Few minority communities in the world are as careful about rocking the boat, verging on timidity, as British Jewry.
For centuries, its leadership shied away from controversy, successfully maintaining good relations with all major political parties and remaining staunchly royalist (even though it was King Edward I who banished the Jews from England in 1290, for which the royal family has yet to apologize).
Until Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, the idea of any of the major British Jewish organizations or official representatives making a public political intervention would have been outlandish. Which is why, for the past two days, the column written in The Times of London by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has been such big news in the British media, dominating headlines and pushing other issues regarding the December 12 election off the agenda.
Mirvis didn’t explicitly mention Corbyn by name, but he was referring directly to him when he wrote that “a new poison — sanctioned from the top — has taken root in the Labour Party.” He continued: “How far is too far? How complicit in prejudice would a leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition have to be to be considered unfit for office? Would associations with those who have incited hatred against Jews be enough? Would describing as 'friends' those who endorse the murder of Jews be enough? It seems not.”
In over three centuries, no British chief rabbi has ever made such a blatant political statement. Mirvis tried to soften his message by writing, “It is not my place to tell any person how they should vote. I regret being in this situation at all.” And he no doubt does. But neither was there any ambiguity when he concluded: “I ask every person to vote with their conscience. Be in no doubt, the very soul of our nation is at stake.”
The office of chief rabbi of Great Britain is an ambiguous thing. Most British Jews are not mitzvah-observant in their daily lives, and their affiliation with a synagogue (if they even have one) is fleeting and tenuous.
Many of those who are engaged members of Britain's Jewish communities are either ultra-Orthodox, Sephardi-Portuguese or progressive and have their own rabbis, who bear no allegiance to the moderately Orthodox “United Synagogue” brand that the chief rabbi represents.
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On the other hand, this is Britain, where the title of chief rabbi has been in use for over three centuries and tradition still counts for something. So even though the chief rabbi doesn’t speak for all Jews, he often has to act as if he does. And since we’re talking about representing Jews in all their argumentative diversity, this often means eloquently saying absolutely nothing of consequence — a task at which the mellifluous Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks excelled.
Mirvis, chief rabbi since 2013, does not have his predecessor’s silver tongue and is less of a star performer on BBC Radio 4’s theological slot, "Thought for the Day." What he does have is bravery and a willingness to confront the more reactionary elements within the British rabbinical establishment — of whom Sacks was petrified.
In his two decades as chief rabbi, Sacks was too scared of the opprobrium of his ultra-Orthodox colleagues and never attended the annual Limmud conference — the greatest gathering of Jewish learning in Britain — lest he be accused of consorting with progressive rabbis. Mirvis made a point of attending Limmud from his very first year as chief rabbi.
Last year, Mirvis published a comprehensive guide for Orthodox schools on “The Wellbeing of LGBT+ Pupils,” together with KeshetUK — an organization dedicated to working for the welfare and rights of LGBT people in the Jewish community. No similar document has been published or sanctioned by a senior Orthodox rabbi anywhere else in the Jewish world. It is almost unimaginable for any other Orthodox rabbi to have done so. Certainly not Sacks, who for years was incapable of even putting out new guidelines on the position of women in Orthodox synagogues.
But Mirvis has proven that he has a strong core of decency and does not hide behind the convenient rabbinical tropes of his Orthodox colleagues. He has no delusions of grandeur and is fully aware he doesn’t represent most British Jews. At the same time, though, he knows the general media in Britain doesn’t make these distinctions. He isn’t grandstanding or enjoying the moment, and he would not have made what he knew would be a highly controversial statement were he not sure that he was voicing the fears of the overwhelming majority of British Jews. It was not just for those in the congregations he is the official spiritual leader of that he asked: “What will become of Jews and Judaism in Britain if the Labour Party forms the next government?”
That fear is borne out in recent polls. A March survey showed that 87 percent of British Jews believe Corbyn to be anti-Semitic (only 6 percent believe he is not), while an October poll showed that 47 percent would "seriously consider" emigrating if Corbyn were to win. It is also borne out by the thousands of Jews who have left the Labour Party, including two highly prominent female Jewish lawmakers who faced horrific anti-Semitic harassment within the party.
There is, of course, a small but vocal minority of Jews who believe otherwise and for various ideological reasons continue to believe in Corbyn. They have every right to claim that the chief rabbi doesn’t represent them. And there are still others who have deep misgivings about Corbyn (and those around him) and the anti-Semitism crisis that has engulfed Labour over the past four years, but at the same time are unhappy at seeing a figure like the chief rabbi getting involved in politics. Their feelings are justified: The other parties have been quick to take advantage of the situation to serve their own political agendas.
British Jews, especially those who hold liberal views and who cannot stomach voting for the ruling Conservative party — which has transformed in recent months into a nativist, Brexit-at-all-costs, hard-right movement — have a cruel choice. They can of course vote for the Liberal Democrats, a party that currently seems to be much more representative of the more moderate values of many British Jews. But the next U.K. prime minister will either be Boris Johnson — a lying opportunist with racist tendencies of his own — or Corbyn, under whose leadership Labour has become a hateful environment for most Jews. Corbyn himself, in a televised BBC interview on Tuesday night, repeatedly refused to apologize to the Jewish community for what has happened.
As chief rabbi, Mirvis also faced a cruel choice. Could he have remained silent and not acknowledged the fear gripping most British Jews, even though cooler heads say the fear is exaggerated (and they’re right). Even though Johnson’s Conservatives could be just as much a threat to Jewish life with their broader xenophobia, most Jews are experiencing a more direct challenge to their sense of well-being as equal British citizens and the security of their community from the direction of Corbyn’s Labour.
Mirvis is the last person who can be accused of wanting to be in this position. He is a chief rabbi focused on his community, not on showing the non-Jewish world what a brilliant philosopher he is. When he wrote of “the [Jewish community's] deep discomfort of being at the centre of national political attention for nearly four years,” he was speaking for himself as well.
He had no choice but to write what he did and to articulate something the overwhelming majority of British Jews are thinking.