Plenty of Jews in the UK would say the chief rabbi does not speak for them. They may be from different traditions in Judaism – progressive or ultra-Orthodox – or they may be secular. But many, probably most, agree with the thrust of his unprecedented intervention in next month’s general election.
Ephraim Mirvis, the UK’s most senior Jewish leader who represents Orthodox Judaism, accused Jeremy Corbyn of allowing a “poison sanctioned from the top” to take root in the Labour party. British Jews, he said in an article in the Times, were gripped by a justified anxiety about the prospect of a Corbyn-led government.
His comments caused a furore on social media and among politicians campaigning in the election. Some accused Mirvis of speaking on behalf of the Israeli government and being an “apartheid propagandist”. But for many, the chief rabbi’s comments epitomised their revulsion at the Labour leadership’s failures to deal with accusations of antisemitism.
Raymond Simonson, chief executive of JW3, a Jewish cultural centre in north London, said: “I’ve worked in this community my whole career and lived in it my whole life. I can’t remember something like this happening before.
“For the chief rabbi, the most senior religious leader in the UK Jewish community, to come out with something as strong as this is extraordinary. Even if people disagree, the fact he’s moved to say this publicly reflects absolute angst in his heart, soul and mind.
“I speak to hundreds of [Jewish] people as part of my job – Orthodox and Reform, religious and secular, gay and straight – and I know not everyone thinks the same on this or on any issue. But what I’m hearing again and again is people who have been natural Labour voters reluctantly coming to the conclusion that they can’t vote Labour this time. I guarantee this will be the number one conversation around Shabbat dinner tables this Friday.”
Nearly all those the Guardian contacted used the word “unprecedented” to describe Mirvis’s intervention.
According to Karen Pollock, the chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, Mirvis would have written his article from a sense of duty. “I think he was right to do it, and I respect him for it. It reflects the deep despair and distress felt by the community, and the absolute failure of a political party with a long history of fighting racism to deal with antisemitism today. It’s heartbreaking.”
Mike Katz, who chairs the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), said: “Sadly Mirvis’s diagnosis is spot on. It’s not just about policies and procedures, but politics and leadership. That’s why the JLM has said, for the first time ever, we’re downing tools in this election. We’re only supporting exceptional [Labour] candidates in exceptional circumstances.”
The chief rabbi’s intervention would have resonance among Jews of all backgrounds, he said. “Mirvis doesn’t represent all Jews, but Reform Jews like myself will respect what he says. Nobody can claim he is speaking out of turn – plenty of non-practising Jews feel the same way.”
But another Jewish organisation within the party, Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), said Mirvis’s article was “utterly inappropriate”. Jonathan Rosenhead, a member of the group, added: “As with all other accusations made, they’re very nearly evidence-free. It’s not an endemic problem. There are antisemites in the Labour party because they’re everywhere. But this country is the safest place in Europe for Jews.
“The media gives one constant narrative. I’ve been in the Labour party since 1961 and I’m still waiting for my first experience [of antisemitism]. The majority of British Jews have been alarmed unnecessarily – and the chief rabbi has contributed to this.”
Last year, 64 senior rabbis from different traditions signed a letter that said: “Antisemitism within sections of the Labour party has become so severe and widespread that we must speak out with one Jewish voice.”
Laura Janner-Klausner, the senior rabbi to Reform Judaism, told the Guardian the issue of antisemitism was core to the nature of British democracy and not only a matter of concern to Jews.
She added: “As Rabbi Mirvis indicated, it is not our place to tell others how to vote. It would be deeply regrettable for 2019 to be remembered only for conversations about antisemitism, and we hope that all issues of racism and discrimination will be considered at this election. We ask that everyone engages with our precious democracy and votes with these concerns in mind.”
Another Reform rabbi, Jonathan Romain of the Maidenhead synagogue, said: “Unfortunately, the chief rabbi is totally justified in blaming Jeremy Corbyn for allowing antisemitism to permeate the Labour party. It was never an issue under any previous Labour leader be it Michael Foot on the left, Tony Blair on the right, or Neil Kinnock in the centre.
“That is why I broke the golden rule two weeks ago that religion and politics do not mix, and that clergy in particular should not be engaged in politics. This is not a stance against Labour per se, but against Corbyn-led Labour, and will be abandoned the moment he is no longer at the helm.”
Speaking on behalf of Liberal Judaism, Rabbi Aaron Goldstein said: “[Mirvis had] spoken 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.”
But Jews Against Boris tweeted: “The chief rabbi is absolutely right when he says the soul of our nation is at stake. Boris Johnson is appealing to the far right in his bid to secure power, and we must do everything in our power to stop him.
“The reality is that the only alternative to a Labour victory next month is a Conservative one. 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.”
The Jewish author Michael Rosen also took to Twitter to point out that the chief rabbi had not drawn attention to antisemitism in the Conservative party. “There should be consistency across the whole political field,” he told the Guardian. “Is the chief rabbi interested in combating antisemitism anywhere and everywhere?”