I left Labour over anti-Semitism. I'm rejoining, but with a heavy heart

The battle against anti-Semitism within the party is not over, but it now feels like one that can be fought from inside, writes Jamie Susskind.

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In 2018, after more than a decade as an active member, I resigned my membership of the Labour Party. I did so because, like a majority of British Jews, I believed it had become institutionally anti-Semitic.

Two years later, Labour still has a problem. Anti-Jewish ideas lurk in the party and parts of the wider left. In July 2020, Labour was forced to surrender control of Brighton and Hove City Council after two of its elected councillors resigned from the party and a third was suspended over allegations related to anti-Semitism. (Each continues to sit for their ward as an independent councillor.)

Nonetheless, I have decided to rejoin the party. Why? Not because Labour’s problems are solved, but because it now feels possible to help tackle those problems from the inside.

In his 1970 book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, the economist Albert Hirschman wrote that members of a troubled institution have two options. The first he called “voice”: expressing dissatisfaction internally and effecting change from within. The second he called “exit”: leaving the organisation in the hope that the leadership is shaken into action.

In the past few years, many Jewish members were torn between “voice” and “exit”. For me, what ultimately led to “exit” was the realisation that the “voice” I thought I had was an illusion. Those who mattered weren’t listening.

“Exit”, by contrast, had three points in its favour.

First, if enough Jewish (and non-Jewish) members left the party, then it would signal to the wider world just how bad the situation had become, perhaps making it untenable.

The second point was moral: without a meaningful “voice” in the internal fight, it felt wrong to pay dues to an institution that was causing Jews such pain.

Finally, there was the tug of solidarity. I wanted to be with my fellow Jews, Labour or not, who were genuinely frightened at what was happening.

Those grim days are now in the past. To the relief of the Jewish community, the new leader has made an encouraging start. Slurs which would have found safe harbour in the previous regime are no longer permitted, it seems. The dismissal of Rebecca Long-Bailey, the settlement of the Panorama litigation, and Keir Starmer’s warm overtures to the Jewish community are all signals that the party is changing course. Many hope that the ECHR report into Labour anti-Semitism, a draft of which sits on Starmer’s desk, will accelerate the process of change when it is published later this year.

Nonetheless, for Jews in self-imposed exile from Labour, the decision to return is not straightforward.

To begin with, there is still anti-Semitism in Labour’s ranks. Many Jews will understandably want nothing to do with it.

A second concern is that if Jews return to Labour, it might give the impression that Labour’s anti-Semitism problems are in the past, whereas the fight is far from over. Complacency would be as dangerous as complicity.

Third, rejoiners will not want to look disloyal to the politicians – Jewish and not – who lost their political careers while sticking up for the Jewish community.

The final factor – and it must be put squarely – is emotional resistance. Labour friends need to understand that feelings of hurt and confusion will linger in the Jewish community long after Labour has cleaned up its act. The British Jewish community is fierce, loyal, and proud. I suspect many left-leaning Jews will never vote Labour again. That is their right (but Labour should never stop trying to win them back anyway).

It was wrong to suggest, as some did in the last few years, that Jews on the left had a duty to stick with Labour to reform it from within. The difference now is that Jews should no longer feel compelled to stay away.

For my part, I have decided to rejoin for the same reasons I signed up in the first place. As I wrote to the General Secretary when I resigned:

“My most deeply held political values are those I learned at the Shabbat table: the urgency of social justice, the importance of family and community, the power of education. I was taught that our duty as Jews was to stand up for those who suffer; and that there is no higher cause than tikkun olam – to heal the world...Being Jewish, being British, and fighting for social justice are therefore all wrapped up together in my identity.”

I am returning to Labour with a harder heart than when I left it – but nonetheless with optimism and hope, and even some excitement. I know that Labour is still home to some of the best people in politics. Many of them are my friends. 

There is a long history of Jewish activists and thinkers on the left. That proud tradition will never be erased – not by Twitter conspiracy theorists, not by those who think all Jewish dissent is closet Toryism, and not by those who have spent years building a hostile environment for Jews in left-wing spaces where they should have felt at home.

The country is reeling. The government is not equal to the times. Britain needs a tough Labour opposition and, before too long, a reforming Labour government. My hope is that Jews will refuse to be kept away for any longer than necessary, and I want to help make Labour their natural home again. To do so would be true to the oldest traditions of my party and my Jewish heritage.

Jamie Susskind is a barrister and author of Future Politics: Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech.

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