and why the City is so under-regulated. It is also why the Saudis, Emiratis, Bahrainis, Palestinians and many other foreign states try to garner the same amount of influence at Westminster.
Furthermore, we should all understand why Jewish support for Israel is not discussed in the mainstream media in Britain; to do so would border on the kind of anti-Semitism in the thirties that led ultimately to the Holocaust, and then Israel being founded. Nevertheless, as Corbyn is about to find out, British Jews play an important and influential role in public life, and the views of their leadership organisations matter, particularly when it comes to Israel. When Corbyn loses the election — and probably his position as Labour leader — at least part of the reason will be his pro-Palestine stance. His support for the Palestinians may well prove to be very costly, for him and his party.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.