November 27, 2019

U.K. Chief Rabbi denounces Labour party on antisemitism

Source: The New York Times

Britain’s chief rabbi chastised the Labour Party on Monday for its handling of antisemitism in its ranks, breaking rabbinical convention to join other Jewish institutions in cautioning people against supporting the party in next month’s election.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, reacted defiantly on Tuesday night, refusing to apologize in a BBC interview for his party’s response and defending the slow pace of some investigations into anti-Semitic remarks by party members.

The chief rabbi’s rebuke instantly generated fierce debate among British Jews, with some seeing it as reflecting their fears of Labour and others saying that he did not speak for them.

The chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, an Orthodox rabbi who used to lead a North London synagogue, suggested in an article in The Times of London that Mr. Corbyn was “unfit for office.”

“The way in which the leadership has dealt with anti-Jewish racism is incompatible with the British values of which we are so proud — of dignity and respect for all people,” he wrote.

Later in the article, he called it a “mendacious fiction” that Labour was doing everything it could to stamp out anti-Semitism in the party.

“A new poison, sanctioned from the top, has taken root in the Labour Party,” he wrote, adding that in the election next month, “the very soul of our nation is at stake.”

It was not the first time that British Jewish organizations, or even prominent rabbis, had spoken out strongly against Labour in recent weeks, though some observers called it the most remarkable, given the chief rabbi’s usual reluctance to get involved in party politics.

Attacks on Labour’s handling of anti-Semitism have already become a centerpiece of the election campaign, and Britain’s Conservative Party quickly seized on Rabbi Mirvis’s remarks.

The Church of England offered public support for the chief rabbi. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, said the article “ought to alert us to the deep sense of insecurity and fear felt by many British Jews.”

But some British Jews also criticized the way Labour’s political opponents were putting Rabbi Mirvis’s words to use. Not all British Jews recognize the chief rabbi as the leader of their communities.

And some people warned that Rabbi Mirvis had sidestepped a greater threat posed to Jews and other British minority groups by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has himself been accused of making racist and Islamophobic remarks and energizing parts of the far right similar to those responsible for recent attacks on Jews in the United States.

“We understand why so many in our community feel unable to vote for the Labour party, however we must not make the mistake of thinking the Conservatives are a safer alternative,” an organization called Jews Against Boris wrote on Twitter. “This is a party which is courting nationalist votes by demonizing and threatening minorities, and undermining the rule of law. The idea that this would be a safe environment for Jews is incredibly dangerous.”

The group, modeled in part on the efforts of American Jews to organize against President Trump, said keeping British Jews safe meant standing in solidarity “with all other communities experiencing oppression.”

Rabbi Mirvis highlighted several episodes that have pained British Jews, among them the party’s handling of anti-Semitism complaints, Mr. Corbyn’s reluctance to adopt a widely accepted definition of anti-Semitism and his calling members of Hamas and Hezbollah “friends.”

Mr. Corbyn later said he regretted using that language, and the Labour Party has always strongly denied turning a blind eye to anti-Semitism.

But Mr. Corbyn only stoked more skepticism with his BBC interview on Tuesday night. Andrew Neil, the interviewer, repeatedly asked him whether it was anti-Semitic to say that the Rothschild banking family runs Israel and global governments, a false, age-old conspiracy theory. Mr. Corbyn sidestepped the question several times, before eventually calling it an “anti-Semitic trope.”

The role of chief rabbi in Britain, unlike in other European countries, does not have formal ties to the state, though Prince Charles attended Rabbi Mirvis’s induction in 2013. Rabbi Mirvis leads a body of Orthodox congregations not only in Britain but across the Commonwealth; in Britain, those synagogues account for just over half of total synagogue membership, according to a 2010 report.