Antisemitism is an essential issue in the Labour leadership race – but it shouldn’t be the only one

Rivkah Brown
Labour leadership candidates (left to right) Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Emily Thornberry attend the first televised debate: Getty

Last night, 700 Jewish Labour supporters – and, oddly, Matthew d’Ancona, who is neither of those things – descended on the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood for the Jewish Labour Movement’s leadership hustings. Milling about the chamber were physical reminders of why so many of us had turned out: Margaret Hodge, once suspended for calling Corbyn an antisemite; Ruth Smeeth, who famously left the Chakrabarti report launch in tears; the reluctant stars of Panorama’s “Is Labour antisemitic?”. In the wake of an election more focused on our community than any in British history, the mood was febrile, the drama guaranteed.

Any hopes that the evening would be about more than just antisemitism were swiftly dashed. After half an hour’s requisite schmoozing, JLM chair Mike Katz leapt on to the altar, launching into a furious and infuriating rant against his party. To thunderous applause and four empty chairs (the candidates, it seemed, were running a little late), he proclaimed Labour’s mass expulsion of alleged antisemites this week was “too little, too late”; the EHRC investigation “an eternal stain on the party’s reputation”.

“Put simply,” Katz declared, with all the red-faced fervour of a megachurch preacher, “it’s make-or-break time for the Jewish community.”

It was unclear how consciously Katz was repeating Lisa Nandy, who on Sunday outlined to the Guardian and Jewish Chronicle her plan to tackle antisemitism: “This,” she said, “is make-or-break time for a lot of people.”

Nandy started her campaign as the Jewish favourite by default, having the greatest distance from Corbyn. Her plan bolstered this pole position; however, her performance last night cemented it. Her voice trembling, Nandy demonstrated an intelligent understanding of antisemitism’s workings, and an empathic response to its effects. She was rewarded with whoops and cheers then, and again today, with JLM’s nomination.

Meanwhile, Rebecca Long-Bailey looked pre-emptively pained. Of course, the Salford and Eccles MP was unlikely to emerge unscathed from the evening. Yet she didn’t do herself any favours, appearing woefully unprepared for Robert Peston’s cross-examination.

“What have you done,” the chair demanded of all four candidates, “to try and eliminate the scourge of antisemitism?”

A smug Starmer had done his homework, reeling off names and dates that just about satisfied the crowd. Yet Long-Bailey, despite having done just as much or as little as her rivals, and despite having one of Labour’s most prominent Jewish members managing her campaign, seemed stumped. The best she could muster was something to the effect of “I’ve spoken out on a number of occasions, in the shadow cabinet”, and “in private, with colleagues”. The crowd was on the verge of booing. I couldn’t look.

Peston had duly warned the audience that the lion’s share of the evening would be eaten up by the first of four parts (antisemitism, extremism, social care and Israel) – and perhaps that was right. Perhaps my community needed an opportunity to vent five years’ worth of anger. Yet the narrowness of the debate became a testament to the insularity of Jewish political discourse. A question about populism elicited a promising consideration from Emily Thornberry of the “us versus them” rhetoric deployed by right-wing nationalists. Yet neither she nor any other candidate took the opportunity to condemn the way in which the Conservatives divide and rule Muslims, Jews and other minorities by whipping up mutual suspicion, or to reassert the fact that an attack on one is an attack on us all. Only once during the debate was the swear word “solidarity” spoken.

By far the worst was yet to come, however.

With all of five minutes left for the final two sections, Peston promised that one question would be easy to answer, the other hard. Yet between “How do we fix our social care system?” and “Are you a Zionist?”, it was unclear which was which. Sensing a snafu opportunity, Thornberry grabbed the mic to make plain that “I believe in a state of Israel, therefore I’m a Zionist.” Nandy quickly concurred – a smart move, given her chairwomanship of Labour Friends of Palestine. Yet the room broke into disgruntled muttering when Keir Starmer refused to play ball, floating the entirely reasonable idea that, while he fully supported those who were Zionists (indeed, he had extended family in Israel), he stopped short of describing himself as such. Tumbleweed. This was a purity test, and Starmer had failed it.

As a non-Zionist Jew, it was galling to see the JLM present Zionism as a hoop through which candidates were forced to jump. Even more shameful was it to see how little attention the audience paid when candidates pivoted from Israel to core Labour issues: poverty, inequality, the health crisis. Their collective disinterest was symptomatic of a communal inward turn, the same that led us to view Boris Johnson – a man who endangers all minorities, Jews included – as the lesser of two evils; Lisa Nandy – despite her marked lack of political convictions – as the lesser of four. Nandy played to this, telling the audience what they wanted to hear: that antisemitism is an exceptional oppression. Yet unless we view Jew-hatred as contiguous with all others, we will never defeat it. In this sense, Nandy’s nomination is a backwards step.

Two hours in, things were increasingly resembling a Shabbat service: the congregation was hot, bored and hungry. Rabbi Peston decided it was time to liven things up. “I only know one joke,” he offered, “and I always think of it when we’re talking about the Labour Party.” It goes like this: it’s Moishe’s funeral, and the rabbi has a problem – he can’t find anyone to speak. “Come on,” he pleads with the mourners, “surely someone has something nice to say about Moishe.” An awkward silence ensues, broken by a shout from the back: “His brother was worse!”

The audience erupted into laughter; I wasn’t entirely sure why.

To me, Peston’s joke felt eerily apt. I’d spent the past two hours as the heckler in this scenario, the sole mourner at the funeral of Jeremy, a man who, though I had few kind words for him, I had always felt was better than his brother Boris. Unlike the heckler, however, I couldn’t bring myself to say so in synagogue.

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