My speech at the public launch of Jewish Voice For Labour, at a fringe meeting of the Labour Conference 2017, attended by more than 200 people.
A few weeks ago I was in Poland. My fifth visit to a country that many describe simply as the biggest Jewish graveyard. Three million of its 3.3m pre-war Jewish population were exterminated by the Nazis. Today it has a very right wing government and active far-right groups. You see antisemitic graffiti on some walls.
And yet in 15 Polish cities Jewish communities are reviving and growing. In Kazimierz, Krakow’s old Jewish quarter, there are several very old synagogues. Two function as synagogues; others house exhibitions, bookshops, cultural initiatives. Their doors are open. There is no grafitti on them. Yet none of them are bristling with CCTV, high fences, or hyped-up, walkie-talkie bearing Israeli guards.
A Jewish community centre founded in Krakow in 2009, offers cultural activities that appeal across the Jewish spectrum from secular to religious. It positively welcomes visitors. Many non-Jews come to events there. It also hosts Roma Gypsy community meetings and refugee support groups.
In Warsaw I revisited the remarkable Polin Museum which opened in 2013. It depicts
1,000 years of Polish Jewish history and culture – golden ages and times of danger and crisis. One display depicts the range of ideologies competing for support among Jews at the turn of the 20th century: assimilationism, cultural autonomy, religious orthodoxy, integration, territorialists seeking a national home, somewhere; Zionists seeking one too, but only in Palestine, and then, the movement which towards the end of the 1930s commanded the largest political support among Polish Jews, Bundism. The Bund rejected God and nationalism; Their slogan in Yiddish was “Dortn vu mir lebn – dort is unzer land” – “Where we live, that is our country”. The Bund promoted socialism, multiculturalism, secularism, and internationalism. For them, the liberation of Jews was tied to the liberation of all who are oppressed, exploited, and discriminated against, and all who fight for equality, human rights and social justice. They physically defended religious Jews attacked by antisemites but supported free thought and enlightenment.
Whichever of those ideological paths you would have chosen, just contrast that vibrant, open-minded, political debate then, with Jewish life in Britain today, where our self-proclaimed spokespersons – the Board of Deputies, the Chief Rabbi, the Israeli Embassy, the Jewish Chronicle – try to constrain us within a narrow range of conservative orthodoxies and imperatives, centered on Zionism and religion, and even Zionism as religion, as they label critics “self-hating Jews”.
How can we rebuild open-minded debate in the Jewish community today? How can we strengthen left-wing and liberatory ideas in a community taught to be fearful and paranoid? How can we rebuild Jewish support for Labour, which took a battering during what was mostly a manufactured smear campaign about antisemitism and the Labour Party, a campaign that targeted the Labour left, and Jeremy Corbyn in particular, despite Corbyn’s total commitment to human rights, and his lifelong opposition to all racism and discrimination?.
Of course, we are far from the times when solidly labour- supporting working class Jews formed the bulk of our community, but there are still some struggling working class Jews, unemployed Jews, Jewish single parents just getting by, pensioners whose living standards are falling. Many Jews work in the underfunded and threatened public sector as teachers, college lecturers, social workers, health workers, community workers. There are Jewish cab drivers who have been undercut by Uber’s disgraceful work practices, small shopkeepers squeezed by bigger enterprises, and Jews who suffer racist and fascist abuse, threats and violence…
All of those Jews would benefit from a Labour government that has a manifesto for social justice and is serious about tackling racist and fascist threats. Should their needs and interests be sacrificed, because our more comfortable so-called “community leaders” are discomfited by critical words from the Left about Israeli policy, Israeli military actions, the settlers, the occupation? Should the real needs and interests of diaspora Jews be sacrificed because they conflict with the priorities of Israel’s leaders who insist that they put Israel at the centre of Jewish life, and make defence of Israel their biggest political priority? Should we cut ourselves off from allies in other ethnic minorities, because Jewish leaders don’t like what they say, or might think about Israel?
These questions have been raised sharply for American Jews in recent months. They now have a president, who combines pro-Zionism with racism towards Mexicans, Muslims, Blacks and refugees, and has an open door for fascists and antisemites. Even some centre-right Jewish bodies there have become alarmed. Jews on the left have been active in the protest movements and very supportive of Black Lives Matter and refugee support campaigns, but right wing Zionists and some orthodox Jewish religious bodies have embraced Donald Trump.
Trump’s election adverts included a picture of Hilary Clinton in front of stacked up dollar bills, with the words “Most corrupt politician ever” encased in a Star of David. Another, which promised to rescue America from powerful global interests, fingered three wealthy Jews. Trump’s appointee Steve Bannon, said he didn’t want his daughters to go to school with Jews. Yet the day Donald Trump took office, our Board of Deputies President here, Jonathan Arkush, was one of the first to congratulate him.
A bit of personal biography to amplify these points. I became politically active in the mid-1970s aged 16. I was in a kibbutz-oriented Zionist youth group that encouraged us to see our future in Israel. But I also started attending anti-fascist demonstrations. The National Front, led by Nazi antisemites, was growing and marching through immigrant areas. In 1978 a huge anti-fascist initiative was launched – the Anti-Nazi League. The impetus was from the left. Its sponsors and supporters encompassed trade union leaders, Labour MPs, footballers, musicians, actors, academics, and grassroots activists, and included several Jewish names. Alongside it, a brilliant campaign called Rock Against Racism, attracted youth from all communities, including young Jews.
In April 1978, 80,000 people marched from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in the East End for the first Rock Against Racism Carnival. I was already active in the Jewish Socialists’ Group by then. As we left Trafalgar Square, members of left wing Zionist groups, Habonim and Mapam, marched near us.
But we were flouting the wishes of the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Chronicle, who used all their energies to persuade Jews not to join with other minorities and the labour movement against the fascists because they might mix with people they disagree with over Israel.
I remember Jewish Socialists’ Group founder, Aubrey Lewis, a veteran anti-fascist from Manchester, telling us: “This has actually got nothing to do with Israel or Zionism. The Jewish establishment just want to keep young Jews away from the left.” And I can’t help thinking that, alongside a desire to shield Netanyahu’s government from criticism, some very similar plain anti-left motives have been at play in the last couple of years, as Jewish community spokespeople have jumped on the anti-Corbyn bandwagon.
Take for example Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who does not actually represent secular, Reform, Liberal or ultra-orthodox Jews, though the media treat him as if he does.
How many Jews here voted for him?
Last year, when the Tories ran a filthy Islamophobic campaign against Sadiq Khan for London Mayor, anti-racist activists from all communities were livid. The day before that election, Chief Rabbi Mirvis was handed a front page slot in the Daily Telegraph. He wrote not a single word about that racist Tory campaign. How would Muslim communities receive that? I don’t think he cared. Instead, he devoted his article to a full-on attack on Labour, smearing them as antisemites, claiming ridiculously that Zionism was an essential part of Judaism. He obviously has not been to the Polin Museum. He described anti-Zionists and, effectively, all critics of Israel, all Palestinians, as antisemites. But the point of his intervention was not just to defend Israel – it was to strengthen a political alignment of the Jewish community with the Tories.
So who can challenge this? Left wing Jews surely. Up until now, though, the sole representative of Jews within the Labour Party has been the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM). They turned out in force on the march and rally marking the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street last year, but I haven’t seen them on any other significant anti-racist or anti-fascist protest for years, decades even. What prevents them participating is their fear of standing alongside those with less generous views about Israeli policy and Zionism. The JLM cannot lead that challenge, but perhaps a broader, more inclusive, more open-minded group – not fixated on defending Israel – can do so. I hope that is what Jewish Voice for Labour is starting to build.
To return momentarily to the 1970s and early 1980s: two other significant events that cemented my personal rejection of Zionism and highlighted its negative effect on diaspora Jewish communities.
In 1976 I joined the Anti-Apartheid movement. I protested outside South Africa House, gave out leaflets, boycotted… The idea of a country passing specific laws to make the majority of its inhabitants second and third class citizens, was an outrage. South Africa’s apartheid regime had very few friends. But the Israeli government was one… And the Israeli politician most deeply involved in collaborating with South Africa was not even a far right fanatic like Netanyahu, Sharon, or Begin, but Shimon Peres of the Israeli Labour Party.
Apartheid was defeated in South Africa. Many white ANC activists who were part of the Black-led struggle for liberation, were Jewish communists and socialists, descended from Bundists. I don’t think they thought much of Shimon Peres. Several of those Jewish ANC veterans have since condemned the apartheid-style policies of the Israeli government today as very similar to what they were fighting against.
In the late 1970s, Israel was a major arms supplier to another despicable right wing regime – the junta in Argentina, where 30,000 people “disappeared” between 1976 and 1983. Jews comprised 1% of the Argentine population: they made up more than 12% of those that disappeared. So were those arms to defend Jews from the junta or defend the junta from the Jews? You know the answer.
These are very stark cases, where Israeli policies are diametrically opposed to the interests of diaspora Jews. Most cases are less extreme but if we allow ourselves, as Jews, to examine the relationship between the Israel and the diaspora, we will then be more able to rebuild the association of Jews with progressive politics, human rights, and anti-racism. And our community will also speak out more against the daily human rights abuses committed by Israeli authorities against Palestinians – and support a growing number of young Israelis who are doing so too.
So, in Jewish Voice for Labour, we are about reviving Jewish radical thought and action today. But people don’t abandon previously held positions overnight, especially those so tied up with their identity and sense of self. What helped me and others in the Jewish Socialists’ Group, was having a very positive attitude to Jewish culture, being proud of our progressive Jewish identities and heritage and keen to rediscover and renew radical Jewish culture, I hope Jewish Voice for Labour will reflect that too.
My talk started in Poland. I want to finish with the words of two outstanding Polish Jewish socialists from rival political groups in the 1930s. One was in the Polish Communist party – albeit its left opposition. The other was in the Tsukunft, the Bund’s youth organization. But there is a symmetry to their philosophy that still applies to this day.
The first is Isaac Deutscher who died in London in 1967: He asked what makes a Jew. He answered: “Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am an internationalist. In neither sense am I, therefore, a Jew. I am however, a Jew by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated.”
The second is Marek Edelman The last surviving commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, whom I met briefly in Warsaw in 1997. He died in Poland in 2009. This hero was persona non grata in Israel for remaining an anti-Zionist, and for saying about that incredible Uprising: “We fought for dignity and freedom. Not for a territory, nor for a national identity”. But the very most important thing he said was: “To be a Jew means always being with the oppressed, never with the oppressors.” Never with the oppressors.