Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis speaking in 2015. Photo: Flickr/ Foreign & Commonwealth Office Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis speaking in 2015. Photo: Flickr/ Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Lindsey German on racism and witch-hunting

Antisemitism was always going to be an issue in this election. Several years of systematic attacks on Jeremy Corbyn have created a toxic atmosphere round the question, and one where it is very hard to have a constructive and realistic discussion about it. This is the context for the intervention of the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, in Rupert Murdoch’s Times on Monday.

Mirvis claimed in this article that Jews were worried about Labour forming a government and said that ‘the soul of the nation is at stake’. While he said that it wasn’t his place to tell people how to vote, his article appeared aimed solely at one party, Labour, whose leadership had dealt with antisemitism in a way ‘incompatible with the British values of which we are so proud – of dignity and respect for all people’.

It is extremely hard in the circumstances to rebut any such allegations. A leading spiritual figure claims that the election of a Labour government is feared by many Jews, and that this party has done nowhere near enough to deal with their fears, and it seems incontrovertible. Moreover, any decent person will be horrified at the thought that any Jews can be frightened of a political outcome.

This is particularly the case since there has been an increase in antisemitism in Europe, which rightly brings back fears of the fascism and far right politics of the 1930s. We have seen growing antisemitism in Orban’s Hungary, in Ukraine, and among the resurgent far right in Germany. We have seen a number of terrorist and other violent attacks on Jewish targets in France. And here in Britain, there have been reports of growing signs of anti-Jewish racism, including two recent attacks on Jews on a London tube and a bus.

So this is something we all need to take seriously and to deal with – and we may have different approaches to dealing with it. But that requires firstly that we are truthful and specific about the facts and secondly that we locate 21st century antisemitism in the general context of racism.

On the facts, the remarkable feature of Rabbi Mirvis’s intervention is that it has no new evidence in it whatsoever. It states that people are concerned and unhappy, but does not suggest that this is because of new allegations within Labour. Yet as we know the vast majority of allegations of antisemitism (themselves only a tiny fraction of party membership) have been dealt with, and the leadership has repeatedly committed itself to rooting out antisemitism. The criticism of Labour therefore relies on generalities and on the rehashing of cases which have been dealt with.

So we are told that MPs have left over the question. Luciana Berger, Louise Ellman and Joan Ryan all have. But it cannot be denied that in all those cases (and in that of others such as Ian Austin who cite antisemitism as a reason) the individuals had major criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. They are all on the right of the party and have been opposed to his policies from the beginning. They were not ‘hounded out’ as has been claimed but left of their own accord. Berger in particular has been subject to vile antisemitic abuse, one case ending in court, but this was not associated with Labour members.

Attempts to draw a line under this by the Labour leadership have repeatedly failed. A number of prominent figures have been thrown out or have reluctantly resigned from the party allegedly for being antisemitic but this has not stopped a single attack. Indeed the instances of alleged antisemitism become more tendentious – as when Corbyn was accused of pronouncing Epstein in an antisemitic way, or when a candidate had to apologise for using the word ‘gassed’ even though its meaning in vernacular (happy) has nothing to do with antisemitism.

We are to put it bluntly in an atmosphere of a witch-hunt over this question and one where those who are deemed to have made such a remark are attacked until they recant in ways far too reminiscent of show trials. Labour made major concessions to its critics in adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism, one which includes criticism of Israel as antisemitic. This has had the effect of blunting such criticism, which is perfectly valid, and in weakening solidarity for the Palestinians.

All of this is intensely political. The charges of antisemitism have too often been weaponised by those who oppose Corbyn and support the Tories. That is an incredibly dangerous and irresponsible thing to do. It creates fears of racism where none should exist – there is no threat to Jews or any other ethnic or religious minority from a Jeremy Corbyn government – and can have the effect of minimising the real and present dangers of this sort of racism, especially from the far right.

Mirvis gives no opinion on voting, but if his attack is exclusively aimed at Labour the overwhelming beneficiary of this will be Johnson. Johnson has made – and refuses to apologise for – numerous racist remarks. He also presides over a government which implements racist policies such as the hostile environment and the scapegoating of Muslims. If he wins a majority and does deals with Trump, this will increase racism, including against Jews.

It is just not acceptable for Mirvis and all those backing him to act as though they only see one sort of racism. We live in a deeply racist society and the fight against that racism must be indivisible. Jeremy Corbyn has spent his life fighting against racism, whereas Johnson has done the opposite. Real racists gleefully use the antisemitism argument to attack Labour, even while they support policies which will only help foster more racism and antisemitism in the future.

Meanwhile, criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and of the brutal policies of Netanyahu, backed up by Donald Trump, become increasingly difficult to make. The left needs to push back on this, and stand up for what we believe in – solidarity with all the oppressed.

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.