Meet Mr Corbyn’s devoted defender ROSA DOHERTY JENNY MANSON
TO SAY that the Jewish Voice for Labour group is controversial within the Jewish community would be an understatement. The group, launched in September 2017, on the second day of the Labour Party annual national conference, has routinely rejected or downplayed the party’s problem with antisemitism. Members of the mainstream community fumed as the group mounted a counter demonstration against the Enough is Enough protest, and were given equal billing by television companies.
The JC, it’s fair to say, has been pretty critical of JVL. So I’m surprised when the group’s chair Jenny Manson invites me to her house for an interview. I’m curious to meet her, this softly-spoken lady who seems so confident in her denial of the Jew hate that even her hero, Jeremy Corbyn, now acknowledges.
I arrive at her large detached home in Hampstead Garden Suburb, on a sunny afternoon. Manson greets me at the door where, beneath layers of white paint, a small slanted bulge seems to signify a mezuzah.
Several people have told me that — apart from her political opinions — Manson is a “very nice person.” And she’s warm and friendly as she offers me tea and pastries from a local kosher bakery, and we settle down to talk.
“I think if we had very solid information that said there was antisemitism in the country and in the Labour party then it should be very big story,” Manson tells me, suggesting that the whole thing has been thoroughly over-exaggerated to smear the Labour leader. “There might be very serious evidence. But I haven’t seen any of it.”
She tells me that she’s a passionate antiracist. So how, I ask, can she justify opposing a marginalised group of people who say they are victims of racism?
“I do mind about that. But I suppose I would say that some of the allegations have turned out not to be true.
“If there are allegations they have to be investigated by the Labour Party. I have every sympathy for people who experience antisemitism, but there has been an alarming determination for this to drown out other issues.”
She rejects my examples outright, saying there is no evidence that it is Labour members who carry out abuse on social media. Inevitably she suggests the problem is worse in other parties.
“The Jews I know that were suspended [from the Labour Party] have had to be readmitted.”
She seems genuinely hurt at the response that her actions have drawn from the wider Jewish com- munity. “Very offensive things have been written about me and my colleagues,” she says, with some passion. “Whatever you or anyone has to say about JVL, we do not publish offensive things about other people.”
She is particularly upset about a JC column by David Aaronovitch, criticising Leah Levane, Manson’s co-chair, describing her as Mr Corbyn’s idea of a “really good Jew.”
“We don’t call the Board of Deputies or the JLC, not proper Jews. We might disagree with them but we don’t personalise it and we certainly don’t question people’s Jewishness. In fact I think it is a strange kind of antisemitism to do that,” she says.
“My style of politics is not nasty and I’ve been in politics for some time.”
Indeed, she has been in the Labour party for more than 50 years. Although —until the Corbyn years — she has often disagreed with its leaders. While at Oxford University studying history she joined a disaffiliate Labour group — an irony that is not lost on her.
“I suppose I have always been something of a rebel. The Labour party was being mean to immigrants at that time.”
A former Labour councillor in Colindale, Barnet, Manson, 70, says she was inspired back into to politics after Jeremy Corbyn was elected Jenny Manson in her garden leader in 2015. “I have always been a little bit on the right of the party when it comes to things like law and order. When I was a councillor I worked very closely with the police and got on very well with them in a period when Labour was being very silly about police. There was a sort of anti-police thing going on.
“But I have always been left on the economy and things like that.”
Her left wing politics sprang in part from her career as a tax inspector for the Inland Revenue. She dealt with the oil sector, bringing in lots of money for the exchequer.
“It taught me a lot about inequalities, tax avoidance and unfairness,” she says. “It came to me naturally to believe in higher taxation and a fairer education system. I was terribly pleased when Corbyn was elected as leader because these sorts of things are important to him.”
Manson was born in Harpenden, in 1948 and says that hers was the only Jewish family in the Hertfordshire town. “And the only family that voted Labour,” she says, proudly. “My father used to get news from Amnesty and CND delivered.
“I went to the local school and was treated like a trophy by my friends because it was very unusual to have a Jew among them.”
The family were not religious, but they marked Passover and Yom Kippur and she has been hurt by people who question her Jewishness.
“My father’s family were members of Bevis Marks. Dad was put off synagogue because my grandmother Nina, who was a Hebrew scholar, tried to teach him Hebrew (and he found languages hard unlike his elder brothers) and made him sit through long services.
“It is a cliché but being Jewish was still very important to him, he used to tell me all about it and read bits of the bible. I wouldn’t say someone wasn’t a proper Jew because they don’t go to synagogue.”
Her mother Miriam escaped a pogrom in 1914 and went from the Ukraine to Palestine, before coming to England. “She lived in Haifa until she was 15,” Manson explains.
It was her family’s connection to Israel that influenced her own views on the region and the conflict.
“I hate the word journey but my views on Israel and Palestine have moved quite a lot in the last 20 or 30 years, like many people I suppose.” She has visited Israel twice, once for the first time in 1966 on her gap year where she stayed with her cousins on a leading left-wing kibbutz.
“I was shocked then by the way Arabs were talked about in Israel. I was most happy on the kibbutz because they had dialogue with Palestinians. I remember them coming in for secret conversations in the night.”
She recalls feeling “desperately frightened” for Israel during the 1967 war. “I don’t think as a family we discussed or questioned Zionism. It had sort of just happened.”
Manson has said JVL is “not antiZionist” but admits that it was designed as a platform for Jews who do not support what she called the Jewish Labour Movement’s “profoundly Zionist orientation.”
As a long standing member of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, she visited Israel for a second time two years ago with the left-leaning Israel advocacy group, Yachad.
“We met with groups like Breaking The Silence and got a worrying impression from them that they were fearing for their security from other Jews for speaking up against the current situation.
“I was most moved by a visit to a Palestinian village in the West Bank where a man just asked us for help. There was a real sense of impotence.”
Now retired, she chairs Barnet Carers Centre.
She’s also — and this surprised me — written a book on consciousness which led to an invitation from the Association of Jewish Refugees to talk to Holocaust survivors.
“When I left university one of the things I liked the most is discovering the connection between human beings. I decided I would use that interest in people’s thoughts about themselves to do something.
“Everyone has an internal life that is very much private to them, but once you start talking to people you discover that they can feel quite insecure, they want to be liked and understood and that is what the book is about.
“I fight hard as a political woman, but I have a soft spot for babies, children and human relationships.”
And with that I’m even more confused —how does someone so seemingly aware of other people and their internal struggles, shut down when it comes to their experience of antisemitism?
“The Corbyn leadership has constantly voted against racism,” she insists. “I welcome the way they treat people from all races and in my view they have a good record on antisemitism.
“We didn’t consider the Board of Deputies had a right to pick on the Labour Party. It seemed an inappropriate thing to do.
“Shami Chakrabarti did an excellent report but no other party has had a report. Islamophobia is a much bigger problem and so is homophobia.
“There has been no coverage of the rise of antisemitism on the right.”
When I point out that the JC has regularly covered the rise of right wing antisemitism she responds. “I’ve seen nothing about the links of the Conservative Party to right wing parties in Poland. The only stories that don’t die are the stories about the Labour party.”
I am left wondering if perhaps there is something in Manson’s unconscious that just does not want to see the things with which she disagrees.
I have always been a bit on the right of the party