The UK’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has leveled charges against the Labour party that it has a serious problem of anti-Semitism within its ranks and that its leader Jeremy Corbyn and the top leadership have not done enough to combat it. Under the surface is the implication that Corbyn himself is an anti-Semite. Corbyn has responded.
Speaking the following morning, Corbyn said a future Labour government would be “the most anti-racist government you’ve ever seen”. He said: “Because that is what I’ve spent my whole life doing, fighting against racism, and I will die fighting against racism.”
He said he had made it clear that antisemitism is wrong. “Our party did make it clear when I was elected leader, and after that, that antisemitism is unacceptable in any form in our party or our society and did indeed offer its sympathies and apologies to those who had suffered,” he said.
Corbyn, just like Bernie Sanders in the US, has been a lifelong campaigner against racism and for human rights. But both have recognized the injustices suffered by Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government and called for giving them the rights they deserve and it is this stance that has alarmed the Israel lobby in the UK and the US.
This charge by the Chief Rabbi has to be taken in the context of the current election campaign and the Conservative party has been eagerly stoking this issue to take attention away from the problems of Brexit and its own unpopular stance on the NHS.
Jonathan Ofir writes that the chief rabbi’s comments seem to be part of a concerted effort to conflate anti-Zionism (a political position) with anti-Semitism (a bigoted position) in order to undermine Labour’s chances in the election.
The “Labour anti-Semitic problem” has been virtually non-existent, but then was made out to be a huge problem after Corbyn came to lead Labour. Not that it didn’t exist in the Labour fringes: 0.06% of the members were accused of anti-Semitism in cases which were deemed to merit a disciplinary hearing. But even that figure is lesser than on the right. In 2017, Al Jazeera aired a documentary called “The Lobby”, uncovering how secret Israeli operatives in the Israeli Embassy intervene in British politics, plotting to “take down” politicians critical of Israel, working with organizations in Labour to counter Jeremy Corbyn and maintain a strong Israel-loyalism.
This is the real “anxiety” that these people are gripped by. It’s not about anti-Semitism, it’s a fear that Israel may be taken to task for its violations.
While decent journalists like [Gideon] Levy point out that Jeremy Corbyn is not an anti-Semite and never was, Zionists, even of the supposedly ‘liberal’ type like Forward Opinion Editor Batya Ungar-Sargon, shamelessly ride the wave of incitement against Corbyn and call him an anti-Semite outright.
Some of us have been pointing out how disastrous this political trend is for Judaism: to be so closely affiliated with an ultra-nationalist, settler-colonialist movement, Zionism, that the religion and the movement become indistinguishable, and leading rabbis push this conflation. Jeremy Corbyn is actually trying to bring the British “nation” forward to a place of decency with respect to international law and human rights. But those of the Zionist persuasion work against that progress.
We can only hope that the allegiance to Zionism amongst Jews does not create more anti-Semitism. Judaism should be known for other things than violence, bigotry, hypocrisy and ultra-nationalism. But Ephraim Mirvis is making it hard for us to persuade others that this is the case.
In an open letter to Mirvis, Robert Cohen says that there is a better way to fight anti-Semitism than attacking the Labour party and that the Chief Rabbi’s alarmist rhetoric about Jews in the UK facing some kind of existential threat under a Labour government has little basis in fact and seems to be driven by his desire to further the interests of the Conservative party.
So how, I wonder, do you answer this question, Chief Rabbi? What is the clear and present danger presented by the Labour party to Jews? Perhaps you can give me a rough idea of what I should expect, so I know whether to be ready to pack my bags when the election results come through.
Will kosher meat be outlawed? Will circumcision be banned? Will I be forced out of my job and my children thrown out of university? Will I be attacked on the street by gangs of roaming Corbynistas? Will synagogues be burnt down and Jews rounded up?
I’m not being flippant here. I genuinely want to understand the nature and severity of the threat which has created the “anxiety” you say is “gripping” most of my fellow Jews. If I can’t grasp what you mean, how can I make an informed and proportionate response?
What this family conversation suggested to me is that many in the Jewish community (probably most) are not happy with Corbyn, question his judgement and his past associations, and certainly don’t trust him to tackle antisemitism in his party. But unlike you Chief Rabbi, ‘real Jews’ are more balanced and measured in their response to the situation. They are not packing suitcases based on your overheated rabbinical commentary. Thankfully, it looks like most Jewish households are not taking your rhetoric seriously.
All this leaves me with the conviction that you are deliberately scaremongering your own community. But for what purpose and to what end?
As I wrote last week, I’m not fearful of a Corbyn government (in fact I’d welcome it) but I’m horrified at how antisemitism has been used against him. And you, Chief Rabbi, have been central to that campaign of vilification.
This isn’t the first time you’ve made a critical intervention ahead of an election. I’m sure you haven’t forgotten your article for the Daily Telegraph just days before local elections across England in May 2016.
Perhaps if you understood this better you would not have been so relaxed about sabotaging the Labour campaign day which was expressly designed to highlight discrimination against minorities and how a Labour government would legislate to address it. The timing of your intervention made it look as if only antisemitism matters to you even when every piece of research shows that others are at far greater risk than you or I in the streets and in the workplaces of the United Kingdom.
The Race and Faith manifesto was another example of the ‘eccentric’ nature of ‘Labour antisemitism’. Would a party truly up to its ears in antisemitism say anything like this?
“A Labour government will guarantee the security of the Jewish community, defend and support the Jewish way of life, and combat rising antisemitism in our country and across Europe.”
You are not prepared to give the slightest credit to efforts like this or to the changes in policy, process and education in tackling antisemitism brought in by Corbyn. You then repeat the context-free allegations against Jeremy Corbyn which have been compellingly refuted multiple times.
Chief Rabbi, with your views on Israel, including your failure to criticise the Occupation in any way, and your welcoming of Donald Trump’s disdain for Palestinian rights over East Jerusalem, I’m not convinced that your ability to spot institutional discrimination is quite as sharp as you like to think it is. It’s these double standards, repeated across the formal Jewish establishment, that blunt any ability to take a credible role in debates over racism and discrimination. While you are quick to see “failure of culture and failure of leadership” within the Labour Party, you also need to consider if the same critique can be applied closer to home.
It is not clear if this use of anti-Semitism will have a substantive effect on voter’s minds. But it is taking attention away from the other issues in the campaign.