In 1939 my grandparents arrived in Britain as refugees. Their experiences via the Kindertransport and as Holocaust refugees shaped their world-view and made them life-long Labour supporters. It was their early influence which shaped my political outlook. In 1999, as a newly ‘out’ nineteen-year-old, it was obvious that there was only one party which was successfully fighting for LGBT+ rights. So, as a double minority, and someone who was passionate about the causes of the left, including anti-racism, free education and LGBT equality, I had found my political home. I left university as a proud and passionate Labour supporter with huge respect for the vital work of trade unions.
Throughout my training to become a rabbi I was drawn to the causes of social justice and anti-racism activism. As a rabbi, I try to keep partisan politics out of the pulpit, not least because my congregants in Marble Arch represent the full spectrum of political views. Yet what I do as a private citizen within my home constituency is my own business. Nothing would have given my late grandfather more pride than to have known that, in 2015, his grandson was asked to propose the nomination for Andrew Dismore as the local Labour candidate for the Hendon constituency. This was precisely because of Andrew Dismore’s outstanding record on combatting antisemitism, not least his involvement with setting up Holocaust Memorial Day.
How did things go so wrong? Between 2015 and 2017 I watched as the Labour party I had grown to love shifted to the left. That should have been good news because I could not support all the policies of New Labour, not least their failure to renationalise public services. For that reason, I had given Ed Miliband all three of my votes to become Labour leader in the hope that his association with the left-leaning trade unions would be a new chapter for Labour. And yet, last year, as I watched Theresa May call a snap general election, I knew what I had to do. Sadly, the time had come to make a choice - and I did. I resigned from Labour. Recognising that I could not bring myself to vote for a party with Jeremy Corbyn at the helm, it was hypocritical to remain a card-carrying member. Yet, at the time, Corbyn was the least of it – for I was far more worried about the increasingly vocal circle of people around him, not to mention his association with a long list of anti-Jewish ‘comrades’ around the world.
I had waited six months longer than I should have, hoping for things to change. Leaving Labour meant leaving my natural political home. Nevertheless, there had been too many incidents of antisemitism in Labour/Momentum and enough was enough. A rabbi who, by association, tolerates antisemitism, is a rabbi who doesn’t want to be reminded of the lessons of history. So, I left Labour, albeit quietly, with a resignation email explaining my reasons. The response I received was polite but meaningless. There are those in the Jewish community who have stayed on to fight the brave fight, I admire their courage and tenacity. For me, it was the end of the road.
A year ago, I was worried about Jeremy Corbyn’s blindspots. I didn’t think that he was an anti-Semite but was convinced that all his years of anti-Zionist activism had made him tone-deaf to Jewish concerns. Lots of good people whom I respect have made excuses for Jeremy Corbyn, claiming that he has been the victim of a witch hunt by his detractors. I have tried to see their perspective. And yet, after everything I’ve read and heard, including from Jeremy Corbyn in his attempts to justify his poor choices, I am clear that there are too many examples to continue giving him the benefit of the doubt. He may not be an antisemite, but he has too many friends, supporters and international associates who are.
Since 2017 I, like so many other left-leaning Jews, have been politically homeless. Last week, Len McCluskey’s comments in defence of Jeremy Corbyn were the final straw and now I am not only without a political party, but without a trade union to protect my rights as a faith worker. This is not about making a political point, it is about standing up for the values I was raised to uphold; values which should be at the heart of the organisations I subscribe to. That is why I was one of the 68 rabbis to sign the letter on anti-Semitism, for there can be no denial that antisemitism exists in the Labour party; just spend a few minutes trawling through the angry comments and conspiracy theories being spread by Corbyn supporters on social media. I don’t doubt that by writing this article I am opening myself up to a thorough trolling – but that is the price one pays for being an upstander rather than a bystander.
Looking ahead, I’ve heard too many Jews talking about leaving the UK if Corbyn becomes Prime Minister. Underneath their panic is an age-old Jewish concern, ‘if it happened there, it could happen here’ coupled with the post-Holocaust Jewish anxiety: ‘too few read the writing on the wall before it was too late, will I be too late?’ To be clear, it is not too late, far from it, but my grandparents’ stories are a warning that it could happen here. After all, when the elected leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition makes excuses for his association with Holocaust deniers, blood-libelists, global Jewish conspiracy theorists, antisemites, homophobes and terrorists, who can blame British Jews for feeling insecure?
David Mitchell is a rabbi at the West London Synagogue