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UK election 2024: Labour's non-Zionist Jews complain of 'disdain'

Current and former Jewish members of Labour who are pro-Palestinian tell MEE they feel targeted, harassed and discriminated against
Labour leader Keir Starmer (AFP)
Keir Starmer has made his party more pro-Israel since becoming Labour leader (AFP)

The Labour Party is on the cusp of taking power and its leader Keir Starmer is set to become prime minister.

One of the defining features of his leadership has been his insistence that Labour is cracking down on antisemitism.

“We’ve been ruthless in the past four years over rooting out antisemitism and changing the Labour Party,” he said in May, “but it will never be ‘job done’. 

“We will be as ruthless in government as we have been in opposition, because we will never take our foot off the pedal on antisemitism.”

But current and former Jewish members of Labour who are pro-Palestinian told Middle East Eye they feel targeted, harassed and discriminated against in the party. 

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A letter sent to Labour’s General Secretary David Evans by Jewish Voice for Labour’s legal team in August 2023 asserted that Labour has been “discriminating unlawfully against its Jewish members”. 

Jewish Voice for Labour, a left-leaning and pro-Palestinian group within the party, was founded in 2017 when Jeremy Corbyn was leader. 

It alleged that non-Jewish members of the party have often harassed JVL members for being “the wrong type of Jew”.

Jewish members of the party are six times more likely to be investigated over claims of antisemitism than non-Jewish members, the letter said, and 13 times more likely to be expelled. 

Middle East Eye spoke to Andrew Feinstein, who was born in South Africa to Viennese Holocaust survivors. 

The prominent Jewish politician and writer campaigned against apartheid with Nelson Mandela and was elected in 1994 as an ANC member of parliament.

Later, in Britain, he joined Labour in 2015 because he supported Corbyn.

'Starmer has expelled more Jews than all the other Labour leaders combined'

- Andrew Feinstein, parliamentary candidate 

He is now standing for parliament against Keir Starmer in Holborn and St Pancras, having left Labour.

In late 2021, under Starmer's leadership, Feinstein told MEE he received a notice of investigation from the party because of his social media posts.

“They were saying to me that the nature of my views expressed on social media made it difficult for the party to campaign on issues of racism and antisemitism.”

In one of the tweets cited as problematic, Feinstein had called Israel a “brutal, rogue, apartheid state just like my home, South Africa, was”. 

Feinstein said he sent the party a 35-page response to its draft charges in December 2021. 

“I asked them explicitly whether they wanted me to renounce the anti-racism I’d learnt from Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in order to adopt Starmer’s racist hierarchy of racism.”

He said he didn’t hear back from the party, despite sending follow-up emails every few months. 

Feinstein said that when Jewish Voice for Labour wrote to the party in August 2023, Labour responded that it had decided not to investigate him.

“The accusations against me were made by a non-Jewish Labour member who trawled through my social media,” he told MEE. “The party takes these people more seriously than they take anti-racist Jews.

“Starmer has expelled more Jews than all the other Labour leaders combined.”

MEE put this to the Labour Party but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

Defending Corbyn

MEE also spoke to retired civil servant Jenny Manson, aged 75, who is currently co-chair of Jewish Voice for Labour. 

Her mother was a refugee born near Kiev who fled anti-Jewish pogroms and came to Britain in 1919. 

Manson has been in the Labour Party nearly all her life. She joined as a teenager and then signed up to Oxford University’s Labour Club as a student to protest against Harold Wilson's immigration legislation, which favoured white immigrants over others.  

She has since been a Labour councillor (1986-90) in the London borough of Barnet. She even stood unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate in 1987. 

“I was only on the soft left,” Manson said, “but I was pushed further left when Jeremy Corbyn stood for leader in 2015 and talked about getting rid of austerity. I was delighted when he won.” 

Former civil servant Jenny Manson, co-chair of Jewish Voice for Labour (Jenny Manson)
Former civil servant Jenny Manson, co-chair of Jewish Voice for Labour (Jenny Manson)

Manson got to know Corbyn personally. Although she believes that antisemitism is a serious problem in Britain, she said she saw accusations of antisemitism in Corbyn’s Labour that were cynical, and aimed at silencing pro-Palestinian voices or undermining Corbyn.

A report by barrister Martin Forde, commissioned by Labour’s National Executive Committee and released in July 2022, found that allegations of antisemitism within the party were "treated as a factional weapon" by officials in Labour’s party headquarters and in Corbyn's leadership office.

Manson said that attending meetings with her local constituency’s Labour group became a “horror”, and that she was accused of antisemitism by non-Jewish members of the party just for defending Corbyn’s leadership.

After Starmer became leader, things got worse. Manson was placed under investigation in August 2021 for antisemitism after saying on BBC Newsnight that the problem of antisemitism under Corbyn had been “exaggerated” by Labour’s right wing . 

She ultimately received an apology from Labour’s National Executive Committee. But she found the experience deeply troubling.

'Humiliating, gruelling '

Manson's experiences are not isolated. Councillor Martin Abrams, a Jewish councillor for the Streatham St Leonard’s ward in Lambeth, wasn’t accused of antisemitism, but was suspended indefinitely from his local Labour group for backing a Green Party motion calling for ceasefire in Gaza. 

Abrams, 44, has Labour in his DNA. His parents were Labour activists and he grew up helping them campaign during elections. Abrams became a Labour member in 2009 and has been active in his Labour branch for years.

He became a councillor in 2022. “It was a very proud moment because I’ve made Lambeth my home,” he said.

Abrams, who describes himself as a non-Zionist Jew, has been involved in pro-Palestinian activism for years. “I blame my parents,” he told MEE. “I have vivid memories of my mum and dad standing up against South African apartheid.”

He said that after 7 October he and other councillors repeatedly requested that the local Labour Group hold a discussion on Gaza to formulate a response. “That was met with silence.”

Then, in January this year, the Greens put forward a pro-ceasefire motion for the council leader, Labour’s Claire Holland, to write to the prime minister and urge a ceasefire in Gaza. 

The Labour group instructed Labour councillors to vote against it. Abrams and three others defied the order and broke the whip to back the motion.

The four were subjected to a public hearing, which Abrams described as a “humiliating, gruelling and intentionally shaming experience”.

Its outcome was that Abrams was suspended indefinitely from the group, along with the other three councillors. One resigned on the spot.

'An insult to Jews'

Abrams told MEE he feels Labour is not a safe environment for pro-Palestinian Jews. 

“Some of the leading Jewish voices within Labour describe pro-Palestinian Jews as cranks. It’s hugely derogatory because a crank is a mental slur. There’s a campaign within Labour to delegitimise and silence pro-Palestinian Jewish people,” he said.

“To not give space for these Jewish voices within Labour is utterly shameful. I would argue it is potentially very antisemitic in itself.”

Abrams also took aim at Luke Akehurst, a non-Jewish Labour parliamentary candidate filmed in 2019 claiming that Marxist Jews have “abandoned very much of their Jewish identity” and see Judaism as “a purely cultural thing around a bowl of chicken soup”. 

Abrams said he has submitted a formal complaint to the party about Akehurst’s comments. MEE asked Labour for comment on the complaint but did not receive a reply by the time of publication.

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“This is a parliamentary candidate using antisemitic tropes around good Jews and bad Jews,” Abrams told MEE. “Why should I be seen as less of a Jew than anyone else, especially by someone who isn’t Jewish?

“I am not a self-hating Jew,” he added. “I am fundamentally proud of my heritage. There is a long history of Jews standing up against oppression, like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising or the Jews that stood firm [against fascist marchers] at Cable Street [in the East End of London]."

Jenny Manson similarly told MEE her treatment in the party has felt “like antisemitism, whether or not it is under any definition. 

“I do feel like I've experienced disdain, contempt and dislike as a Jew in Starmer’s Labour. I’ve been made to feel like I’m not a proper Jew. There is a cruelty to the treatment of many of us.”

Manson believes the disproportionate targeting of Jews under antisemitism claims is because “we’ve spoken up the most”.

“It’s harder if you’re not Jewish to call accusations fake.”

Now she feels entirely disillusioned with the Labour Party she has been a part of for more than 50 years. 

“I don’t feel at home at all. I’m still in the party because it’s terribly important that we continue to do our role as defenders of the vulnerable. 

“I’ll stay for now, but if I’m expelled it won’t be a tragedy for me.”

Feinstein, meanwhile, was scathing of the Labour leadership. 

He said the treatment of some pro-Palestinian Jews in the party “absolutely” constitutes antisemitism.

“As a consequence of the party’s attitude I’ve been called a kapo. In Labour, the racists, mostly non-Jewish, are calling the anti-racists racist. Frankly it’s an insult to the memory of people like the dozens of my mother’s family who were genocided in Auschwitz.

“It’s an insult to the suffering of millions of Jews who were slaughtered by the Nazis and in pogroms throughout history to fight petty little factional battles,” he said.

“It disgusts and repulses me.”

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