Jeremy Corbyn has come under fire from Jewish leaders and lawmakers both outside and within his party for his failure to combat antisemitism in Labour. British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis is to be commended for his bold article in The Times of London this week, sounding the alarm over antisemitism in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party ahead of the December 12 general election.
“It is a failure to see this as a human problem rather than a political one,” Mirvis wrote, without mentioning Corbyn by name. “It is a failure of culture. It is a failure of leadership. A new poison – sanctioned from the top – has taken root in the Labour Party.”
“British Jews are gripped with anxiety,” he said, adding that while convention dictates that the chief rabbi keep out of party politics, “The question I am now most frequently asked is: ‘What will become of Jews and Judaism in Britain if the Labour Party forms the next government?’”
Assuring readers that he was not telling anyone how to vote, Mirvis made his position crystal clear. “I ask every person to vote with their conscience,” he concluded. “Be in no doubt, the very soul of our nation is at stake.”
The chief rabbi’s harsh comments triggered a media frenzy – and an important statement of support from Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.
“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,” Welby said. “The chief rabbi’s statement provides all of us with the opportunity to ensure our words and actions properly reflect our commitments to mutual flourishing and inclusion, for the common good.”
Corbyn has come under fire from Jewish leaders and lawmakers both outside and within his party for his failure to combat antisemitism in Labour. It has led to the resignation of a string of Labour MPs, most notably Dame Louise Ellman, who after 22 years in parliament said Corbyn was “not fit” to be prime minister.
Corbyn himself declined several opportunities to apologize for his party’s approach in a tough interview with BBC broadcaster Andrew Neil on Tuesday night. The next morning, Corbyn acknowledged the chief rabbi’s concerns, but insisted that Labour still has many Jewish supporters, and he had made it clear that antisemitism is wrong. “Our party did make it clear when I was elected leader, and after that, that antisemitism is unacceptable in any form in our party or our society and did indeed offer its sympathies and apologies to those who had suffered,” he said.
But words are not enough. In a letter to The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, World Zionist Organization vice chairman Yaakov Hagoel stated, “One of the top contenders for the United Kingdom’s leadership is a declared antisemite, a hater of Israel and a terrorist supporter.
“In 2019, nearly 300,000 Jews are living in fear for their own future and their own security,” he wrote. “Jewish symbols are hidden in fear of rising antisemitism on the streets of Britain.”
Hagoel urged Britain’s government, currently headed by Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson, to “take immediate action to protect her Jewish citizens through physical and legal protection.”
President Reuven Rivlin voiced his support for Mirvis in a meeting in London on Wednesday. “Your clear voice and leadership, particularly in the last few days, fills us all with pride,” Rivlin told Mirvis.
It should be noted that a record number of almost 900 antisemitic incidents were reported in the UK in the first six months of 2019, and the situation seems to be getting worse. The Community Security Trust, British Jewry’s largest watchdog, noted there was a 10% rise from the same period in 2018.
Perhaps the most powerful picture of the situation of British Jewry today came in a viral video posted by filmmaker Chris Atkins last week, showing a Jewish father wearing a kippah, riding on the London Underground and protecting his two sons while being accosted by a man yelling antisemitic curses at them. Among other things, the yeller said they were from “the synagogue of Satan.”
A Muslim woman wearing a hijab came to their defense and scolded the yeller, distracting him long enough for the Jewish family to get off the train. The man was later arrested in Birmingham, while the father, who pointedly asked not to be named, personally thanked Asma Shuweikh, a Muslim mother of two, two days later in Manchester. The London-based Jewish News reported that he gave her a bouquet of flowers over a cup of coffee.
Her very human act of heroism provided an answer of sorts to the chief rabbi’s warning. You can’t just talk the talk against antisemitism, you have to show you mean it through meaningful action.