The UK’s chief rabbi has launched an “unprecedented” attack on Jeremy Corbyn, claiming an “overwhelming majority of British Jews are gripped by anxiety” at the thought of a Labour victory in next month’s general election.
Ephraim Mirvis said the leadership’s handling of anti-Semitism was “incompatible” with British values and warned “the very soul of our nation is at stake”.
The comments threatened to overshadow Labour’s launch of its race and faith manifesto on Tuesday and forced the party to speak out and defend Corbyn as a “lifelong campaigner against anti-Semitism”.
Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, said the intervention was “the most extraordinary” story his paper had run in the last four years.
The Archbishop of Canterbury also called the statement “unprecedented”.
But at the same time, a backlash began on social media as people tried to discredit Mirvis. Writer, activist and English teacher Holly Rigby said in a now-deleted tweet that the rabbi was an “uncritical supporter” of the current Israeli PM and of “the violent oppression of Palestinians by Israel”.
Others identifying as Jewish spoke out and reiterated their support for Corbyn in light of the rabbi’s comments.
Who is the chief rabbi and who does he represent?
Ephraim Mirvis’ full title is chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth.
He heads, for starters, the United Synagogue (US), which represents 64 currently active congregations. It’s the biggest Jewish denominational body in the UK and the biggest organisation of its kind in Europe.
The US is part of the wider modern or “central” orthodox branch of Judaism, to which 52% of all UK synagogue members adhere.
According to the US’ annual accounts for 2018, membership of this organisation is about 38,660 – a significant proportion of the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people in the UK (estimates are around the 290,000 mark).
The chief rabbi’s spiritual status goes beyond that, however. As the most senior Jewish leader in the country, the chief rabbi is traditionally taken to represent all Jews in the UK (0.5% of the total population) and the Commonwealth.
Mirvis’ installation was attended by Prince Charles, the first time a royal had attended such an event.
Nonetheless, not all Jews recognise the chief rabbi as their spiritual leader.
Who does he not represent?
The chief rabbi does not represent those who identify as Jewish but do not belong to a synagogue. According to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the centuries-old national advocacy group, approximately half of all Jews in the UK fall under this category.
Another major branch of Judaism in the UK not represented by the chief rabbi is the reform group, which accounts for 19% of synagogue members.
Nonetheless, the leader of the Movement for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, last month condemned Labour in a similar fashion, saying “a Corbyn-led government would pose a danger to Jewish life as we know it”.
He added: “I should stress that the problem is not the Labour Party itself, which has a long record of fighting discrimination and prejudice, but the problem is Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn-led Labour, has at best, let anti-Semitism arise within its ranks – or, at worst, has encouraged it.”
Which branches have come out in support of Corbyn?
The Liberal branch of Judaism which represents 8% of synagogue members is headed by Rabbi Danny Rich, a vocal supporter of Corbyn.
In October of last year he hosted a Shabbat dinner for Corbyn and the co-chair of the Jewish Voice For Labour.
Are there other notable branches?
Another significant group is the Haredi or strictly orthodox Jewish community, whose members eschew modern society and eduction in favour of a life dedicated to the full-time study of, and adherence to, Jewish texts.
Most live in tight-knit communities in areas of north London. According to the Religion Media Centre, about 37% of UK synagogues are Haredi.
Exact numbers are difficult to ascertain – the 2011 census question on religion was not broken down beyond the broad category of “Jewish” but a 2015 report using census numbers and geographical data put the number of strictly orthodox Jewish people at 43,571.
Haredi communities, led by Rabbi Ephraim Padwa, of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, usually stay out of political matters but did speak out in September of last year to distance themselves from criticism of Corbyn.
More recently, however, Haredi Rabbi Avraham Pinter, an ex-Labour councillor in Stamford Hill, criticised Diane Abbott – the area’s MP – after she claimed Jewish communities in the area were not concerned about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.
He said: “I don’t know who she is talking about. Because there is no question that the majority of the people I talk to in the community are talking about anti-Semitism in the party. It is a concern in the community – we have others – but to suggest that we are not concerned about what has happened in the Labour Party or think they have done enough is false.”