Liz Truss has been accused of offensive comments, after her campaign set out a plan to protect Jews from “creeping antisemitism and wokeism” in the civil service and portrayed Jewish values as setting up businesses and protecting the family unit.
The Conservative leadership candidate was accused of using Jewish people and antisemitism to make a political point, after she published a plan that targets “woke civil service culture that strays into antisemitism”.
She also praised the Jewish community for holding values such as setting up businesses and protecting the family unit in comments that drew criticism for narrowly stereotyping Jewish people as having conservative values.
Two civil service unions, the FDA and Prospect, condemned Truss for suggesting civil service culture was antisemitic, while a leading rabbi also questioned her remarks.
Joel Rosen, the president of the Union of Jewish Students, asked for her to withdraw the “offensive” remarks. He said: “Many students have reached out to me in light of Liz Truss’s remarks … As UJS Sabs, we have spent hours educating student unions and university officials about antisemitic tropes.
“Her comments about setting up a business being a Jewish value constitute an inaccurate and offensive portrayal of the Jewish community … Many Jewish students have found her remarks to be ill-judged and offensive. We hope she reflects on her words, withdraws these remarks, and reaches out to our community.”
The press release from Truss did not make specific reference to where antisemitism may be found in the civil service. However, her team later pointed to an interview with the Jewish Chronicle, in which she suggested she had had to overrule Foreign Office civil servants challenging her approach to the UN human rights council, which she described as having been used “to peddle a particular agenda which frankly have strong elements of antisemitism”.
She added: “Every organisation has its culture, but it’s not fixed, it can be changed. That’s what ministerial leadership is about: it’s about making sure that the policies we represent, the values we stand for, are reflected in what we do.”
The government is also legislating to outlaw boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) policies being pursued by public bodies, mostly councils and their pension funds, although this relates to local government rather than the civil service.
Truss questioned whether schools were doing enough to educate pupils and teachers about antisemitism and said she would rid university campuses of anti-Jewish hatred.
At the same time, she set out her own view of Jewish values, saying: “So many Jewish values are Conservative values and British values too, for example seeing the importance of family and always taking steps to protect the family unit; and the value of hard work and self-starting and setting up your own business.”
Previously, Truss has told the Conservative Friends of Israel that as prime minister she would review whether to move the UK’s embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, following in the footsteps of Donald Trump.
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, a former senior Reform Judaism rabbi, challenged Truss’s approach of criticising the civil service. She said: “I’ve had lots of experience of the civil service and my experience is of people who profoundly care about antisemitism. I wouldn’t want antisemitism to be instrumentalised in any way – to be misused to attack civil servants. That actually turns Jews into instruments of someone’s additional agenda.
“Jews are a very mixed bunch … I think for someone else to define Jewish values and see them as a very narrow way as ‘business’ – no. My experience as a communal rabbi is of Jews who are committed to family in all its forms, not in the narrow sense of nuclear family.
“Jews are of different backgrounds and of all kinds. That is not restricted to the Labour party, or the Conservative party, because we are as feisty, divisive and enjoyable and annoying as any other citizen in the UK.
“From the point of view of equating Jews with business, what does that mean? Does it mean Jews are especially good at business, where does that lead us? It limits Jews to see business and family in a narrow sense.”
But she added: “A concern about minorities is a great thing, thank you. And the fact there is a Conservative candidate concerned by any form of racism is good.”
Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union, which represents senior civil and public servants, called Truss’s comments about the civil service straying into antisemitism “insulting and abhorrent”.
“The Conservatives have been in government for more than 12 years now and, for most of that time, Liz Truss has been a minister. So accusations of ‘civil service wokeism’ are a little ironic, given it’s essentially a criticism of their own leadership,” he said. “She provides no evidence for her accusation that many civil servants will find both insulting and abhorrent.”
Mike Katz, of the Jewish Labour Movement, added: “We’re not sure what the ‘woke civil service culture that strays into antisemitism’ is. But what we are sure is that this is a desperate and divisive attempt by Liz Truss to drag Jews into her campaign to win over the Conservative membership with nonsense buzzword pledges.”
Mike Clancy, the general secretary of Prospect, another civil service union, said Truss “should have a better grip on both the evidence and facts about what is happening in the civil service. If there is evidence, she should publish it”.