Religion & Liberty Online

Anti-Semitism and Britain’s Labour Party

Britain’s 2019 General Election is unusual for many reasons. It’s not odd for British religious leaders to express their views about what they think their congregants should consider before they go to the polls. But the entire country was taken aback late last month when Britain’s mild-mannered Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis (who heads what’s called the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth) published a public letter in the London Times in which he effectively advised people not to vote for the British Labour Party.

What’s extraordinary about this is much of Britain’s Jewish population have traditionally voted for Labour and have done so for a long time. Chief Rabbi Mirvis stated, however, that “a new poison” had entered the Labour party, one which had been “sanctioned from the very top.” That can only be seen as a reference to the leader of British Labour, Jeremy Corbyn. He is by far the most left-wing leader of the British Labour party since Michael Foot.

The poison which has permeated Labour’s bloodstream is anti-Semitism. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Britain became a relatively safe refuge for Jews fleeing persecution and bigotry. Many have risen to the highest ranks in British politics, law, culture and commerce.

A good example was the Conservative Member of Parliament, Sir Keith Joseph (later Lord Joseph of Portsoken). The son of Sir Samuel Joseph, a Lord Mayor of London, Sir Keith was elected a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, in 1946. This is one of the most sought-after academic accolades at Oxford. It is earned through fierce intellectual competition and examinations. Politically-speaking, Joseph is famous for having paved the intellectual way for the free market revolution that occurred on the British right and inside the Conservative Party in the 1970s and 1980s. On the other side of politics, the former leader of Britain’s Labor Party, Ed Miliband, had a Polish Jewish mother who survived the Shoah and a Belgian Jewish father who fled to Britain in World War II.

Anti-Semitism of one form or another is, alas, present to some degree in most Western societies. But until now, it’s most vivid expression throughout the United Kingdom was via Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, a movement which operated on the fringes of British politics in the 1930s.

Now, however, the cancer of anti-Semitism appears firmly ensconced on the left—especially the hard left—of British politics. It mostly comes across in the form of extremely harsh anti-Israel rhetoric which turns out to be thoroughly laced with some of the old nasty tropes about Jewish influence in commerce and politics.

People in Britain, including British Jews, of all political persuasions have long held a variety of views about Israel. That’s not the issue. The problem ranges from the association of some prominent Labour politicians and activists—including Corbyn himself—with a variety of groups that regularly deploy anti-Semitic language, to comments by prominent Labour political figures that are hard to read as anything but anti-Semitic.

Labour, not surprisingly, has denied that the problem is as far reaching as some are suggesting, even though Corbyn himself has acknowledged “that anti-Semitism has occurred in pockets within the Labour Party.” The Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth, by contrast, say that it is a real problem and is concerned at the apparent failure of Labour’s leaders to tackle the problem with the seriousness it deserves. In any case, it is a sad state of affairs that a country which has such a long history of tolerance in the right sense of that word finds one important segment of its political spectrum struggling with the one of the oldest and most reprehensible of prejudices.

Featured image: Sophie Brown [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Samuel Gregg

Samuel Gregg is Distinguished Fellow in Political Economy and Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research and serves as affiliate scholar at the Acton Institute.