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

 

Is everything about Netanyahu?

The assassination of General Qassim Soleimani may or may not have been a risky strategy on the part of the US President intended to boost his chances in forthcoming US elections; however, it certainly distracted Iraqis from the anger they were feeling against Tehran’s perceived culpability for encouraging the shooting of young Shiite demonstrators in Iraq. And it also helps Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu strengthen his position in Israel. 

Regardless of Trump’s eloquent claim that Iran “was looking to blow up our [US] embassy”, there is no evidence to prove that was the case. Nor was the killing of Soleimani motivated by the need to retaliate for events directly preceding the strike – the demonstrations at the US embassy in Baghdad and the death of Iraq born American contractor Nawres Hamid in a rocket attack on 27 December 2019. Information shared with the Next Century Foundation makes it clear that the assassination was actually planned prior to 24th December.

Whether or not the US had any long-term interest in killing Soleimani, the Quds Force leader was certainly previously targeted for assassination by Israel’s forces at least once, in 2015. Prior to that Soleimani barely escaped an Israeli air-strike while in Lebanon in 2006. In any case Netanyahu considered him responsible for many of the actions of Iranian proxies taken against Israel in recent years. As leader of the Quds Force (the Iranian military presence outside Iran) Soleimani was said to be in charge of the missile strikes on Israel fired from Iranian positions in Syria in 2018. Even more importantly, Soleimani had enormous influence over Hezbollah (whose salaries are subsidised by Tehran) and was a powerful figure in Beirut. He is now publicly mourned by many Hezbollah supporters in Lebanon.

Netanyahu was one of a small number of Mid East political leaders informed in advance by the US about the plan for Soleimani’s assassination. Claims that Israel provided intelligence necessary to carry out the strike are less credible, and if they did so they have much to answer for since the US had such flawed intelligence that it knew nothing of the presence of key Iraq Militia Leader Mohandis in the kill zone. In any case, Israel had one of its arch-enemies effortlessly eliminated. Had Soleimani been assassinated by Israeli forces, it would have been dangerous for Israel, with direct retaliation from Hezbollah likely to take place. While Israel, as an American ally, might theoretically be targeted by Iran in revenge, the risk involved is now much lower. 

Even though, Iran has “concluded” its retaliation, the airstrikes on American bases in Iraq hardly seem to be an adequate response. Regardless of which, it is still possible that elements in Iraq have not finished their retaliation for the killing of Mohandis. But any such retaliation will be directed against the USA and will not target Israel.

There are those in Hezbollah who  – given the current economic and political crisis in Lebanon – would like the distraction of being engaged in a conflict with Israel or even a full-scale war. After all, in 2008 after the punishingly harsh (for both countries) 2006 Israel / Lebanon war, Hezbollah had just 2,000 rockets left – whereas currently Hezbollah has amassed a stockpile of some 40,000 missiles. However the humiliation Iran suffered in the international arena after mistakenly downing a Ukrainian civilian airplane, means that de-escalation is more likely to follow. 

All the recent developments shift the focus in Israel away from the indictments filed against Netanyahu. The assassination of Soleimani seems to be a confirmation that the PM was effective in forming an even more robust alliance with the US. A growing military threat at the hands of Tehran only strengthens the position of Netanyahu before the upcoming election. 

Trump’s assassination of Soleimani did not make the Middle East a safer place, but at least it allowed Bibi to change the topic of the public debate from an unfortunate one – his corruption charges – to what the PM deals with best: a potential war. 

 

Netanyahu as a symbol – personality politics in Israel

The message of Netanyahu’s critics is clear: because of the indictments filed against him, he should step down as prime minister – his failure to do so is a betrayal of public trust and Israeli democracy. However, the current situation is not that of an unpopular politician avoiding elections, and using his position and lack of clear procedures in order to stay in power. While a majority of Israelis (52% according to a recent poll by Channel 13) do believe that he should resign from office, it does not affect Likud’s polling results. Netanyahu, instead of being shown a red card, continues to call the shots in Israel. This is made possible not by his cynicism and relaxed morals, but by means of the stable support offered by his electorate.

Despite the political deadlock and the indictments being announced, most Israelis declare they would vote in the upcoming elections for the same candidate they did in the previous one. While it is true that the majority of voters favour a national unity government, most of them want to see Netanyahu in it. Polls show that Likud would even gain one or two more seats in the Knesset than the current number – however, only if it is still led by Netanyahu himself. Even though the most natural response of the party to the latest developments would be a change of leadership, this would lead to a complete electoral defeat of Likud. Channel 12 News survey from 26 November says Likud would win only 26 seats if led by Netanyahu’s competitor Gideon Sa’ar. Netanyahu, and not the policies he proposes, is what attracts voters to his party.

With his continuous support for the creation of new settlements in the West Bank, introduction of the Nation-State Law, and the electoral promise to annex the Jordan Valley, Netanyahu holds a symbolic significance for Israeli nationalists. Paradoxically, the ultra-nationalist, conflict-loving politician indicted for serious offences serves to represent the promise of stability. Even though the two-state solution is still most popular with Israelis, support for a continuation of the present situation as a permanent solution is growing, and suffices to produce ongoing deadlock both in the political arena and in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Netanyahu has managed to shift the political scene so much that he is now standing in its centre. A vote for Netanyahu is a vote for the preservation of status-quo – this status-quo, however, is of a uniquely Israeli type: it is constantly moving to the right, both in a metaphorical, and in a geographical sense.