I was standing with a group of Jewish candidates in a pub in Newcastle when my wife received a message on her phone that a cop had smashed a Jewish bookshop window.
At that point, I knew I needed to get home. But I knew there would be no problem getting a taxi home — another part of the UK was calling the police over a similar incident.
In fact, in the latter weeks of the Labour Party leadership’s race and anti-Semitism scandal, the reality has been very different. British Jews face a public backlash akin to that experienced by immigrants to Europe from the 1930s through the 1950s, says Andrés Solon of the High Line Centre for Jewish Policy Research in London.
“What we’re seeing now is a level of political and social hostility that is unprecedented in this country,” Solon said. “British Jewry is politically homeless.”
Polls show that anti-Semitism is only a small part of the deep-seated anti-establishment sentiment that has led to much of this country’s tumult over the past 18 months, and that many British voters want the next government to focus on ordinary issues. But Solon believes that is just what matters.
“In the midst of this broad political crisis, this deep sense of populism, that our elites are failing to deliver, this challenge to the state’s legitimacy, I think it’s a perfect moment for Jews to define themselves,” he said.
He points to events in Catalonia over the summer.
“While you can imagine the appeal to people to defend local identities, I think what was even more important to people is that government let them go,” Solon said. “No-one was respecting Catalonia, and that’s how it fed into nationalism and populism.”
And it isn’t just a British phenomenon. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader now having challenged the ruling Conservatives to a general election in June, is widely viewed as a political failure, and one of the chief causes of the scandal. The soccer club where Corbyn used to play was late to give up a multimillion-dollar parking lot that would have meant hundreds of thousands of pounds in rent for the aging stadium, he was accused of failing to expel anti-Semitic members of his party, and he took the party to court to avoid having to condemn those who supported Palestinians’ suicide bombings in attacks on Israelis.
“The story of the past six months is this fear that all the popular influences of the past quarter century — neoliberalism, globalization, good governance, confidence in the economy — have gone, and we are a deeply divided nation with a profound political crisis,” Solon said.
Of all the factors that fueled the rise of nationalist, populist leaders, though, Corbyn’s nomination as Labour leader may have helped consolidate British Jews’ support for the center-left Labour Party, long considered a refuge of safe harbor from the taint of socialism.
“They identified with Corbyn as their progressive choice,” Solon said. “I think that played a huge role in the defeat of [Britain’s former leader, David] Cameron and in Corbyn’s victory.”
However, throughout the leadership’s race, Corbyn was unable to win over the pro-Europe, liberal, secular center-left Labour voter, and in doing so he has upset British Jews in a way that could damage his position in a general election.
“In effect he lost a lot of the votes that they felt they’d won to Corbyn,” Solon said.
He points to a YouGov poll published by The Times of London in September that shows Corbyn’s center-left Labour Party attracting lower support from those under 45 than from those 35 and older. Indeed, he has been unable to surpass Theresa May’s center-right Conservatives, and in the polls shows only a slim lead over a center-left opposition.