Implications of the British Election for Jews and Israel

By December 20, 2019

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 1,377, December 20, 2019

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The British election returned a resounding mandate to the Conservative Party and decimated the antisemitism-wracked Labour Party. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was exposed as unlikeable and incompetent, and as the facilitator of a massive upswing in antisemitism within the party—all of which was rejected by voters. The lesson for the US Democratic Party is that punitive leftism and overt antisemitism are unacceptable, though divisions within the American Jewish community mute that message. For Israel, the lesson is to try to remain as bipartisan as possible, though that won’t be easy.

The resounding victory of the Conservative Party in the British General Election has brought palpable relief to British Jews and advocates of the Atlantic alliance.

Analyses of the results have stressed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s personal responsibility for his party’s near obliteration. A shrill and doctrinaire socialist, Corbyn was both personally unlikeable and an incompetent manager, as well as a notable “friend” to Hamas, Hezbollah, the IRA, and the Soviet Union. Labour under Corbyn and the Momentum faction abandoned the working class to become a creature of the urban middle class, stressing class warfare against the rich, avant-garde “wokeness,” and fantastically unrealistic investment schemes.

In contrast, the outwardly buffoonish Boris Johnson pursued a cunning plan. He systematically marginalized Brexit opponents within his own party, ran a leadership campaign against Theresa May, and chanced a General Election, all in order to bring about Brexit. At the same time he promised an end to fiscal austerity and massive new government spending on social concerns. Other observers have noted that this canny combination of left wing economics and mild nationalism served to rally the working class to the Tories as well as to at least partially short-circuit the far right. Arguably, this represents a viable approach for the Democratic Party.

For Britain’s Jews, the Labour Party’s antisemitism crisis was a paramount issue. The crisis, which began with BDS in Labour groups on university campuses, rapidly embroiled the entire party and its leadership. In the process it revealed a sordid antisemitic subculture among Labour activists and members and within Britain’s left wing and Muslim cultures.

At every turn more evidence was uncovered of Corbyn’s personal antipathy toward Jews and Israel. The situation developed into a very public view into ugly antisemitism, from the abuse thrown at public figures such as Rachel Riley, the documentation of antisemitism from hundreds of Labour Party members, leaks from within the party itself that showed strenuous efforts to cover up antisemitism, and even statements from intellectuals and from dozens of Labour members not to vote for the party.

The response from British Jews was equally unprecedented: Jews and their allies gathered in mass protest, and Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis warned gravely of the existential threat to British Jewish life.

The party’s response to its antisemitism crisis was to dissemble, cover up, and blame the victims.

The greatest lesson of the British experience for American Jews and for Israel is to avoid complacency. Famously reticent British Jews were late to speak out on the perversion of the Labour Party and did so in unity only a few months shy of the December election. Compounding the problem was the fact that in the years prior to the election, Labour-constructed Jewish front groups deliberately misled the Jewish community and Britain as a whole about the party’s antisemitism crisis.

American Jews are far less quiet than their British counterparts, but their sheer political and religious diversity has long been a source of both strength and weakness. Still worse for Jewish unity is widespread communal ignorance and apathy, not least about Israel, and class-based pressures to conform to emergent social attitudes regarding “wokeness.”

As in Britain, American Jewish complacency has been exploited by left wing groups—first by those constructed by the Obama wing of the Democratic Party like J Street, and then, more recently, by far left anti-Zionist groups like IfNotNow, which are funded by wealthy individuals and foundations. Legacy Jewish organizations have proven weak and hesitant about speaking out on the problem of left wing anti-Zionism and antisemitism, following their capitulation to political correctness over Islamic terrorism and the subversive effects of American Islamism as a whole.

Making matters worse, American Jews and others are stymied by a stilted and misleading conception of antisemitism as an exclusively right wing phenomenon. The latest bloody antisemitic violence in Jersey City showed that perpetrators from the left—in that instance members of a bizarre black sect inspired by the Nation of Islam—simply cannot be understood in the prevailing American constructs of racism, in which Jews are “white” and where racism only emanates from “whiteness.” As with continuing violence against “visible” Jews in New York, the denial of the fact that most antisemitic violence emanates from other minorities has blinded too many Jews to the nature of the problem and to its political enablers in the Democratic establishment. Reality has thus deepened divisions in the American Jewish community.

Adding to the problem, a longstanding bias among American Jews against both Christians and Orthodox Jews has created an instinct to unthinkingly adopt positions in opposition to those communities, regardless of broader communal self-interest. An unknown majority of American Jews will automatically support whatever Democratic candidate is nominated, regardless of professed socialism, antipathy toward Israel, or empowering effects on left-wing antisemitism, simply because that candidate is not Trump. The endorsement of Corbyn by prominent “progressive” Democrats, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the continuing rotation of antisemites and BDS supporters on Bernie Sanders’s and Elizabeth Warren’s campaign staffs shows their willingness to class antisemitism as a separate and lesser form of abuse. This is tantamount to its embrace, regardless of Sanders’s Jewish background.

What remains unclear is whether Labour will introspect and change or even has the capacity to do so after its resounding defeat. Corbyn’s refusal to resign as party leader before the election of a successor, and the laying of blame by frustrated Corbynites on the stupidity of the working class, “right wing media” such as the BBC (!), and, of course, the Jews, are obviously bad omens. And while these responses have been met with sharp criticism of the party’s anti-Semitic conduct under Corbyn, especially by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, it remains to be seen to what extent this vile legacy will be eradicated under Labour’s new leadership.

The Democrats’ 2016 loss also sparked a sharp leftward turn and a continuing cycle of investigations and crypto-legal efforts to remove Trump. The polarization greatly exacerbated splits in American society, and introspection and centrism have been absent.

One lesson for the Democrats is that stridently left wing positions that smack of punishment—confiscation, exorbitant taxation, nationalization—even in the name of fairness are unwelcome to a majority of voters. That even Britain, a country with a long socialist history and longstanding nationalized institutions like the National Health Service, rejected Labour is telling.

Democrats might also conclude from the British election result that overt antisemitism is unwelcome. While it remains to be proven with detailed polling, it appears that the self-image and self-respect of a majority of voters rejected association with the crude antisemitism represented by Corbyn and the Momentum faction. In the far more vocally philosemitic US, the lesson for Democrats should be clear: they should expunge antisemites from their ranks. Furthermore, much of the electorate recognizes, even if media and intellectuals cannot, that Trump is a philosemite, however shockingly inarticulate and needy.

At the same time, the bizarre affections of Trump for Jews and Israel, and the excessive embrace between Trump and Netanyahu, have synchronized with the gradual Corbynization of the Democratic Party. Like Labour, their turn away from Israel and Jews is structural, a function of their becoming a party of educated, middle class urbanites, disgruntled minorities, and smaller “woke” demographics. Their embrace of Third Worldism and socialism has alienated the American working class and shows little prospect of tacking back toward centrism, even if the elderly Joe Biden becomes the candidate. But centrism and a unifying national narrative are vital and American Jews should loudly insist on them, as economic and religious liberty are inextricably linked.

For Israel the implications of the British elections are more difficult to discern. British philosemitism has always been present but is easy to understate given the current political situation and the fraught history of Britain’s relationship with the Middle East. American philosemitism is of an entirely different order, being foundational to the republic and its cultural makeup. With Democrats abandoning all aspects of American heritage and Republicans locked into a cloying, ignorant version, the prospects for Israel, and indeed America itself, are uncertain if not grim.

Reestablishing a bipartisan consensus on Israel may not be possible when a vocal faction of the Democratic Party vanguard believes American Jews are wealthy, manipulative “white people” and that their Israeli cousins are violent “settler-colonialists.” Israelis would be wise to refrain from commenting on internal Democratic politics, but they will likely be forced to do so if only to counter the dominance of Palestinian, Islamist, and socialist voices within the party.

Traditional lines of argument about Israel being the only Middle Eastern democracy and a dependable ally in an unstable region are also unlikely to work given that Democrats appear anxious to jettison existing foreign alliances and re-embrace Iran. Nor will appeals to Israel’s liberal society when the inevitable retort is that such claims simply whitewash the “occupation,” which is equated with Israel’s existence.  Republican arguments that Israel is an expression of God’s will only muddy waters and polarize debate further.

As the 2019 elections were for Britain, the 2020 elections will be an inflection point for the US. Israelis, American Jews, and Americans of all religious stripes who are concerned about liberty and the two party system should speak out now to forestall the victory of a Corbynesque faction in a global superpower.

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Alex Joffe is a Shillman-Ingerman Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior non-resident scholar at the BESA Center.

Dr. Alex Joffe
Dr. Alex Joffe

Alex Joffe (Ph.D. University of Arizona). Specializes in ancient and modern Middle Eastern studies, American foreign policy, and American cultural politics.