How heresies are born
Tuesday this week saw Ephraim Mirvis, Britain’s Chief Rabbi, making a stunning attack on Jeremy Corbyn for his alleged anti-Semitism. In the middle of the General Election he said the Leader of the Opposition was “unfit for high office” and suggested that a “new poison had taken hold in Labour, sanctioned from the very top”. He believed “the very soul of our nation is at stake” and drew support from Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Coincidentally, Tuesday also saw the launch of a Labour Party Race and Faith Manifesto at which Mr Corbyn emphatically stated that anti-Semitism has no place in any organisation in the UK and the Labour Party would not tolerate abuse of Jews, Muslims and any other faith community or attacks on Synagogues and Mosques. He insisted that Labour is a party of equality and human rights and pledged to keep his door open to all faith leaders and to work with them to ensure all faith groups are respected and protected.
Anti-Semitism is not a new phenomenon. Jewish people have faced prejudice for centuries and the Labour Party has not been free from it. Ken Livingstone, the former Labour Mayor of London, alleged that Adolf Hitler had supported Zionism, and was suspended from the party which he subsequently left. Labour MP, Naz Shah, made a string of anti-Semitic comments on Twitter, including the suggestion that Israel should be moved to the USA, for which she eventually apologised.
It also has to be noted that amongst the MPs who resigned from the Labour Party was Luciana Berger who cited anti-Semitism in the party as her motive for leaving. Dame Margaret Hodge, an MP since 1994, has also condemned the anti-Semitism in the party. For that she had to overcome a move to deselect her candidacy in the current election.
Whist anti-Semitism is wholly unacceptable it is necessary to draw a distinction between it and criticisms of Israel for their treatment of the Palestinians. There is no doubt that both the Israelis and the Palestinians have been guilty of attacks on each other that have sometimes killed or injured innocent civilians and they have both frustrated attempts to find a peace settlement. Jeremy Corbyn has criticised the Israeli Government for this and sided with Hamas and Hezbollah, the extremist anti-Israeli groups. He has also spoken in support of Palestinian statehood but that is not necessarily an expression of anti-Semitism.
The Race and Faith Manifesto makes some very positive announcements. These include the creation of an Emancipation Education Trust to ensure that historical injustice, colonialism and the role of the British Empire are taught as part of the National Curriculum. It also proposes measures to tackle pay discrimination based on race and proposes the establishment of a Race Equality Unit in the Treasury to review major spending announcements for their impact on BAME communities. It also launches a review of the underrepresentation of BAME teachers in schools and a review of far-right extremism.
Nor is racial and religious hatred only an issue for the Labour Party. Boris Johnson’s likening of Muslim women wearing a burqua or niqab to letter boxes last year was linked to a subsequent 375% increase in Islamophobic attacks on individuals and Mosques. The Muslim Council of Britain accused him of “pandering to the far right”.
Christians will prayerfully reflect on how to respond to racial and religious hatred on the basis of Jesus’ teaching to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 19:19; 5:43-44; Romans 13:8-10). Even non-believers have a duty to oppose racial and religious hatred stated clearly in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which asserts: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. This right includes “the freedom either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”. As Stephen Timms, the Labour Party’s Faith Envoy, said after the launch of the manifesto, that faith groups play an important role in society and cited foodbanks as an example. “In the Labour Party, we want to give faith groups a voice when they call for change. And we recognise that their faith motivates their work.”