The chief rabbi’s Labour warning reveals major shifts in UK politics

The fears of Britain's Jews are very real and are part of a broader politicisation of minorities. 

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“Just weeks before we go to the polls, the overwhelming majority of British Jews are gripped by anxiety”, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis wrote in The Times this week. The electoral intervention, warning that “a new poison - sanctioned from the top - has taken root” in the party, was yet another mark of the serious breakdown in relations between many of Britain’s Jews and the Labour Party. 

“During the past few years, on my travels through the UK and further afield, one concern has been expressed to me more than any other,” Mirvis wrote. “Of course the threats of the far right and violent jihadism never go away, but 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?” Unlike the intervention of Rabbi Jonathan Romain a few weeks ago, who urged congregants of his Maidenhead synagogue to vote tactically against Labour over anti-Semitism, Mirvis did not call outright for people not to vote Labour. “It is not my place to tell any person how to vote,” he said. “I regret being in this situation at all. I simply pose the question: what will the result of this election say about the moral compass of the country?”

Published just ahead of the launch of Labour’s Race and Faith manifesto on Tuesday, the article made a huge impact, pushing anti-Semitism to the top of the news agenda. The word “unprecedented” was used to describe the intervention itself, but it is also an apt descriptor of this political moment in the history of Britain’s Jewish community. In the past, chief rabbis have called on people to serve their country, in the First and Second World Wars for instance, and even in the politically controversial Boer war, says Professor David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism. What seems unprecedented, however, is such overt criticism of a particular party, and indeed a particular party leader.

Mirvis, who took office in 2013 as spiritual leader of the UK’s orthodox Jews, does not tend to political intervention. He is not a very well-known figure outside the Jewish community. The fact that he took this step at such a fraught time, during a particularly tense election, points to major shifts in the UK’s political landscape.

The first is the fact that Jews are now so often in the headlines. It is hard to remember what it was like before the words “Labour” and “anti-Semitism” appeared so regularly on our front pages, but this state of affairs has only been normal since the crisis started nearly four years ago. The Jewish community “has always had a reputation...of keeping its head down and not wanting to make a fuss, and certainly not wanting to rock the boat politically,” says Dave Rich, author of The Left’s Jewish Problem. This experience of being the focus of national attention is unprecedented in itself, and also deeply uncomfortable for a lot of Jews. “Even if there are many Jewish people who are pleased and reassured at seeing anti-Semitism taken seriously, they are also very nervous and anxious at the fact that it has to be,” says Rich. 

The second is the idea that there is such a thing as a “Jewish vote”. As recently as 2010, British Jews were quite evenly split across the Conservative and Labour parties, but that has clearly changed. According to a recent Jewish News poll, while some six per cent of Jews said they would be voting Labour, on 12 December 24 per cent said they would vote Lib Dem and 64 per cent Conservative. That same poll found that 87 per cent of Jews believe Corbyn is anti-Semitic.

“Historically, the Jewish establishment in this country has been very eager to say there is no such thing as a Jewish vote,” says Feldman. But the fact that Jewish community groups, and indeed the office of the chief rabbi, have been so outspoken on this issue, is a sign of change in the political mobilisation of minorities, something that Feldman links to the growth of ethnicity in politics since the 90s. Rabbis representing other parts of the Jewish community backed Mirvis’ message. Alongside the Church of England, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh community leaders also came out in support. In a statement, the Muslim Council of Britain acknowledged the “real fear” of many British Jews over the “unacceptable” place of anti-Semitism in British politics. It went on to highlight the problem of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party. “British Muslims.. Will listen to the chief rabbi and agree on the importance of voting with their conscience.” This is a symptom of that shift. 

The broader response to Mirvis’ intervention has also been telling. In some quarters it has been seen as a move to sabotage Labour’s chances at winning the election, with Mirvis painted as right wing. The understanding that Mirvis leans to the right seems based on rather tenuous premises, including the fact that, as chief rabbi, he congratulated Boris Johnson on becoming prime minister. This was very much a formality, and something that Jewish leaders on the left did, too. But this assumption has also been based on his being an Orthodox rabbi, and therefore not liberal. Keith Kahn-Harris, author of Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity, notes that Mirvis has done some relatively liberal things for a chief rabbi. He also points out that this does not tend to happen when other minority leaders of strict religious backgrounds draw attention to racism against them.

Mirvis’ article made clear how difficult a step this was for him to take. The fact that some people have seen his statements as cynical politicking is a reminder of the fact that, particularly on the left, we are more attuned to seeing racism expressed through structural inequality. Though racism against Jews has been expressed that way in the past, that is mostly not the case in Britain today, says Kahn-Harris. The fact that, outside the ultra-Orthodox community, Jews tend to be educated and reasonably privileged, means that less people see it as possible that anti-Semitism could be a real concern. It is also uncomfortably similar to tropes of Jews secretly plotting behind the scenes.

Interviewed last night by Andrew Neil, Jeremy Corbyn declined repeated invitations to apologise to the Jewish community, in light of the chief rabbi’s remarks. An outcome of this latest chapter in the saga is that the anxiety, the Jewish fear that Mirvis describes, is dismissed by some as an overreaction at best, or at worst as a construct. In both cases, it is not seen as legitimate. Emotional reaction does not have to be proportionate, however, and Jewish concerns have a context of history. Even if many Jews were overreacting, even if Jewish life in Britain today is on the whole safe and prosperous, even if there is a problem of Islamophobia in the Tory party and other forms of racism urgently need addressing in this country, that does not mean this Jewish fear is not real.

Alona Ferber is Special Projects Editor at the New Statesman.