Baroness Julia Neuberger won’t be voting in Britain’s election on Thursday. As a member of the House of Lords, she is not allowed to. “Convicts, lunatics and peers — none of us can vote,” she points out.
But here is what she tells Jewish friends seeking her advice on how to cast their ballot: “Just don’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn. How else you vote is clearly up to you.”
It’s not an easy thing to say for someone whose parents, like many in Britain’s Jewish community, were ardent supporters of the Labour Party and whose father once dreamed of serving the party in Parliament. Indeed, before joining the centrist Liberal Democrats, she too had considered Labour her political home.
Neuberger holds the distinction of being Britain’s second female rabbi, and the first to head her own congregation. A widely admired Jewish community leader, she is a voice people listen to.
The 69-year-old grandmother took a break from the action back home this week to attend a special event at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute (where she serves as chairwoman of the board), celebrating the publication of her latest book “Antisemitism: What It Is. What It Isn’t. Why It Matters.”
It couldn’t have been more timely.
In an interview with Haaretz, Neuberger says she decided to write the book because she was so furious about what was happening under Corbyn. “But apart from that,” she says, “my goal was to answer all those people coming to me asking whether I really believed there was anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.”
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To sum up the book in a few words — she does.
Neuberger doesn’t buy the argument that the Labour Party leader has nothing against the Jews and that it is only Israel he can’t stand.
“What we’ve been hearing, especially on social media, is often code for a much older kind of anti-Semitism that has existed long before there was a State of Israel,” she says.
But neither does she believe that it is possible to completely separate anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism.
“You can be as critical as you like of the policies of the State of Israel — and I often am myself,” she says. “But if you’re the sort of anti-Zionist who says Israel shouldn’t exist, then you have to ask yourself, ‘How can you say Israel shouldn’t exist if it’s been here for 71 years?’ Are you saying that if the Scottish nationalists eventually win and create an independent Scotland, then Scotland shouldn’t exist? What does it mean to say that a state shouldn’t exist? If that’s your position, I think it’s challengeable as anti-Semitism.”
She is also suspicious of those who claim to advocate for the oppressed of the world, but are hard-pressed to name any oppressor other than Israel. “If you only criticize Israel, alone of all the countries of the world,” she says, “it is unlikely that you’re not an anti-Semite — because if you were really concerned about human rights abuses, you would be criticizing China, Burma, Syria and a long list of countries. If you’re not, then I think you’ve got some questions to answer for.”
Old school anti-Semitism
What does she say to those Jews in Britain and elsewhere who continue to defend Corbyn? “I cannot say hand on heart, because I haven’t asked him, that Corbyn is an anti-Semite. But I can say that he sure as hell has presided over a situation in which a lot of anti-Semitism has been expressed — and it’s mostly this old-fashioned ‘Jews controlling the world’ sort of stuff that has nothing to do with Israel-Palestine.”
Two weeks ago, British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis took the unprecedented step of publishing a scathing attack on Corbyn in The Times of London. It goes without saying that Neuberger had his back. “The chief rabbi let me know in advance that he was doing this, and he and I were in touch throughout the day once it was published,” she relays. Considering that she is a Reform rabbi and he is Orthodox, such coordination is far from obvious. “In fact, it’s quite unusual,” Neuberger notes. “I’d go so far as to say that there has never been as much unity in the Jewish community in Britain as there is now, thanks to Corbyn.”
Perhaps even more surprising, she says, is the support British Jews are receiving from the U.K.’s Muslim community. “It’s been enormous, and it’s really interesting,” she says. “After the chief rabbi’s article was published, we had many Muslims reaching out to us saying ‘We’re with you.’ Some even said, ‘It’s the Jews now. It’ll be us next.’ Some cynics have said the Labour Party has been doing what it’s doing to the Jews to please Muslim voters. I don’t think that’s true at all, because I don’t think this is what it’s about.”
For many progressive-minded British Jews, the election has come down to a choice between the lesser of two evils: a Boris Johnson-led Conservative government or a Corbyn-led Labour one. For Neuberger, it is clear that one is far more preferable — at least insofar as the Jewish community is concerned.
“I come from the center-left, but I really don’t think a Tory-led government would be bad for the Jews,” she says. “And I say that as someone very critical of its policies — Brexit being a prime example. So a Tory victory wouldn’t be nice for the country, but it wouldn’t be bad in any particular way for the Jews. Whereas a Labour-led government headed by Corbyn would be bad for the Jews. Not to the point where they should panic, as some are already. But I definitely believe it’s something that should make them angry and cause them to fight back.”
Neuberger, who had been active in Labour as a teenager, was on the original list of Social Democrats who ran in the 1983 election, right after the centrist party was formed. Among her reasons for splitting with Labour (along with four moderate Labour lawmakers) were concerns that the far left was having too much influence on the party. The Social Democrats merged with the Liberal Party in 1988 to become the Liberal Democrats, and she was appointed to the House of Lords in 2004 as Baroness Neuberger of Primrose Hill.
She resigned from the party in 2011, though, after being appointed senior rabbi at the West London Synagogue — the oldest Reform congregation in Britain. “I don’t think you should have a political party if you’re preaching from the pulpit,” she says, “so I went to the crossbenches” where independent peers sit.
It had never been her intention growing up to become a rabbi. In fact, her dream was to become an archaeologist. “I was fascinated with the Babylonians and Assyrians,” she says, “and I wanted to specialize in that area.”
She applied to work on a dig in Iraq during her first year at Cambridge, but was refused entry because she was Jewish. A year later she applied to work on a dig in Turkey, but was refused entry because she was British. “The Turks thought the British had stolen some finds from the site,” she explains.
With her nationality and religion both proving major obstacles to her career plans, she decided to focus on Hebrew. One of her teachers, Nicholas de Lange (best known for translating Amos Oz’s works into English), suggested she become a rabbi. “I said to him, ‘That’s absurd. Women don’t become rabbis.’” Nonetheless, she followed up on his suggestion and eventually was ordained at Leo Baeck College in north London.
Upon her graduation in 1977, she assumed a rabbinical position at the South London Liberal Synagogue and began teaching at Leo Baeck. In 2003, a year prior to becoming a baroness, she was made a Dame of the British Empire. Among her many positions over the years, Neuberger has served as chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering, Chancellor of the University of Ulster and president of Liberal Judaism. She is scheduled to retire as senior rabbi of her congregation in March, but says she will continue with all her other work.
According to various polls, a significant number of British Jews would leave the country if Corbyn wins. Neuberger is skeptical about those findings. “I think people are nervous, but they aren’t leaving and I don’t think they will,” she says.
Alternatively, if Corbyn is defeated, she believes life will quickly go back to normal for the Jewish community. “I think quite a lot of what we’re seeing now will disappear,” she predicts. “I don’t think it will go completely. I don’t think it ever goes completely, but I think it will become much less of a public thing.”
The reason she says she is so confident is that, unlike many other European countries, Britain never really had a problem with its Jews before. “It doesn’t feel to me that this anti-Semitism we’re seeing is something deeply ingrained in British society,” she says. “It’s always been there on the hard right and now on the hard left — but it’s not widespread. This has always been such a welcoming place for Jews, and that’s why what’s happened in the Labour Party has come as a shock to many of us.”
Neuberger’s mother had fled Nazi Germany in 1937, and her father was born in Britain to Jewish immigrants from Germany. This year, she exercised her right to obtain a German passport. But it’s not because she is planning her escape, she insists.
“For me, this is not about anti-Semitism but more about Brexit and the fact that I feel passionately European,” she explains.
Still, Neuberger concedes, there was also another thought running through her mind when she applied for the German passport. “There was that part of me saying, ‘You took it away from my mother and I’ll have it back now, thank you very much.’”