Secular States like religion to be a private matter. Religious leaders are perennially warned “not to meddle in politics”. So how come the Chief Rabbi writing in The Times last week, widely described as ‘unprecedented’ in his attack on the leader of a political party campaigning in a general election, didn’t receive the customary treatment? The simple answer is the intervention came from the leader of Britain’s Orthodox Jews, and, however outspoken the attack on the Corbyn Labour Party by Ephraim Mirvis, it expressed genuine concern that was widely considered legitimate.
More can be said. The charge of anti-Semitism that has bedevilled the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, emerged in the context of denunciations of Israel felt as a threat by British Jews. For many, the land, Eretz Israel and the State of Israel, are at the same time both a cherished theological and political reality. Many view their future looking back over the rim of an historic abyss, the Holocaust. This is not a place for measured conversation. Least of all when the other interlocutors denounce the human rights violations of the State of Israel. These have been shocking: for example when live fire from Israeli troops at the Gaza border killed over fifty Palestinian demonstrators with 1,000 hurt on 14 May 2018, many with life changing injuries. Events such as these are known to increase incidents of anti-Semitism.
The term “Zionism” lies at the intersection of radical disagreement and profoundly conflictual positions centred on the right to self-determination. Neither side in the war of words bothers to define what is meant by Zionism nor notice there have historically been several brands. So the word itself has become an empty container to be filled positively, indicating the State of Israel and Jewish redemption, or pejoratively, indicating State Terrorism and Jewish culpability. By elision with – one kind of - Zionism, anti-Semitism rears its ugly head. And ‘Zionism’ then moves to the centre of highly charged debate and becomes a word so tainted by accusations that it is a disguised anti-Semitic term wise speakers avoid using it.
I have had some experience of how such a process happens. During the last decade of apartheid regime in South Africa, the young black ANC supporters with whom I was acquainted would often report killings by the South African military, a conscript army like Israel’s, as “the Boers have killed ...”. I may have done the same myself. Were we being racist when we spoke of the Boers? Shorthand? Sometimes perhaps. In more reflective moments the words used were “the system” was blamed. Is all British anti- Semitism the result of elision of this kind? No. But quite a lot of it is on the Left and in today’s Labour Party, I suspect. That does not make it any the less insensitive or troubling. And just to be clear I’m not claiming that Israel is a facsimile of the 1980s apartheid State, just saying that words can become freighted with racial significance while having a purely descriptive political-historical meaning.
Full-frontal Anti-Semitism has not gone away. Think of the Nazi-style cartoon put up in Tower Hamlets, which the Council had removed. Jeremy Corbyn supported the artist, without bothering to look at the cartoon properly, so he claimed in a later apology. Jewish MPs have been ‘hounded out’ of the Party. Is it any surprise the Jewish community is worried? Anti-Semitism remains a persistent theme of the extreme Right. There have been repellent versions of it from the Left in social media.
What exactly has been going on in the Labour Party will emerge but after the Election. We have to wait for the report from the independent Equality and Human Rights Commission enquiry. A variety of anti- Semitism has clearly manifested itself within the Labour Party: often in the form of sometimes passionate, sometimes sententious, support for the Palestinians, or in careless use of social media. And with an uncontrolled influx of some 400,000 members to the Party, the number of such cases has mounted up. Here the weakness of Corbyn’s leadership becomes obvious. Weeding out offenders started too slowly and took too long. The buck stops at the top. Mr. Corbyn was never going to be given the benefit of the doubt.
Given all this, does it make Mr. Corbyn himself anti-Semitic? The Chief Rabbi justifiably worries about the soul of Britain, but the warning about looking into men’s souls, Mr. Corbyn’s soul anyway, should apply. Better to focus on what he has, and hasn’t done. He has clearly shown a lack of political and prudential judgement, with little empathy for Jewish feelings and sensitivity to the impact of their historical experience.
Fellow religious leaders, sensitive to the growing persecution of religious minorities around the world, have shown Rabbi Mirvis great solidarity. The Archbishop of Canterbury underlined the “deep sense of insecurity and fear” in the Jewish community. But the Chief Rabbi risks being seen, inappropriately for a religious leader, as overly politically partisan.
It might be wise for him now to give an equally timely warning to Mr. Johnson. The following wisdom from the Talmud recommends itself as good counsel: “The liar’s punishment is that even when he speaks the truth, no-one believes him”.
See The Article 03/12/2019