“On the matter of antisemitism we have always acted as one.” This proud claim was made by Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, speaking at the AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) conference in Washington DC this week.
Of course it’s not true. In October 1936, for example, tens of thousands of Jews in London’s East End took to the streets with many non-Jewish Londoners to stop an invasion by thousands of uniformed fascists, and won a famous victory that has gone into the history books as the “Battle of Cable Street”. If they had followed the advice given two days earlier, by the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, or that of local rabbis in their synagogues barely 24 hours before the confrontation (on instructions prepared by the Board of Deputies), they would have pulled down the shutters, stayed indoors and let the fascists cause whatever mayhem they wished. Fortunately, the Jewish masses completely ignored their out of touch community “leaders”.
In that same issue of the Jewish Chronicle, just two days before the Battle, a letter was published from the Board of Deputies President, Neville Laski, berating other leading Jewish figures who had leaked a secret memorandum to the Home Secretary saying that Jews in the East End were not getting the protection from the police they were entitled to. Laski wanted to assure the police and the authorities that “this allegation is entirely unfounded”.
But it was not at all unfounded. Many Jews were arrested that year for heckling fascist speakers who were inciting antisemitic violence on public platforms. Laski’s defence of the police attitude to East End Jews would have amused the Jews who were beaten and subjected to antisemitic verbal abuse at Leman Street police Station. Hardly an example of the Jewish “leadership” and the rest of the community speaking or acting as one on the matter of antisemitism.
And what about the period just after WW2? The 43 Group of mainly Jewish ex-servicemen and women who courageously broke up outdoor fascist meetings where antisemitic abuse was commonplace would find themselves condemned, instead of thanked, by those who saw themselves as community leaders, who wanted to handle matters very differently.
When it comes to antisemitism we have very rarely acted or even spoken as one. Indeed, many Jews I know would have castigated Ephraim Mirvis for speaking on the very platform he did when he made his contentious remarks. After all, AIPAC is the largest pro-Israel lobbying body in the USA, and has a dubious record of enthusiastically providing a platform to those who say the “right” things about Israel, even if the bodies those speakers represent have questionable attitudes to Jews.
In the past AIPAC has given a platform to the deeply antisemitic Christian fundamentalist
Pastor John Hagee
Pastor John Hagee who once gave a sermon describing Hitler as God’s “hunter” who, acting on God’s Will, removed Jews from Europe to shepherd them to Palestine. Hagee has described Jews as “physically alive” but not “spiritually alive” and is a believer in the End Times scenario of the return of Jesus and the Jews who refuse to convert being doomed to eternal hell. Do me a favour!
Two of the platform speakers at AIPAC this week were representatives of the Hungarian government led by Victor Orban, a government that used blatant antisemitism in its propaganda campaign to get re-elected, especially targeting the Hungarian Jew George Soros. Mirvis must have known that, but seems to have raised no objection.
Moreover, that Hungarian government has regularly utilised antisemitic, Islamophobic, anti-Roma, homophobic and anti-feminist tropes in its propaganda to “defend the Christian family” and “White Europe”. Many Jews came to Britain fleeing Tsarst Russia as asylum seekers. Orban describes non-European asylum seekers trying to enter Hungary today as a “poison”.
Mirvis’s claim that Jews have always acted as one on antisemitism was actually not the most controversial thing he said in Washington. That was his frank admission about his unseemly partisan political activity during the British General Election campaign, when he wrote a vicious and mendacious attack on Jeremy Corbyn in an op-ed in The Times, calling him an antisemite who was unfit for office, and warning of dire consequences “for Jews, Judaism and the State of Israel” if Corbyn entered Number 10.
What the real consequences for Jews would have been of a Corbyn-Labour victory were in fact laid out in the Labour Party’s Race and Faith manifesto whose impressive launch event was deliberately sabotaged by Mirvis’s attack on Corbyn in The Times, 24 hours earlier,
Jeremy Corbyn with kindertransport refugee Lord Dubs at the launch of Labour’s Race and Faith manifesto
This is what the manifesto said: “We will strengthen our communities’ rights to practice their religion free from persecution. We will defend the right to wear religious and other dress and symbols of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and many others. We will protect the practices which are crucial for many, such as the production of kosher and halal meat… We will strengthen protection for religious communities and amend the law to include attacks on places of worship (synagogues, temples, mosques and churches) as a specific aggravated offence… Review current levels of funding to the Places of Worship Protective Scheme to ensure it is proportionate to risk…Maintain funding in real terms for the Community Security Trust… Work with social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to combat the rise of racism, including antisemitism and Islamophobia, and extremism expressed on social media… Work with partners across Europe to challenge the rise of Islamophobic and antisemitic rhetoric, including from other European governments eg. Hungary, Poland. We will invest in our communities and public services to build the stronger, fairer society that keeps us all safer.”
All that, and better health, social care and support for all who needed it.
I can see why AIPAC’s guests from the Hungarian Ministry might be nervous about this – their government gets name-checked for the wrong reasons, but for anyone, let alone someone venerated by the shallow British media as a Jewish “leader”, to claim that a Corbyn-led Labour government would be a threat to Jews is nonsense, to put it generously.
At the time, Mirvis portrayed his intervention as that of a spiritual leader whose tortured conscience told him that he must speak out. The shallow media lapped it up, then amplified it, over and over again. At AIPAC he was proud of what he had done and very candid, admitting that when he acted, “I did so not in a unilateral manner but in concert with key Jewish figures and Jewish organisations”. He showered AIPAC delegates with compliments about their “power and influence”, urging them at the end of his speech: “use your influence fearlessly for the sake of Jews and Judaism and Medinat Yisrael (the State of Israel).” This pandering to antisemitic stereotypes would have cheered conspiratorial antisemites who claim that Jews all act in unison to exert undue political control. But the picture he drew would have been unrecognisable to the many Jews who know that Jewish life is full of healthy diversity and internal conflict and disagreement – all signs of a vibrant community which is actually incapable of acting in unison about anything.
Some candidates from the Joint List
The reference to “Medinat Yisrael”, however, reveals Mirvis’s true agenda and set of priorities about antisemitism. Ultimately for him it is, above all, about defending the State of Israel. This is different from “Israelis” or “Jews”. I suspect he cares little for the radical Israeli Jews, who believe in justice and equality, and who voted in significantly increased numbers for the left wing Palestinian “Israeli -Arab”- led Joint List in this week’s Israeli General Election. I believe he actually cares more about their polar opposite – the Israeli settlers illegally occupying Palestinian land. Why do I believe that? Because he was one of them and still supports them.
In the 1970s, when Mirvis was in his late teens, he spent some years at a Yeshiva (very orthodox religious seminary) in the Gush Etzion illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. Of course we all do and say things in our youth that we don’t agree with later, but just a few years ago there was an annual fundraiser in New York for that same Yeshiva that remains on illegally occupied Palestinian land. The keynote speaker that night was Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.
In other right wing press columns (Daily Telegraph) he has made the fatuous and ignorant argument that anti-Zionism is always antisemitism. The first political anti-Zionists were actually Jewish. Zionism has always been a contested political ideology in Jewish life among both religious and secular Jews from the year of its foundation in 1897 until the present-day. It is true that anti-Zionism can take antisemitic forms (as can Zionism as Christian fundamentalists frequently prove), but most anti-Zionists I know are arguing from a completely legitimate anti-racist, anti-nationalist, anti-oppression position. Every Palestinian I have ever met has been an opponent of Zionism for absolutely legitimate reasons that are about dispossession, occupation, discrimination and humiliation. Does Rabbi Mirvis simply regard them all as antisemites because they are anti-Zionist?
But perhaps what irks me most about the Chief Rabbi’s speeches and writings is his claim to represent and advance the cause of opposition to racism. Anti-racism is not a pick ‘n’ choose activity. It is indivisible. If you are not against all racism, you are not a sincere anti-racist. Mirvis typifies “selective anti-racism”. He will repeat wild allegations against Corbyn and Labour, however unjustified, and however inconsistent with Labour’s historical and current role in advancing agendas of equality, as well as Corbyn’s own impressive pedigree here, while being completely unseeing and unhearing when it comes to Tory racism, including antisemitism.
Did he not notice Jacob-Rees Mogg describing two Jewish Tory politicians as “Illuminati” seeking to impose their dominance, or Suella Braverman’s criticism of “Cultural Marxism” – a deeply antisemitic trope that orginates with attacks on mainly Jewish Frankfurt School Marxists? Was he blissfully unaware of the Tory candidate at the election suspended for praising Holocaust-denier David Irving, alongside Islamophobic and anti-LGBT remarks? Was he ignorant of the antisemitic stereotypes in Boris Johnson’s own novel penned in 2004 which includes inferences about Jews controlling the media and fiddling elections, not to mention his inclusion of a dodgy Jewish pimp with a “proud nose”? Did Rabbi Mirvis show any interest in John Bercow’s recollections from the Commons where another (unnamed) Tory MP had said to him that, if he had his way, people like Bercow would not be in this place (Westminster)? When Bercow asked whether “people like him” meant “lower class” or “Jews” that Tory MP said “both”.
Chief Rabbi Mirvis made his election intervention knowing that the only alternative to a Corbyn-led government was one led by the racist Boris Johnson, of the disgraceful “letter box”, ‘bankrobbers’, and “watermelon smiles” references. A Corbyn defeat would continue to give power to a government that was responsible for the Hostile Environment and the devastating Windrush scandal with its appalling – even deadly – effects on black lives; a government with the most callous attitudes and practices towards refugees, asylum seekers, and the vulnerable and poor in general.
Fortunately there are growing numbers of British Jews who certainly do not regard Rabbi Mirvis as their leader. They are becoming as enthused as many American Jews about Bernie Sanders (who boycotts AIPAC because he regards them as “bigots”), and are prepared to fight for more humane and ethical values than those espoused by Rabbi Mirvis. Let’s hope they prevail.