In an unprecedented move, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom attacked the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn for failing to tackle antisemitism.
The Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has intervened in the 2019 UK general election in an unprecedented way.
The convention is that religious leaders steer clear of party politics, but in an article for The Times, the Chief Rabbi said Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of antisemitism allegations makes him “unfit for high office … A new poison – sanctioned from the top – has taken root in the Labour Party.”
He said the party’s claim to have dealt with all allegations of antisemitism is “a mendacious fiction”, with 130 cases unresolved. And the way that the party has handled the claims is “incompatible with the British values of which we are so proud – of dignity and respect for all people”.
Ephraim Mirvis was installed in 2013 and is leader of the United Synagogue, which is Orthodox and represents half the Jewish population in the UK, currently in total around 280,000 people. Other branches include Liberal and Reformed.
“It is not my place to tell any person how they should vote. I regret being in this situation at all. I simply pose the question: What will the result of this election say about the moral compass of our country? When December 12 arrives, I ask every person to vote with their conscience. Be in no doubt, the very soul of our nation is at stake.”
The intervention came on the day that the Labour party launched its “race and faith manifesto”, including working with social media firms to combat the rise of antisemitism online.
At the launch, Mr Corbyn said: ‘Antisemitism in any form is vile and wrong. It is an evil within our society. It is an evil that grew in Europe in the 1920s and onwards and ultimately led to the holocaust. There is no place whatsoever for antisemitism in any shape or form, or in any place whatsoever, in modern Britain and under a labour government it will not be tolerated in any form whatsoever.”
The Chief Rabbi’s comments have provoked further reaction: The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Justin Welby acknowledged the anxiety behind this intervention: “That the chief rabbi should be compelled to make such an unprecedented statement at this time ought to alert us to the deep sense of insecurity and fear felt by many British Jews.”
The Muslim Council of Britain said Muslims “will listen to the Chief Rabbi and agree on the importance of voting with their conscience”, going on to highlight their own concern as a faith community threatened by Islamophobia. They accuse the Conservative party of approaching Islamophobia “with denial, dismissal and deceit.”
The Hindu Council has backed the Chief Rabbi, saying the Labour party had increasingly become anti-Hindu and criticising its response to the 1991 forced exodus of Hindus from the Kashmir valley.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor Emeritus of the History of the Church, University of Oxford.
“In one sense, the Chief Rabbi’s comments go too far; in another, they do not go far enough. In going too far, he implies that by virtue of his office, he speaks for all the varied Jewish communities in this country. Many of them will be ready to say that he does not. In not going far enough, if he is denouncing one form of perceived racism in political life, his denunciation would carry more weight if it took notice of other forms of perceived racism that voters might consider, ranging right across the party political spectrum.”
Dr Keith Kahn Harris, sociologist, senior lecturer at Leo Baeck College, the UK’s progressive Jewish rabbinic seminary; associate lecturer at Birkbeck College, and fellow of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research:
“The Chief Rabbi is from the United Synagogue, an Orthodox denomination, but in this case he does reflect views which Rabbis in other traditions are articulating. This is a high risk strategy because if religious leaders of any kind make explicit comment, they lose their freedom to manoeuvre and become associated with a particular political position. I am sure he is aware of this, which suggests exceptional circumstances.”
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, chair of the Conference of Liberal Rabbis and cantor, on behalf of
“Rabbi Mirvis spoke with his conscience and echoed the fears that many of us within Liberal Judaism and the Jewish world hear daily. His worries reflect the worries of many of our members and we respect his bravery in stepping into the limelight and drawing attention to a concern that many in the Jewish community hold. As Liberal Jews, we know the power of being able to vote and the responsibility that comes with that power. There are many issues that need to be considered when casting our ballot, we would urge all to vote with their conscience and use their vote wisely. Our movement also encourages sincere debate on difficult issues in a considerate manner, assuming the good intentions of the other unless proven otherwise. This relates to the many issues that currently beset our country and our society that we will all consider when deciding who we trust most to govern and who to lead our country.”
Ben Rich, Chief Executive at Radix, the think tank of the Radical Centre; former Chief Executive of the Movement for Reform Judaism; member of the Liberal Democrats and Trustee of the Religion Media Centre:
“I am no fan of Jeremy Corbyn and am an active member of another party, but I am concerned by the tone of this commentary. Our responsibility is to call out antisemitism and racism wherever we see it not to focus on one political party. Labour has failed utterly to root out antisemitism in its party but other parties are also far from immune from parallel difficulties and in particular the conservative approach to anti-Muslim hatred is reproachable. It is not helpful to compare prejudices but nor is it right to suggest that those that support Labour are indifferent to the failure to get to grips with the antisemitism in their party. At this election we all have to make very difficult judgements about a range of issues: I don’t say this to diminish the significance of Labour antisemitism but to flag the many other threats and challenges we face as a country. Those who conclude that voting Labour is the way to address these threats are not necessarily endorsing Labours approach to antisemitism nor have they “lost their moral compass”. They would be wrong imo, but that doesn’t make them immoral and we must disagree with respect.”
Rabbi Jeff Berger, leader Rambam Sephardi Synagogue, speaking as an individual:
“As someone not affiliated with the United Synagogue movement, it is clear to me that the Chief Rabbi thought deeply and carefully before intervening in the upcoming election. Somewhat disconcerting, though, have been today’s angry responses on social media by some using antisemitic language against the Chief Rabbi and his Times article. People I respect are shaking their heads saying: ‘We are living in very challenging times’. It is generally better when religious figures don’t intervene in politics. One can only speculate that the Chief Rabbi felt that silence was no longer a viable option.”
A group of 29 ‘Ultra Orthodox’ Jewish leaders, who represent under 2% of Jews in Britain, issued a joint statement rejecting the Chief Rabbi’s comments:
“We were shocked to learn about those that are claiming in the media that the Jews of Britain are outraged towards the Labour party’s respected leader Jeremy Corbyn. They have spread rumours that the Jewish population are considering leaving the country for fear he becomes Prime Minister. We therefore feel necessary to clarify that we have no connection whatsoever with these irresponsible remarks.”