The UK’s chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, caused yet another headache for Labour this week when he accused Jeremy Corbyn of allowing “a poison sanctioned from the top” to take root in the party. Although he didn’t explicitly tell people not to vote Labour, it was easy to read between the lines when Rabbi Mirvis mused, “what will happen to Jews and Judaism in Britain if the Labour party forms the next government?”
Proving his membership of The Jewish Establishment™, Rabbi Mirvis joined the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Chronicle (JC) and others in adding fuel to the seemingly ner tamid (eternal flame) of the Labour antisemitism debate. But the Jewish establishment’s claim to speak on behalf of the mythical concept of the Jewish community is in desperate need of scrutiny.
Even when the Jewish establishment is forced to admit that maybe not all UK Jews unquestioningly subscribe to its narrative, a few institutions still profess to represent the vast majority of UK Jews – a claim that has less statistical backing than a Liberal Democrat bar chart.
Whose chief rabbi anyway?
Rabbi Mirvis’s words fuelled countless critical newspaper headlines and set the tone for Andrew Neil’s brutal BBC interview with Corbyn. After all, this wasn’t just any old Jew complaining about antisemitism, it wasn’t even the JC’s editor Stephen Pollard – this was the chief rabbi: the divine spiritual leader of UK Jews, chosen by God, who must be revered as the authority on British Jewish opinion. Well, not quite…
Dig a little deeper into what the role of the chief rabbi actually is, and you find not just hot air but a big smelly fart whose history is embarrassingly colonial. And that’s before we remind him that he’s actually only the chief rabbi of the 30% of British Jewish households who follow his denomination of Judaism.
Across Europe and Russia, chief, crown or court rabbis were historically forced upon Jewish communities by the governing powers. They became actors for the government, keeping registers of Jews, collecting taxes and generally ensuring that Jewish minority communities were kept in order.
The UK’s chief rabbi was created by Jews under pressure to appease the British state, having just been re-admitted to England following expulsion in the 17th century. The role was formally forced upon UK Jews in the 1870 Jewish United Synagogues Act.
This is a familiar recipe for imperial powers wanting to control populations – appoint leaders from within the colonised population who can promote cooperation with the government, and sow division, making a united resistance less likely.
So the intervention of the chief rabbi is less significant than the mainstream media would like us to believe – he’s always had a role in policing Anglo-Jewry and humming reassuring noises into the ears of the establishment. Perhaps we should follow the example of the historic Jewish masses who, as the Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion notes, regarded chief rabbis as “government puppets whose authority was completely ignored”.
The Jewish establishment.
It’s not just the chief rabbi who has been weighing in this general election: the Board of Deputies of British Jews hasn’t held back in expressing its disdain for Labour either. The Board is also often turned to as an authoritative voice for Anglo-Jewry. It lauds itself as “the only democratically elected, cross-communal, representative body in the Jewish community” – and this is mostly true. It is made up of representatives from synagogues of almost all denominations and certain other Jewish organisations. Deputies are elected every three years, though there often isn’t much competition, and many deputies hold their posts for decades.
Organisations such as the Board of Deputies, alongside the Jewish Leadership Council and the four main Jewish denominations (United Synagogue, Masorti, Reform and Liberal), are part of an ill-defined Jewish establishment who all claim to speak with some authority on behalf of the Jewish community.
While some of these organisations and institutions appear to be more representative than others – an elected body rather than a single appointed individual, for instance – the problem comes when you start examining what exactly ‘the Jewish community’ is, or more interestingly, what it is not. The term the Jewish community, as used by the establishment, does not include all Jews in Britain, because, rather irritatingly to the Jewish establishment, many Jewish communities are atheist, communist, anti-racist or anti-Zionist. It would be easy if the Jewish establishment could dismiss these renegades as not-Jewish, but unfortunately, they just are Jewish – and more than that, they follow in a long tradition of Jewish socialists who came before them.
So what the construct of the Jewish community does is to provide a nice, clean way of deciding not whether someone’s Jewishness is real, but whether it is valid. Only the Jews whose Jewishness is acceptable to the Jewish establishment are valid members of the Jewish community. And it is only those Jews who the Jewish establishment claims to represent.
The idea of the Jewish community also introduces a precariousness to Jewishness – while the establishment can’t un-Jewish any person or community, they can invalidate their Jewishness if they decide that their opinions are no longer kosher.
We are the majority.
The Jewish establishment claims that these validated Jews who form the Jewish community make up the vast majority of British Jews. While it’s impossible to know for certain due to the blurriness and impermanence of both who is Jewish and who is part of the community, the data that does exist suggests the claim is a little disingenuous.
In the UK only 56% of Jewish households are members of synagogues, yet the Jewish community is drawn exclusively from those households – immediately disenfranchising the 44% of Jews who aren’t synagogue members, perhaps due to the prohibitively expensive membership fees, the fact that all British Jewish denominations are currently Zionist or that they are just atheists.
The statistics that only 6% of UK Jews plan on voting Labour, and that 87% of them think Corbyn is antisemitic, for example, are from a recent Survation poll which the pollsters openly admit is only representative of “the engaged community”. If it is true that only 6% of Jews are voting Labour, then based on how many Jews I’ve seen out canvassing in Sheffield, I’d say that the population of British Jews must be in the millions. Or maybe that 6% stat just isn’t true.
Among the many Jewish communities whose Judaism isn’t valid enough to make them part of the Jewish community, the Jewish Socialists’ Group and Jewish Voice for Labour stand out as delightfully ignoring the Jewish establishment’s monopoly on whose Judaism is valid. The establishment’s attempts to invalidate and silence these groups is not subtle – on Monday, Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle tweeted: “Please, broadcasters, when you cover the Chief Rabbi story and Labour antisemitism, stop going to JVL for a ‘counter’ voice as two sides of a debate.”
Why would the Jewish establishment be so keen silence and dismiss Jewish communities outside of the Jewish community? The truth is that the Jewish community doesn’t exist as anything more than a construct used by the Jewish establishment to maintain its authority.
There are many Jewish communities in the UK, with diverse views on Labour, antisemitism and the general election, and it is lazy to listen to and acknowledge only one view, whether that’s the view of the chief rabbi or of JVL. So when the chief rabbi or the Board of Deputies claim to be speaking on behalf of the Jewish community, they’re being dishonest; they speak for a Jewish community not the Jewish community – because the truth is – the Jewish community just doesn’t exist in the way they want it to.
Jo Sutton-Klein is a Jewish broiges maker and junior doctor.