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UK chief rabbi tears into Labour over anti-Semitism definition

Ephraim Mirvis says opposition party’s stance will send an ‘unprecedented message of contempt’ to British Jews

British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis speaks at a National Holocaust Memorial Day event at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, on January 26, 2017, in London, England. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis speaks at a National Holocaust Memorial Day event at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, on January 26, 2017, in London, England. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

The Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom warned the Labour Party it would send an “unprecedented message of contempt” for British Jews by adopting a softened version of anti-Semitism at a meeting of its top governing body on Tuesday.

Labour has come under fire from UK Jewish groups over the past week for not including the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism as part of the new code of conduct set to be approved by the party.

In a letter dated Monday to Labour’s National Executive Committee, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said Tuesday’s meeting was a “watershed moment” after repeated calls by the UK Jewish community for the party to prove its commitment to combating anti-Semitism “swiftly and responsibly.”

“It is astonishing that the Labour Party presumes that it is more qualified than all of the above and, in particular, the Jewish community, to define anti-Semitism,” wrote Mervis.

A swastika and the word “kikes” spray painted on the Leeds Etz Chaim Synagogue sign. (UK Jewish News)

Labour’s version omits at least four points featured in the IHRA definition, including accusing Jews of “being more loyal to Israel” than to their own country; claiming that Israel’s existence is a “racist endeavor”; applying a “double standard” to Israel; and comparing “contemporary Israeli policy” to that of the Nazis.

The definition features mostly examples of anti-Semitic behaviors that do not concern Israel, such as calling to harm Jews or denying the Holocaust or the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.

“Adoption of Labour’s new alternative to the internationally accepted IRHA definition will send an unprecedented message of contempt to the Jewish community,” wrote Mervis. “Other groups might also legitimately ask if they will be next in having the prejudice they are subject to defined for them.”

“This is a watershed moment. Those who vote for anything but the full IHRA definition will be placing themselves on the wrong side of the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and intolerance,” the chief rabbi added.

Mirvis’ letter came just a day after 68 British rabbis signed an open letter decrying anti-Semitism in Labour and calling for the party to adopt IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism.

The party’s Jewish affiliate has also sharply criticized the softened version of anti-Semitism and warned its adoption may put Labour in breach of the Equality Act, a key UK anti-discrimination law.

People hold up placards and Union flags as they gather for a demonstration organized by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism outside the head office of the British opposition Labour Party in central London on April 8, 2018. (AFP/Tolga Akmen)

Legal advice from The Jewish Labour Movement argues that the party’s decision to adopt a softer definition of anti-Semitism than that used by the government means it treats Jews less favorably than other groups, The Guardian reported Monday.

The 1999 Macpherson report, issued in the wake of the racially motivated 1993 murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, argues that each group has the right to define prejudice against it.

The Jewish Labour Movement argued that by removing key clauses from its definition of anti-Semitism, the Labour Party rejects the rights of Jews to define perceived anti-Semitism, and thus discriminates against Jews.

A spokesperson for the Labour Party rejected the accusations of bias. Labour also denied it had created a new definition of anti-Semitism.

Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, a hard-left politician who has called Hezbollah and Hamas his “friends” and who is fighting accusations of harboring anti-Semitic sentiments, has come under intense scrutiny in the media over anti-Semitic rhetoric by its members. In 2016, an interparliamentary committee accused Labour of creating a “safe space for those with vile attitudes towards Jewish people.”

UK Board of Deputies President Jonathan Arkush meets with Labour Party chair Jeremy Corbyn, February 9, 2016. (courtesy)

In May, Jonathan Arkush, then president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said Corbyn holds “anti-Semitic views” that could drive Jewish Britons out of the country if he becomes prime minister. Arkush cited Corbyn’s defense in 2013 of an anti-Semitic mural, among other issues.

Corbyn has maintained that Labour will not tolerate racist rhetoric by its members. Dozens were kicked out over anti-Semitic statements. However, the party has kept on many Labour members whom Jewish community leaders said engaged in anti-Semitic hate speech. In recent months, Corbyn for the first time has encountered protests over his party’s anti-Semitism problem during work visits abroad.

JTA contributed to this report.

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