Why the Chief Rabbi was (almost) right

About two weeks before the 2019 parliamentary elections, UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis wrote an article for The Times accusing the Labour Party of antisemitism. The allegations were twofold:

  • Firstly, the leadership failed to account for the antisemitic behaviour within the party.
  • Secondly, Mirvis wrote, Corbyn is personally ‘complicit in prejudice’.

Unlike some commentators, I do not question the right of religious leaders to intervene when the stakes are this high. ‘Challenging racism is not a matter of politics’ Mirvis said. It is also not a matter of beliefs –  those with authority should always call it out. 

There is no doubt that antisemitism is a problem in the Labour Party – as it is in wider society. However, we have little evidence for its systemacy; the only extensive report on Labour’s antisemitism, the Chakrabarti inquiry, mentioned an ‘occasionally toxic atmosphere’, but concluded that the Party ‘is not overrun by antisemitism’. Be that as it may, we should not dismiss the allegations of Corbyn’s antisemitism lightly. Although some of his words and actions could have been misinterpreted, or should perhaps be excused because of the context, the amount of serious evidence is too great to to ignore.

There is no denying that by attacking the leading opposition party, Mirvis endorsed the Conservative government. While 85% of British Jews think that Corbyn is antisemitic, the institution of a Chief Rabbi is not the same as that of a megaphone. The Tories’ obsession with ‘Cultural Marxism’ or Jacob Rees-Mogg’s denunciation of two Jewish MPs as ‘illuminati’ is as worrying as cases of antisemitism in the Labour Party. Not to mention other types of racism common among Conservatives, which certainly should concern Rabbi Mirvis. Even though we might have got so used to the old antisemitism of the far-right that we do not register it anymore – it is still there, almost three times more frequent than on the far-left. 

Regardless of how prevalent the anti-Jewish attitudes in Labour truly are, my stance is that Mirvis was right to call out the cases of antisemitism that he saw. But, by ignoring the other side of the equation, he not only overlooked the duty to ‘challenge racism in all forms’ that he mentions in his article, but also left the door open for more antisemitism to come, this time from the opposite side of the political spectrum.

Photo of Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis above by The Foreign and Commonwealth Office

 

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