On Monday night at JW3, the Jewish Cultural Centre in North West London, Labour Leadership candidates pitched their vision to a part of the electorate that largely abandoned it in May. Not a group usually found to believe in second comings, the Jewish community was always going to be a tough gig for the leadership hopefuls trying to win back their votes. Tickets for this event had sold out in less than four hours (One Direction eat your heart out), and the desire to have grievances heard was evident from the very start.
For those concerned with Labour’s recent electoral (mis)fortunes, its dire performance in North West London was particularly striking. Hendon, Harrow East, Finchley and Golders Green – all seats with significant Jewish populations – bucked the London-wide trend and voted Conservative at the general election. Cited reasons range from the Party’s position on Israel, its inadequate response to a surge in antisemitism over the past year, and a lack of support for the former leader. Candidates were expected to deal with these issues in turn, and a tough 45-minute opening debate on Israel made sure there was little room for avoidance or obfuscation.
The questions submitted on Israel were so numerous that Jonathan Freedland, chair of proceedings, had to composite them in advance. It also became clear that questions would demand answers from Jeremy Corbyn. Fresh from his exchange on Channel 4 News, the audience was keen for clarity on his use of the word ‘friends’ in relation to Hamas. Further, he was questioned on his role with the Stop the War Coalition and whether he supported Al-Quds day, described by CST representatives as a ‘celebration of hatred’. It would be fair to say his answers did little to allay the concerns of an audience who place as much importance on the company politicians keep, as the intentions they may innocently state. Candidates too expressed their distaste for certain ‘friends’ being invited to the Westminster Terrace, with Burnham suggesting he would sanction Members for doing so should he be elected as Leader.
Despite imparting the commonly accepted platitudes urging “honest dialogue” and “hard conversations” in resolving the Middle East conflict, Corbyn’s night will be remembered for his claim that the Balfour Declaration of 1917 was essentially pushed through by Jewish Cabinet members. The audible gasp from community leaders spoke volumes. It is for Jeremy Corbyn alone to explain why he thinks Jewish politicians of the day were able to leverage undue influence over their contemporaries in deciding this country’s foreign policy. I will not strive to explain this historically pernicious sentiment in this piece, nor anywhere else for that matter.
But this was not a one-man show. There was huge intrigue surrounding candidates’ views on a range of issues and the loudest cheer of the night came when an audience member dared to suggest asking a question on “something other than Israel”. The matter of child-benefits being limited to two children was a particular community focus and Cooper, Burnham and Corbyn were relatively united in opposition to the cap. Kendall stuck to her campaigning mantra i.e. the need to restore economic credibility, a view that received a mixed reception from those present. The Jewish community in this regard broadly reflects the position of the public at large in its belief that social progression can come both from government support, but also independent endeavour.
That said, there were divergent views on candidates’ performances following the event. In terms of “repairing the relationship”, it was suggested that Yvette Cooper carried herself most naturally, yet there was an evident fondness for Liz Kendall who seems a natural friend to a community that has felt so antagonized in the past year. Andy Burnham was acknowledged “for saying the right things”, with several big promises, including a visit to Israel surely to be remembered if he is elected. Corbyn’s foreign policy was always going to be a point of contention, but to his credit, many were taken by his calm demeanour when making his calls for domestic social justice.
Ultimately, there is still much work to be done if Labour is to win back the degree of support it saw from the Jewish community throughout the 1990s. Monday night was never going to provide closure on the residual issues from the Miliband era, but the display at JW3 was an important start. Whilst we do not vote as a homogenous block, the causes for angst were clear and whoever wins in September will have a real challenge in persuading Jewish citizens not to burn the fragile bridges that remain.
Jay Stoll works at the Jewish Leadership Council. He writes in a personal capacity.