Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has insisted there is no place for “vile” anti-Semitism within the party and it will “not be tolerated in any form whatsoever”, after the chief rabbi called into question the UK opposition leader’s suitability to be prime minister.
Ephraim Mirvis had warned that “a new poison” in Labour was “sanctioned from the very top”, in one of the most hard-hitting interventions by a religious leader ahead of a general election in recent times.
Speaking at the launch of Labour’s race and faith manifesto on Tuesday afternoon, Mr Corbyn called on the Jewish community to “engage”, and insisted his party’s disciplinary processes were “rapid and effective”.
“Anti-Semitism in any form is vile and wrong, it is an evil within our society,” he said. “There is no place whatsoever for anti-Semitism in any shape or form or in any place whatsoever in modern Britain and under a Labour government it will not be tolerated in any form whatsoever.”
The chief rabbi said his decision to speak out was “amongst the most painful moments” of his career, but warned the “very soul of our nation is at stake” in next month’s election.
In an article for The Times, he wrote that the Labour leader’s claim to have dealt with all allegations of anti-Semitism was “a mendacious fiction”, and the way that the party had handled the claims was “incompatible with the British values of which we are so proud”.
He said that Labour could no longer claim to be the party of diversity, equality and antiracism. Its record on anti-Semitism in opposition, he said, left him asking: “What should we expect of them in government?”
Mr Corbyn has repeatedly insisted that he is getting to grips with anti-Semitism in his party, but Luciana Berger and Louise Ellman are among MPs who have quit the party over the way the leadership has responded to the problem.
Ms Ellman on Tuesday told BBC Radio 4’s The World At One programme that she believed her former party was “again denying the obvious that they have been perpetuating anti-Semitism”.
Defending his leadership on Tuesday, Mr Corbyn said: “Since I became leader, there are disciplinary procedures that didn’t exist before. Where people have committed anti-Semitic acts they are brought to book and, if necessary, expelled from the party or suspended, or asked to be educated better about it.
“I ask those who think things have not been done correctly to talk to me about it, but above all engage. I am very happy to engage.”
Mr Corbyn added he wanted “to live in a country where people respect each other’s faiths and people feel secure to be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Christian”.
Also speaking at the event on Tuesday, Labour peer Alf Dubs expressed “bitter disappointment” at the rabbi’s intervention.
“I don’t accept a lot of what he said, in so far as the Labour party should have acted a lot quicker”, he said. “But today of all days, for the chief rabbi to be attacking our leader, it is unjustified, unfair and I am bitterly, bitterly disappointed that he has done it.”
Rabbi Mirvis, who in July tweeted that he was “delighted to congratulate” Boris Johnson on becoming Conservative party leader, said that British Jews were understandably anxious as they prepared to vote: “How complicit in prejudice would a leader of Her Majesty’s opposition have to be to be considered unfit for office?” he asked.
“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.
“It is not my place to tell any person how they should vote. I regret being in this situation at all. I simply pose the question: What will the result of this election say about the moral compass of our country? When December 12 arrives, I ask every person to vote with their conscience. Be in no doubt, the very soul of our nation is at stake.”
Rabbi Julia Neuberger, echoed Rabbi Mirvis’s views of Mr Corbyn and anti-Semitism. “The Labour party under his leadership, [is] coloured by not dealing with it,” she told the BBC’s Today programme. “If they come to power then this comfortable place to live may feel less comfortable.”
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, tweeted that Rabbi Mirvis’s “unprecedented statement at this time ought to alert us to the deep sense of insecurity and fear felt by many British Jews”.
“Everyone in our country is entitled to feel safe and secure,” he added. “Voicing words that commit to a stand against anti-Semitism requires a corresponding effort in visible action.”
The Muslim Council of Britain responded to the rabbi’s article by saying that “racism wherever it comes from is unacceptable” and that “too many [politicians] have sat silent”.
The council said in a statement it would remain non-partisan but added that Islamophobia was “particularly acute in the Conservative party” and that “it is abundantly clear to many Muslims that the Conservative party tolerate Islamophobia”.
A council spokesperson said British Muslims “will listen to the chief rabbi and agree on the importance of voting with their conscience”.