Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis is certainly a small-‘c’ conservative on both political and theological matters. And he congratulated Boris Johnson on becoming Prime Minister (though it’s worth noting that religious leaders are expected to offer congratulations and promises of prayer to incoming prime ministers).
Whether or not Mirvis is a Tory is not the issue.
The most senior rabbi in British Orthodox Jewry has made an unprecedented intervention into party politics, warning that “the very soul of our nation is at stake” and that Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to tackle antisemitism within Labour means he is unfit to be prime minister. While Mirvis stopped short of endorsing any other party or using language as explicit as that used by Jonathan Romain, a senior Reform rabbi, who urged his congregants to vote tactically to defeat Labour, the message is clear: don’t vote Labour.
Rightly or wrongly, close to 85 per cent of British Jews (according to polls) believe that Labour has become an antisemitic party under Corbyn and that he himself is an antisemite.
Corbyn’s supporters (including some Jews) point to his record as a “life-long” opponent of “all forms of racism”, but the fact remains that under his leadership the majority of British Jews have become alienated from Labour and the party is under investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission following claims of “institutional” antisemitism.
Of course, the charge of antisemitism is now a weapon of the Tories, the Labour right, and the media against the Labour Party. The question that matters, though, is: are they right about it? Right about the essentials, not this or that incident or extrapolation? If the charge is true, then it overshadows everything else. Antisemitism is not just a little political blemish. It puts those who let themselves be fouled by it in the same political and moral sphere – in however small a role – as those who perpetrated the greatest crime of the 20th century.
It is true that the MPs who have left the party over antisemitism are, in general politics, all right wingers. But nobody who watched and listened to Luciana Berger’s speech explaining why she left the Labour Party could doubt the sincerity of her account of the antisemitism that drove her and others out of the party. The alarm that has gripped the Jewish community about antisemitism in the Labour Party and the prospect of a government led by Corbyn and his close collaborators is real. It is not just a political posture to damage the Labour Party.
There is a long tradition in much of the Jewish community of support and involvement with the Labour Party. To the leaders of the Jewish community, and many Jews, including Jewish members or recent ex-members of the Labour Party, the “left” in the Party, or some of it, must appear as possible future anti-Jewish pogromists, as has much of the would-be “revolutionary” left for a long time now.
Where has the crisis come from? From five decades of political and moral ferment on much of the ostensible left in which absolute hostility to Israel, to any Israel, has slowly built up in the political atmosphere like poisonous smog.
The “Corbyn surge” that recreated a mass membership almost overnight pulled into the new, new Labour Party a lot of people educated on the Middle East question in the kitsch left. With them they brought their political baggage, and a trolling and bullying culture. Some of them were involved in the 1970s and 80s in campaigning in the National Union of Students and on campuses against the right of Jewish student societies to exist. Some were involved in the 2000s in Stop the War, the SWP and/or Respect – all organisations that promoted (and in the case of the SWP, continues to promote) absolute anti-Zionism – a form of political antisemitism.
There is, of course, an “objective” basis for all this in the festering Middle East conflict. There is an element of supporting the Palestinians, championing their rights which Israel often tramples on, smothered in it, somewhere. But the activists of “left” antisemitism go way beyond that necessary support for the Palestinians. Milk gone sour then “thickens” and changes its consistency. The long-existing absolute anti-Zionist antisemitism dominant on the pseudo-revolutionary left has, on entry to the new, new Labour Party, on contact with it, thickened into something more virulent and poisonous.
In fairness to Jeremy Corbyn, although he seems genuinely mystified by the claims of antisemitism and has certainly displayed quite extraordinary insensitivity towards Jewish concerns and sensibilities on a number of occasions, he has also made real efforts to address the issue.
In this context, it’s worth revisiting the letter Jeremy Corbyn sent to the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council in March 2018. You can read their letter, to which he was replying, here. Corbyn’s letter made a number of important points about antisemitism on the left and represented a real step forward:
Thank you for your letter to the Labour Party concerning anti-Semitism issued as a press statement last night.
First of all, let me acknowledge the anger and upset that provoked it, and repeat my offer of an urgent meeting to discuss the issues you have raised as soon as possible.
I stated yesterday, and repeat today, that I will not tolerate any form of anti-Semitism that exists in or around our party and movement. I am committed to eliminating anti-Semitism wherever it exists.
As I told the Labour Party conference in 2016, anti-Semitism is an evil that led to the worst crimes of the 20th century. Prejudice and hatred of Jewish people has no place whatsoever in the Labour Party, and every one of us has a responsibility to ensure it is never allowed to fester in our society again.
I recognise that anti-Semitism has surfaced within the Labour Party, and has too often been dismissed as simply a matter of a few bad apples. This has caused pain and hurt to Jewish members of our Party and to the wider Jewish community in Britain. I am sincerely sorry for the pain which has been caused, and pledge to redouble my efforts to bring this anxiety to an end.
While the forms of anti-Semitism expressed on the far Right of politics are easily detectable, such as Holocaust denial, there needs to be a deeper understanding of what constitutes anti-Semitism in the labour movement. Sometimes this evil takes familiar forms – the east London mural which has caused such understandable controversy is an example. The idea of Jewish bankers and capitalists exploiting the workers of the world is an old anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. This was long ago, and rightly, described as “the socialism of fools”.
I am sorry for not having studied the content of the mural more closely before wrongly questioning its removal in 2012.
Newer forms of anti-Semitism have been woven into criticism of Israeli governments. Criticism of Israel, particularly in relation to the continuing dispossession of the Palestinian people, cannot be avoided. Nevertheless, comparing Israel or the actions of Israeli governments to the Nazis, attributing criticisms of Israel to Jewish characteristics or to Jewish people in general and using abusive phraseology about supporters of Israel such as “Zio” all constitute aspects of contemporary anti-Semitism. And Jewish people must not be held responsible or accountable for the actions of the Israeli government.
The Labour Party has always opposed anti-Semitism, old and new, and always will. We are proud of our deep historical links with Jewish communities, and to have fought alongside generations of Jewish men and women against fascism, prejudice and discrimination. This is a part of our common heritage from which we will never be separated. But I acknowledge that anti-Semitic attitudes have surfaced more often in our ranks in recent years, and that the Party has been too slow in processing some of the cases that have emerged. Early action has nevertheless been taken, and we will work to speed up procedures, to deal with cases of anti-Semitic abuse or attitudes.
I am committed to making our Party a welcoming and secure place for Jewish people. Zero tolerance for anti-Semites means what it says, and the Party will proceed in that spirit. That demands among other things the overdue full implementation of the recommendations of the Chakrabarti report, including a programme of political education to increase awareness and understanding of all forms of anti-Semitism.
The battle against anti-Semitism should never become a party political issue. It must unite all of us if we are both to honour the memory of the victims of the bestial crimes of the 20th century and build a future of equality and justice for all.
In that spirit, I must make it clear that I will never be anything other than a militant opponent of anti-Semitism. In this fight, I am your ally and always will be.
The fact remains that despite the very real failings of the party and the tin ear all too often displayed by Corbyn and his immediate circle when it comes to antisemitism, the Labour party remains the political expression of the organised working class in Britain. Jewish people have, traditionally, played a leading role within the party and should do so again. A victory for Johnson would be a victory for all manner of bigotry, backwardness and racism – including antisemitism.
Whilst acknowledging the genuine fears, hurt and concern expressed by many Jewish people, we urge them to vote Labour and to join the ongoing fight to purge the party of antisemitism.