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Emily Thornberry isn't the one to save Labour's relationship with British Jews

'Better than Jeremy Corbyn' is not exactly a high bar to clear, writes Daniel Sugarman

    Emily Thornberry
    Emily Thornberry

    There is a theory which is currently gaining traction among some of our communal leaders, which goes something like this.

    Jeremy Corbyn’s decades of “anti-Zionist” politics have polluted his worldview to the extent that he is utterly unable to understand the Jewish community’s concerns. But burning bridges with Labour as a whole would be unwise. Long-term, it would not be in our best interests for our leaders to have no relationship with a party likely to be in government again at some point.

    Under his leadership, the party has shifted decisively to the left, meaning that when at some point he steps down, his successor will be one of his staunch supporters. Key communal organisations, the theory continues, therefore need to reach out to some of Mr Corbyn’s allies, people who perhaps support his domestic policies but do not necessarily share his obsession with all things Zionist, to plan for the post-Corbyn Labour future.

    This theory is why efforts have recently been made to reach out to certain Corbynite politicians, despite the outrage such efforts have sparked. 

    One of those politicians is Angela Rayner. Another is Emily Thornberry.

    As Mr Corbyn’s shadow foreign secretary, as things stand Ms Thornberry would certainly be a strong contender to succeed him. Hence her invitation to the Board of Deputies dinner in November – and her talk at the Limmud conference.

    What Ms Thornberry demonstrated at Limmud, however, is that her grasp of Labour’s problems with the Jewish community is not much better than her leader’s.

    Take Ms Thornberry’s grand theory, first expressed in September and repeated to a room full of incredulous Jews at Limmud, regarding Mr Corbyn’s inability to deal with antisemitism in his party.

    Her theory goes: Jeremy (it is always “Jeremy”) lives and breathes anti-racism. He does not have an antisemitic bone in his body! (This is a line so often used by Mr Corbyn’s political supporters that in April, Peter Brookes, a cartoonist for the Times, drew Mr Corbyn as a jellyfish.)

    And so, when Jeremy was accused of being antisemitic himself, this affected him so deeply that he was unable to focus properly on dealing with the issue of antisemitism in the party.

    It is breathtakingly disingenuous, of course, because it turns the fault for the situation back on the Jewish community, saying, in effect, that this all could have been resolved by now, but because you wounded this righteous man so deeply with your accusations, he was unable to act.

    This was not the only bizarre moment in Ms Thornberry’s “conversation” with Jon Lansman, the head of the leftwing, pro-Corbyn Momentum group within the Labour Party.

    Apparently mistaking a room full of Jews for a Momentum meeting, she spent a few minutes describing her opposition to the Iraq war. Mind-bogglingly, she also appeared to think it was a good idea to praise Ken Livingstone, bringing up his response to the 7/7 bombings. Whatever one may think of the then-Mayor’s response to those terror attacks, to praise him to a room full of British Jews, given all that’s happened since, took the definition of "Chutzpah" to another level.

    Having visited Israel for decades, the shadow foreign secretary appeared to have a better grasp on Israeli-Palestinian issues than Mr Corbyn; but then, so do the amoeba in an average fish tank.

    It says a great deal when the high point of your discussion is an assurance that there has been a “misunderstanding” and your party is not thinking about cutting security funding for UK Jews if it gains power.

    With one breath, Ms Thornberry criticised her own party’s inability to handle the antisemitism crisis over the summer, while in the next, with unbelievable cognitive dissonance, claimed to be entirely confident that Labour was ready to deal with Brexit.

    If there is anything 2018 has taught us, it is that there is no way of knowing that 2019 will hold.

    Would Ms Thornberry be an improvement on Mr Corbyn? Yes – but so would almost any other Labour MP.

    Would she be able to significantly improve Labour’s relationship with the Jewish community? This performance suggests not. Jewish communal leaders are wise to reach out, but this Limmud appearance will hardly make them cheerful about the prospect - however far removed - of a Thornberry-led Labour government. 

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