The Corbyn supporter trying to repair rift in Labour Party

Interview: Rhea Wolfson


It is a question being asked by Jewish Labour supporters across the country: can you be a devoted follower of Jeremy Corbyn as he continues to struggle with the party's antisemitism problem?

Rhea Wolfson believes she may have the answer. Last week the 26-year-old was elected to the party's National Executive Committee, winning 85,687 votes from supporters across the country.

She feels her new role can be a springboard to improving Labour's relations with the Jewish community, and that she can be an alternative voice to established groups such as the Board of Deputies or Jewish Leadership Council, in representing the views of British Jews on the left.

But, sitting in a café in Euston station ahead of an appearance on BBC Radio 4's Any Questions, the former president of Oxford University's Jewish and Israel societies explains how her election to the NEC felt bitter-sweet following her father's death last year.

Ms Wolfson was forced to quit working as an outreach manager for the New Israel Fund in London as her father received cancer treatment in Scotland.

Jeremy represents social action and justice

"I gave up my job and went back to care for him from June to November, when he passed away. I think the whole NEC thing has been hard because he was so excited for me," she explains.

While her father did not share her brand of politics, Ms Wolfson says her Labour-supporting parents did support her career aspirations.

However, the activist adds that it was involvement in the RSY youth movement which sparked her passion for politics.

Ms Wolfson says: "I went on my first RSY camp when I was 13 and, at the time, they were doing a campaign to raise awareness of the civil war in Uganda.

"It was not Labour Party stuff but it was very interlinked with social action and was fundamental in developing my socialism."

She is supported by the hard-left Momentum group, which led Mr Corbyn's push to be leader last year. However, Ms Wolfson understands that her backing of the Labour leader is controversial.

"I know people do not understand how, as a Jew, I could support Jeremy," Ms Wolfson says. "It is something I get asked about a lot."

"Jeremy represents a huge amount of what I was taught in the Jewish community about social action and justice and he represents that change in society that we want to see.

"Are there issues around his associations and do I think he needs education around some issues? Yes totally.

"But I think a lot of this for Jeremy Corbyn is a learning curve. He comes from that tradition on the left that is totally disconnected from the Jewish community and has never encountered it."

Being on the NEC means Ms Wolfson is now a key figure with influence over how Labour is governed as a party. The ex-chair of the Zionist Youth Council says implementing the recommendations of Shami Chakrabarti's report into antisemitism, and repairing Labour's relationships with the community, are her priorities.

"I think people need to understand when they report abuse, who makes the decisions and how they make them. And it is up to us now to implement the recommendations.

"Basically we will be putting in time-scales for these things to happen and figuring out what resources we need and ensuring it does happen."

She is quick to reject criticisms of Ms Chakrabarti, whose credibility was said to "lie in tatters" by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis after she accepted a peerage earlier this month.

Ms Wolfson says: "I can see how, if people have misgivings about the report, the peerage sticks out for them. Do I have any question in my mind the peerage is related to the report? Absolutely not. I have full faith in the report and her integrity.

"There is no reason why Jews in the community should feel unwelcome in the Labour Party, but I understand that it happens and that I come from a different place to them.

"Someone said to me the other day, 'do you honestly think you can represent more than just a handful of Jews?'.

"Sure, I'm not representative of the mainstream community, but there is not just one community. For too long the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council haven't represented everyone.

"I don't think they are critical enough on Israel and there are left wing young Jews who don't feel involved."

Ms Wolfson says she was grateful to have the support of the Jewish Labour Movement for her NEC bid. However, the group revealed this week that, in a poll to decide who they should support in the current leadership race, only four per cent of its members voted for Mr Corbyn. His opponent, Owen Smith, received 92 per cent of the vote.

Ms Wolfson, the Glasgow branch secretary for the GMB trade union, says: "Jeremy Newmark [JLM chair] is doing an amazing job at trying to diversify the Jewish Labour Movement.

"They realise the community is not just one homogenous group and I really admire that."

She adds: "The JLM will bring young Jews into the community in a way no one else is doing.

"Beyond the Chakrabarti report, it is about understanding exactly what is happening to make people feel isolated. Is it comments by the leadership, or is it day-to-day experiences?

"Those who talk about Israel and campaign passionately about a free Palestinian state have no idea where progressive Zionist movements are coming from.

"They have never met them. They don't encounter them and the only time they have ever heard the term Zionism used is in a totally negative way. They don't understand the historic links.

"The only time I encountered those involved in BDS were people yelling at each other on campus."

Ms Wolfson says Mr Corbyn and his team were very supportive when she was a victim of antisemitic abuse online earlier this year.

"His team got in touch straight away, as did the whole community and people across the party. I get a huge amount of abuse on Twitter. Mostly it is people calling me weak and pathetic.

"But the thing that cuts me most is that people don't trust my intentions.

"People who call me a useful idiot, I find really offensive and there is something sexist about it, and patronising in terms of my age."

Labour must work harder to support Jewish students on campuses, Ms Wolfson believes.

"The space the party could be creating to bring people together on issues around Israel and Palestine could be fundamental in changing the lay of the land in terms of the clashes that happen."

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