Headlines in recent days were dominated by the extraordinary news of Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension from the Labour Party by his former Brexit secretary and successor as leader, Keir Starmer. Of course, this has been of particular interest to the Jewish community, and both the Jewish and national press has been filled with Jewish voices expressing their relief that the nightmare is coming to an end. Certain disreputable efforts to claim otherwise notwithstanding, Charedim share the wider Jewish community’s antipathy towards Corbyn and his movement. However, the way the saga has been experienced by my community has been very different to what I have seen and heard from Anglo Jewry at large. To be specific, the language of pain, fear and horror that has pervaded wider UK Jewish discourse, has simply been absent. In this article I’m going to explore the reasons for this different reaction because I believe it illuminates a number of themes which will inevitably become increasingly prominent as Charedim grow into a larger portion of UK Jewry.
The first, and perhaps least interesting, reason for the different Charedi response to Corbynism is very practical. UK Jews have often framed the issue in terms of their terror at seeing an old enemy rising from the dead, or, alternatively, emerging from the margins and infecting mainstream society. For Charedim, however, anti-semitism is nothing new and its level of marginality or otherwise makes no difference. Any Stamford Hill Chossid can rattle off at least a couple of dozen incidents of being shouted and sworn at with no provocation in a supermarket or from a passing car. The vast majority of these incidents go unreported, rightly or wrongly, because they are perceived as a normal niggle of life. It is usually only when physical intimidation or violence is involved that they enter the records. Even so, statistics show that the vast majority of reported anti-semitic incidents happen to people who are visibly identifiable as Jewish, which means, mostly, Charedim. On top of the numerical over representation, incidents involving Charedim include a higher proportion of serious criminal behaviour.
The anguished pleas of Jews who thought that they would never have their lives blighted by anti-Semitism, therefore, simply don’t reflect the Charedi experience. Getting pennies thrown at you as you walk down the street wasn’t something we first experienced when Corbyn became Labour leader, and, for that matter, incidents of this sort didn’t become appreciably more common either. The different Charedi reaction to Corbynism doesn’t, however, just come down to habituation. There are deep ideological differences that influence the way we think about and respond to anti-semitism.
Looking at the history of Jewish persecution at the hands of different regimes, cultures, and nations, thinkers have come to different conclusions about what defines the timeless core of anti-semitism, often sharply contradictory to one another. However, while Jonathan Weisman, Bari Weiss, and Melanie Phillips differ fundamentally in locating the essence of anti-semitism and thus about what needs to be fought, they all accept the same basic premise about how it should be done, namely through articles, speeches, letters etc. in a word: activism. The instinctive Charedi response to anti-semitism, by contrast, can be summed up in a very different word: golus.
For the Charedi mind, the basic framework for understanding hatred of Jews doesn’t come from The Authoritarian Personality or any other work of sociology, psychiatry, or history, it’s right there in parshas Ki Savo. Jews have been punished for their sins to reside in the lands of other nations where they will suffer until national repentance brings about the end of exile once and for all. Of course, any conscious Charedi is aware that our current situation in a malchus shel chessed is, by golus standards, remarkably good and none of us want it to be otherwise. However, our basic perception of reality is one where gentile ambivalence is normal, hostility is frequent and benevolence is an occasional welcome novelty. The kind of shock and disgust felt by Anglo Jewry at the exposure of Jew-hatred spouted by Labour councillors and activists, just has no analogue for Charedim. Lots of things in life are surprising, but a goy hating a yid isn’t one of them.
The concept of golus as a fundamental element in how Charedim interpret current affairs influences not just our reaction to anti-semitism, but our perception of how we fit into British life. While Charedim were repulsed by Corbyn’s Labour party, the mood of their opposition was totally different. The pained sadness and inchoate anger that characterised the EnoughIsEnough movement was something that Charedim found difficult to relate to.
Corbyn’s record of support for Palestinian terrorism is completely revolting, and his excuses for it pathetic, but if we look at his history of support for the IRA, Hugo Chavez or the Cuban regime, the common thread isn’t Jews. Rather it’s a willingness, yea eagerness, to support the most depraved and destructive kinds of political movements as long as it can be justified in the name of a broader leftwing cause. Corbyn was, and remains, perfectly happy to embrace Jews who support this twisted agenda and there are plenty of examples of Jews happy to be so embraced. As long as Jews signed up to hating the only Jewish state and are willing to overlook a bit of anti-semitism as a misplaced, but understandable, expression of suffering from official victim groups, then Corbyn’s Labour party was more than willing to welcome them aboard.
The problem was that an overwhelming majority of Jews were not, properly enough, willing to engage in the degree of self-hating grovelling that Corbyn’s interpretation of Labour ideology demanded of them. What this meant was that one of the two main political parties in the UK had become a place where ordinary Jews weren’t welcome.
For UK Jewry, this was an intolerable situation. Those worst affected, naturally, were those whose personal identity, cultural background and, perhaps, career path, were bound up with the Labour party and movement. Suddenly finding themselves politically homeless, Labourites in exile were, naturally, the most passionate about their opposition to Corbyn. They found support across the Jewish community, however, because Corbynism’s grip on the party was felt no less as an affront by swing voters and Jews who had no intention of voting Labour under any leader. Put simply, if one of the two big parties is off-limit to Jews that means Jews are not a properly integrated part of British society. In the words of BoD President Marie Van Der Zyl, ‘it is an absolute travesty, that antisemitism should be an issue which British Jews feel they need to take into account at the ballot box, often over and above their broader social and economic views.’
For Charedim, by contrast, an electoral contest between the oheiv yisroel party and sonei yisroel party wasn’t an intolerable psychological assault, it was actually pretty cool. In Boris Johnson’s entire campaign, he can hardly have had a better greeting than from the Charedi bochurim who practically mobbed him handing out doughnuts at Grodzinski’s. For most UK Jews, the election result was a moment of bittersweet relief, partly because many felt they had had to trade-in their opposition to Brexit for stopping Corbyn, but, more fundamentally, because they felt that an election of that sort shouldn’t have happened in the first place: Jews should choose who to vote for based on their personal opinions about generic political issues, never as Jews per se. Charedim had no such qualms about being a bloc vote. We have a team, and our team won big; let’s have a kiddush.
This fundamentally different way of looking at UK politics continues today. For UK Jewry as a whole, the real victory was not Boris Johnson’s landslide, but the subsequent victory of Labour’s anti-Corbyn faction. Charedim, for the most part, however, are much less interested in the ongoing news, beyond a healthy schadenfreude in Corbyn’s travails.
Of course, none of what I have written means that the Charedi mindset is right and that of Anglo Jewry is wrong. What I think is important, however, is that we all appreciate the very deep differences in the way Charedim and other UK Jews look on themselves as both Jews and citizens of the UK, differences which have very little to do with formal denominational lines.
Outside analysis of Charedi politics is typically nonsense, and often venomous, but it is true that Charedim view the world very differently from the way most Jews do. As we become too big to stand in the shadows, it’s important that others understand where we are coming from, and that we can articulate it too.