(CN) – The election fight in the United Kingdom is getting a lot nastier after a chief rabbi entered the fray and accused the main opposition leader, left-wing and pro-Palestine Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, of anti-Semitism and allowing a “new poison” to take root in his party.
The broadside in the Times newspaper on Tuesday by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the head of Orthodox synagogues in Great Britain, was viewed as an unprecedented attack on a politician by a religious leader in the middle of an election campaign. It led to a flurry of bad headlines for Corbyn, whose left-wing political agenda is a throwback to socialist Labour policies last promoted in an election campaign in 1983.
The chief rabbi’s comments also prompted the Muslim Council of Britain to chime in and issue its own attack on the Conservative Party over allegations that Islamophobia is found within its ranks.
“Racism wherever it comes from – whether from the left or the right – is unacceptable, and not enough is being done,” the council said in a statement.
It accused Conservative British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s party of failing to root out Islamophobia and said the Tories have “approached Islamophobia with denial, dismissal and deceit.”
“It is abundantly clear to many Muslims that the Conservative Party tolerate Islamophobia, allow it to fester in society, and fail to put in place the measures necessary to root out this type of racism,” the council said. “It is as if the Conservative Party has a blind spot for this type of racism.”
But the accusations against Corbyn are the ones that seem to be sticking – as shown by the intense news coverage of the chief rabbi’s statements and Corbyn’s reaction.
Since winning the leadership position in 2015, Corbyn has come under relentless attack for his support of the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel’s right-wing government. He’s also been accused of not cracking down on cases of anti-Semitism inside his party. Corbyn’s allies charge that the attacks are unfounded and that Corbyn’s support for Palestinians should not be viewed as evidence that he is anti-Semitic.
“When Corbyn came in that’s when the noise and rhetoric around anti-Semitism exploded,” said Antony Lerman, a senior fellow at the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue and an expert on anti-Semitism. He is a co-author of a book on the subject, “Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief.”
Lerman said the accusations against Corbyn exploded because of his “very close link to the pro-Palestine movement.”
“This guilt by association was slapped on him and it stuck,” he said in a phone interview with Courthouse News.
In fact, Corbyn has a long record of being a staunch anti-racist campaigner and he’s shown, through his votes in the House of Commons, solidarity with Jews, Lerman said.
Lerman called the attack by Mirvis an unprecedented “extreme partisan statement.”
In his piece, Mirvis said it was painful for him to write about an election and unconventional, but that he felt compelled to because “the very soul of our nation is at stake” and so many Jews fear a Corbyn-led government.
“The question I am now most frequently asked is: What will become of Jews and Judaism in Britain if the Labour Party forms the next government?” he said. “This anxiety is understandable and justified.”
Mirvis said racism needs to be rooted out from political parties, but he only attacked Labour and the chief rabbi was later criticized for ignoring allegations of Islamophobia among Tories. Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission is looking into anti-Semitism inside Labour. Many are calling for a similar probe into the Tories over Islamophobia.
The chief rabbi accused Labour’s leadership of hounding “parliamentarians, party members and even staff out of the party for facing down anti-Jewish racism.” Several Labour members have left the party saying they were abhorred by its anti-Semitism.
“What should we expect of them in government?” Mirvis wrote. “The way in which the leadership of the Labour Party has dealt with anti-Jewish racism is incompatible with the British values of which we are so proud – of dignity and respect for all people.”
The chief rabbi alleged Labour has failed to root out anti-Semitism. “A new poison – sanctioned from the very top – has taken root in the Labour Party,” he wrote.
Mirvis noted that Corbyn has shown support for Hamas and Hezbollah, Palestinian militia groups, and in 2012 defended as “freedom of speech” a London mural that showed Jewish bankers playing monopoly on the backs of workers.
The chief rabbi also attacked Labour over a dispute that arose over whether to adopt a definition of anti-Semitism that said it was racist to question the existence of the Israeli state.
“It is not my place to tell any person how they should vote,” Mirvis wrote. “I regret being in this situation at all. I simply pose the following question: What will the result of this election say about the moral compass of our country?”
The chief rabbi’s office did not reply to a request for comment from Courthouse News about whether he is concerned about Islamophobia in the Tory party and whether he plans to discuss anti-Semitism with Corbyn.
In response, Corbyn said anti-Semitism has no place in the Labour Party and he vowed to stamp it out. He also offered to meet the chief rabbi, media reports said.
“Anti-Semitism in any form is vile and wrong,” he said in a speech on Tuesday. “It is an evil within our society. There is no place for it – and under a Labour government it will not be tolerated in any form whatsoever.”
In a BBC interview on Tuesday night, he was asked if he wanted to apologize to Jews on behalf of Labour, but he chose not to despite having issued apologies in the past. By Wednesday, he was vilified in the press, which in Britain is dominated by conservative outlets.
“The way he dealt with [the interview] got him very bad press,” Lerman said.
Matt Cole, a historian and expert in British party politics at the University of Birmingham, said Corbyn’s inability to quiet the furor over anti-Semitism within Labour is hurting him.
“It’s not merely a question of people regarding him as a racist,” Cole said in a phone interview. “There is a wider problem and one of leadership.”
Cole said Corbyn is coming off as unable to deal with the problems within his party.
“It resonates with a view of him as being indecisive,” he said. “It’s a failure to discipline his own party.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)