The Jewish Labour Movement’s roots within the Labour Party are deep. JLM has been affiliated to the Labour Party since 1920. It has represented Jews within the party, and organised within the Jewish community to support Labour, for 99 years. But that dual task seems almost impossible today.
As a migrant community at the turn of the last century, British Jews escaped pogroms and persecution in the pale of the settlement in Russia and Eastern Europe to seek out better lives in the UK. Settling in urban centres, many were impoverished and lacked English. The British ruling class responded by introducing immigration controls for the first time with the 1905 Aliens Act, which restricted further Jewish migration.
JLM’s tradition emerged from the debates of early Jewish Marxist and Labour thinkers like Ber Borachov and AD Gordon. It recognised the practical need for Jews to organise and liberate themselves from thousands of years of persecution and anti-Semitism. The central agreement of the JLM was that only through organised collective action could Jews work to end the conditions of oppression they faced.
The struggle for migration, integration and representation within Britain was hard fought within society, but also within the Labour movement.
Poale Zion, as the movement of Marxist Jewish workers was once called, emerged in the UK from the Jewish trade unions, formed by tailors and cabinet makers in Leeds and Manchester after they were excluded from organising within the general trades unions of their day. The movement was critical for securing a commitment to secure a Jewish national home as part of the Labour Party’s war aims memorandum of 1917, three months before the Balfour Declaration.
In the 1930s, when the Labour government was restricting migration to Mandatory Palestine and anti-Semitism was sweeping across mainland Europe, Poale Zion negotiated with the Transport and General Workers Union in a Whitechapel by-election to cement a relationship between Britain’s Jewish community and the Labour Party that has remained largely strong until today.
Classic and contemporary anti-Semitism is pernicious in its contortion of history. Rather than recognise the Jewish experience of oppression, anti-Semitism casts Jews as powerful and manipulative agents. Jews in Britain, through their centuries-old affiliation to the Labour party, had allies that stood in solidarity against a rising tide of Anti-semitism in Nazi Germany and against Oswald’s fascists in the UK, understanding the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a minority community keen to secure its safety and security.
Today, the alliance between Jews and the Labour Party teeters on the brink. Instead of searching for compelling answers to contemporary global challenges, the Party speaks of “the many” against “the few”, framing its concerns with a lazy heuristic in which an unspecified “few” can adopt whatever form the audience wishes to ascribe.
So when at CLP meetings, in Labour forums, and on national television, those who profess to espouse Labour values speak of “Rothschild bankers,” “Zionist threats to world peace” and “global Jewish power,” you would otherwise forgive Jews for sounding alarm and asking for action.
But the Labour Party has instead been gripped by a culture of anti-Semitism, in which the most reprehensible behaviour is obfuscated under a banner of excuses, and those with personal and political power fail to address this crisis. Much is made of changes to process and procedure, rather than exposing left anti-Semitism from the ranks of the Party with the militant resolve it requires.
The resignation of Luciana Berger MP, JLM’s Parliamentary Chair, is a watershed moment for many Jewish Party members. It brings into sharp contrast the dilemmas they face daily.
Do they stay and fight against the corrosive anti-Semitism that has gripped the Party? Or do they cut their ties and walk away from a Party that once was the vehicle through which they took collective action to change the world? Luciana has made her choice. So must JLM.
JLM’s critics would cast it both as an anathema to the Labour tradition and unrepresentative of the broader Jewish community. The reality is that we are deeply interwoven in the fabric of both the Labour Party and the Jewish Community, and have been so for almost a century. But now, we are torn: the damage done could be irreversible.
Peter Mason is National Secretary of the Jewish Labour Movement. He tweets @_petermason