The Chief Rabbi Has Always Been a Servant of Empire

Pro-Israel, pro-empire.

by Joseph Finlay

5 February 2024

A man with a bald head, beard and skullcap, wearing a suit, gives a speech behind a large union jack, with union jack bunting flying above
Britain’s chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, February 2017. Toby Melville/Reuters

Israel’s most prominent defenders in the UK in recent months have been secular Jews and philosemitic gentiles. One has stood out from this pack: the UK’s pre-eminent Jewish religious leader, chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.

Rabbi Mirvis, himself from South Africa, recently published an article in the Telegraph refuting his home country’s allegation of genocide in Gaza, calling it a “perverse moral inversion” designed to “tear open the still gaping wound of the Holocaust”. And this is one of the less controversial things Mirvis has said about the war.

In January, Mirvis gave a speech at a synagogue in Ilford, Essex, expressing his hope that “our heroic soldiers” would “succeed in their mission”, erasing any distinction between diaspora Jews and Israel. He prayed for the war to end but clarified that “it has to be over in a successful way”, echoing Netanyahu’s claim that anything less than the total destruction of Hamas would constitute failure.

Outside observers must find it odd to see a religious leader acting in such an overtly political way. Chief rabbis have not always acted like this. While their political interventions in the 19th and early 20th century were confined to supporting the British state, its monarchs and its empire, from the late 1960s onwards they began to be more outspoken on a range of political issues, notably Israel.

Centrist Orthodoxy.

The first British chief rabbis were simply the rabbi of the Great Synagogue in London, the largest Ashkenazi synagogue in the country. The Sephardi community (Jews originating from Spain and Portugal, often via Amsterdam) always had a separate rabbinic leader, known as the Haham, and attempts to create a single rabbinic leader came to nothing.

The chief rabbi’s role was based on central European models, such as the Landsrabbiner of German and Austro-Hungary; most of the post-holders underwent their rabbinic training in Germany. One such chief rabbi, Solomon Hirschell (in post 1802-42) served as a bridge between the local and the national model, gaining increased influence over provincial communities and even some congregations in the empire.

The chief rabbinate only became a truly national position, however, with the ascendancy of Nathan Adler, who served from 1845 to 1890. Adler was the first to be elected by delegates of synagogues across the country, who then contributed funds to his office; later chief rabbis, including Adler’s son Hermann (1891-1911) would be appointed unopposed.

In line with 19th-century democracy in general, the choice of chief rabbi was usually made by wealthy donors and then rubber-stamped by delegates. Unlike its central European models, the post had no legal powers. This changed with the Marriage Act of 1836, which gave the Board of Deputies – and by extension the chief rabbi as its Ashkenazi ecclesiastical authority – the right to certify which synagogues in Britain and the empire could conduct marriages under British law. This began a centralising tendency, which Adler hastened, seeking to control which preachers synagogues could employ and setting regulations over what rituals were permitted or forbidden.

The role never represented Reform Judaism – in fact, chief rabbi Hirschell excommunicated the Reform Movement’s founding West London Synagogue in 1840, a move that many Orthodox synagogues rejected. Nor did it represent the later Liberal and Masorti movements, nor members of “ultra-Orthodox” communities, whose numbers increased with the mass migration of eastern European Jews from 1881-1914. The post only ever represented Ashkenazi “centrist Orthodox” communities, members of which number today around 30% of British Jews. Nevertheless, a tendency emerged to treat the chief rabbi as the representative of all British Jews, whether they liked it or not.

An imperial chieftan.

The chief rabbi was always an imperial position: its full title was Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Empire ( rebranded “of The British Commonwealth and Empire” in 1948 and purely “of the Commonwealth” from 1967, the British state hoping that the Commonwealth would continue the work of the empire in a more palatable form). The chief rabbi was, in theory at least, the religious authority for all Ashkenazi communities across Britain’s vast imperial territories.

Chief rabbis were consistently keen to promote their, and thus the Jewish community’s, loyalty to Britain and her empire; they would, and still do, celebrate coronations, royal jubilees and imperial exhibitions with all the pomp and circumstance they can muster. Before becoming chief rabbi, Joseph Hertz had served as the leader of a congregation in Dutch Johannesburg (his anti-Dutch and pro-British positions during the Boer war of 1899-1902 helped secure his accession to the British chief rabbinate in 1912). In 1920, after the conclusion of the first world war, Hertz took a year-long tour of the British colonies, visiting South Africa, Rhodesia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. “I had preached love and loyalty to the Empire wherever I went,” he recalled.

While the role of chief rabbi modelled itself on the Archbishop of Canterbury – seeking to elevate the social position of Jews by the imitation of England’s established church – it also echoed British colonial policies which empowered tribal chiefs with whom the empire could do business. The chief rabbinate was a form of what was called “indirect rule” in the colonies: by having jurisdiction over synagogues (largely via marriage but also through the regulation of kosher butchers and Sunday trading exemption), the British state could free itself from having to think too much about the Jews in its realm. The chief rabbinate was thus both shaped by British imperialism and profoundly loyal to it.

Beyond such displays of patriotism, chief rabbis up until the 1960s steered clear of anything that looked like politics – which is to say, anything that diverged from British political consensus. This was even true of Zionism. The Adlers, particularly Hermann, were staunchly anti-Zionist, in keeping with the form of anti-Zionism that was popular with the anglicised upper-class Jewish leadership of the time.

This anti-Zionism focused on loyalty to Britain, fearing that the claim that Jews constituted a nation would see them lose rights in the countries where they lived. Hertz was the first professing Zionist to become chief rabbi, but the major Jewish lay organisations remained anti-Zionist until the Zionist Federation won control of the Board of Deputies in 1939.

The divide between Jewish Zionists and anti-Zionists was bridged during the first world war, when Britain’s newfound governance of Palestine allowed Zionism to be portrayed as patriotic and thus apolitical. From then on to support the British mandate in Palestine, with its promise to create a Jewish homeland, was to support Britain and its empire. This consensual pattern continued with Israel’s statehood in 1948, under chief rabbi Israel Brodie (1948-65). It would not be until the arrival of Immanuel Jakobovits in the late 1960s, that an explicitly political chief rabbi would appear on the scene.

Thatcher’s cleric.

Jakobovits was born into a religious family in East Prussia in 1921, escaping Germany and coming to the UK in 1938, where he gained rabbinical ordination. Before becoming chief rabbi in 1967, Jakobovits served eight years as rabbi of the prestigious Fifth Avenue synagogue in New York. In his valedictory sermon in 1966, he critiqued the tactics of the civil rights movement by making a comparison to the movement for Jewish emancipation, suggesting that Jews had not secured civil rights with “riots and demonstrations, by violence and protest marches, or by preaching ‘Jewish power’”.

Jakobovits believed that disaffected youth would return to Judaism if it embraced social and political causes, and his moment truly arrived with the election of the Conservative government in 1979. He became labelled “Mrs Thatcher’s favourite cleric” – and embraced his role as a national religious spokesperson for socially conservative morality.

In 1985 the Church of England published a report on the 1981 inner-city riots, which it blamed largely on the government’s economic policy. In response, Rabbi Jakobovits published a report of his own, suggesting not economic reform but rather individual self-improvement. Jakobovits criticised Black Britons for rioting and claimed that previous generations of Jewish immigrants had been “quite content for Britain to remain “ethnocentrically British”.

His report was lapped up by the rightwing press – Telegraph columnist Peregrine Worsthorne lauded Judaism as “the true religion of Thatcherite Britain” – and by Conservative MPs. Two years later Thatcher rewarded Jakobovits with a seat in the House of Lords, the first chief rabbi to receive such an honour.

Emulating the “Victorian values” of the Thatcher era, Jakobovits also articulated virulently homophobic views, stating in 1993 that he would support genetic engineering as a means to eradicate homosexuality. On Israel, however, he leaned left, critiquing unbridled Jewish nationalism, defending the rights of Palestinian refugees and being an early advocate for the two-state solution. This was in keeping with his rabbinic worldview which disliked the secularism of the classical Zionist project and disputed the idea that Israel would solve Jewish problems.

His successor, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, was even more political. In contrast to the émigré Jakobovits, Sacks came from a centrist Orthodox British-Jewish background and was arguably more motivated by political and philosophical concerns than by traditionally religious ones.

Sacks was part of the generation inspired by the wave of Jewish nationalism that erupted after the 1967 war, saying: “My Jewish identity was transformed when the world heard, Har haBayit beyadeinu, The Temple Mount is in our hands”. Israel and the forceful defence of it were central to his worldview, and Sacks demonstrated even at his 1991 induction that he would take a very different attitude towards Israel than his predecessor.

Rabbi Sacks’ advocacy for Israel increased after the breakdown of the Oslo process in the early 2000s. Sacks amplified the narrative that Israel had offered peace but the Palestinians had chosen war, arguing at a rally in 2009 that Hamas was “killing the Palestinians’ future”. Sacks regularly talked of a drastic rise in antisemitism in the 2000s, which he located primarily in the Palestine solidarity movement, and in 2006 spoke of a global “tsunami of antisemitism”.

Sacks’s radicalisation continued apace after he left office in 2013. In 2017, he led the march of the flags, an annual settler march through Jerusalem, he repeatedly warned of the dangers of the left and identity politics and even interviewed Jordan Peterson in 2018. Sacks consistently followed the political winds of the establishment, presenting a Thatcherite account of Judaism in his 1985 pamphlet Wealth and Poverty: A Jewish Analysis; a Blairite, almost postmodernist one in 2002’s The Dignity of Difference; and a much more assimilationist, security-conscious and centre-right one in 2006’s The Home We Build Together. Across his writings, Sacks promoted conservative philosophers, such as Isaiah Berlin, Roger Scruton, Alasdair Macintyre and Michael Walzer. Often feted by political liberals, it only really became clear in his later years quite how rightwing Sacks had become.

Enter Mirvis.

What then of Ephraim Mirvis, a decade into the job? The Johannesburg-born former chief rabbi of Ireland won the role because he had few enemies, not because he was anyone’s favourite candidate. He is in many ways the opposite of Sacks, more a religious figure than a philosophical one, more comfortable solving a communal broigus (dispute) in Hendon than at Broadcasting House.

Rabbi Mirvis has made some progressive political moves, most notably working with the Jewish LBGTQ+ group Keshet to create a guide, couched in Jewish ethical teachings, for combatting anti-LBGTQ+ bullying in Jewish schools in 2018, something it’s hard to imagine Sacks ever doing. But on the politics of Israel and antisemitism, Mirvis has very much followed in the footsteps of his predecessor.

His most high-profile, and most controversial intervention was his infamous Times article, published two weeks before the 2019 general election. Casting aside the unwritten rule of chief rabbis abstaining from party politics, Mirvis suggested that the leader of the opposition was unfit for office and effectively told people not to vote Labour, barely concealing his hope for a victory by Boris’ Johnson’s Conservatives. Indeed, speaking three months after the election at the conference of the American pro-Israel lobby group Aipac, Mirvis celebrated that the election had been a “landslide victory”.

In that appearance at Aipac, Mirvis also confirmed that he had not written the Times op-ed alone but rather “in concert with key Jewish figures and key Jewish organisations”, clarifying that he was acting as the figurehead of the anti-antisemitism and the pro-Israel movements, which have increasingly come to function as one. Similarly, when Mirvis, stated casually that “if Israel’s objectives were genocidal, it could have used its military strength to level Gaza in a matter of days”, he was similarly not speaking merely as a religious leader, but as a political figure leveraging his influence in service of Netanyahu’s military campaign in Gaza.

On the face of things, there has been a significant politicisation of the chief rabbinate under Jakobovits, Sacks and Mirvis: from the avoidance of politics to the embrace of it, even to the extent of suggesting who people should vote for. But perhaps the change is not so great after all. The Adlers, Hertz and Brodie were vigorously patriotic and pro-empire, and Brodie was pro-Israel when this was seen as part of the national consensus, and thus “above politics”.

Israel was often seen by MPs to represent a form of “progressive imperialism”. Since 1948, prime ministers from Harold Wilson to Tony Blair have paraded their pro-Israel credentials, and all parties have created friends of Israel groups, with few such groups in relation to other countries. This partnership has meant that, at least since Sacks, political speech in support of Israel, and against antisemitism, has not been treated as political. To defend Israel is treated as consensual, moderate and in line with “British values”; only to campaign for Palestinian rights is political.

Just as Hermann Adler publicly prayed for British troops in the Boer war in 1899, Ephraim Mirvis prays for the IDF in 2024; both are viewed as patriotic campaigns in which British values fight against barbarism. Chief rabbis can speak for Israel without fear of consequence: their status as trusted public spokespeople is guaranteed, their path to a comfortable seat in the House of Lords a near certainty.

Joseph Finlay is a historian of British Jews and race relations in postwar Britain.

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