Another Jew supporting Labour

Ian Saville is a theatre worker, teacher, Socialist magician and Labour party member

JVL Introduction

Like so many other Jewish member of the Labour Party, Ian Saville is bemused by his failure to hear an antisemitic statement anywhere in the party.

And this, despite being to hundreds of Party events and meeting thousands of activists, both as an active member of the party and as a performer who travels around doing his Socialist Magic act all over the country.

This article was originally published by The i on Thu 28 Nov 2019. Read the original here.

I am a Jewish Labour member, and the Chief Rabbi's claims about anti-Semitism are based on a view of the party I don't recognise

That is not to say that this doesn’t happen, but if these views were endemic in Labour, I would surely have come across them

Some 130 cases of anti-Semitism are being investigated in the Labour party – that amounts to around one in 4,000 members. (Picture: PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

I am a Jewish member of the Labour party. Over the last few weeks I’ve been out in my nearest marginal knocking on doors and talking to people about how they will vote. A lot of people still aren’t sure, so I talk to them about Labour’s policies, its manifesto, its vision of a different sort of society that no longer punishes the people with austerity and cuts. Occasionally, I can move people from being a “don’t know” to being a Labour supporter. That is gratifying.

These are the things I would like to discuss during this oh-so-crucial campaign. I’d like to debate the manifesto, and to talk about the things I’m happy about (like the Green Industrial Revolution), as well as the things I’m not so happy about (like keeping Trident).

Being Jewish is not something I want to talk about. But the Chief Rabbi of the Orthodox Synagogue, who represents a minority of the diverse Jewish Community (about 40,000 out of a total of 300,000 British Jews), has chosen to make my Jewishness a political issue. His recent article in The Times acknowledges the convention that he should stay well away from politics, but nevertheless weighs in against the Labour Party, saying that its claim to be dealing with accusations of anti-Semitism is a “mendacious fiction”. Rabbi Mirvis describes a party poisoned by anti-Semitism, with that evil “sanctioned from the very top”.

The Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, has written an article in The Times accusing the Labour party of entrenched anti-Semitism. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

I’ve been to hundreds of Labour Party meetings and met thousands of activists, both as an active member of the party, and as a performer who travels around doing my Socialist Magic act all over the country. I have many other Jewish friends in the Labour Party, and though I may have had political differences with some, I’ve worked with Jews and non-Jews in friendliness and cooperation. In truth, I’ve never heard an anti-Semitic statement in any meeting I’ve attended.

That is not to say that such statements haven’t been made, or that, where they have been made, they should be ignored. But if it were true that such sentiments were really endemic in Labour, I would surely have come across them by now.

‘If I attended a meeting of 4,000 people, and discovered that one of them was being investigated for anti-Semitism, I would be hard put to say that the whole meeting must be anti-Semitic’

I certainly have come across anti-Semitic attitudes and ideas from people claiming to be supporters of Jeremy Corbyn – not in meetings, but in the relative anonymity of the internet. But on the internet there is every sort of craziness, and clearly some of these posts come from people on the far right, or even from people who are attracted to Corbyn in the mistaken belief that he is anti-Semitic (a belief reinforced, ironically, by interventions such as that from Rabbi Mirvis).

These people should not be Labour members. If they are they should be expelled. I am confident, from my experience, that the majority are not Labour Party members.

One of the pieces of evidence Rabbi Mirvis adduces comes from the Jewish Labour Movement, who say that 130 cases of anti-Semitism are being investigated.

This sounds like a lot, but it represents something like one in 4,000 of Labour Party members. If I attended a meeting of 4,000 people, and discovered that one of them was being investigated for anti-Semitism, I would be hard put to say that the whole meeting must be anti-Semitic. Saying that it has taken time to deal with these cases, and this means that the leadership is complicit in this racism, is rather like saying that the state is complicit in criminality, since there are many unresolved cases, some of them going back years, before the courts.

A demonstration organised by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism outside the head office of the Labour Party in April 2018. (Picture: Tolga AKMEN / AFP)

What is more, some of the cases before the courts will eventually be found not guilty, but this, in itself, doesn’t mean that the criminal justice system is not working (though there are many other valid criticisms of it). Labour’s General Secretary, Jennie Formby, has written convincingly of how the disciplinary system in the Labour Party has been updated and improved, and how the newly streamlined system will respond quickly but with proper due process to such cases.

I deeply regret that the Rabbi Mirvis’s intervention will cause more fear and distress among ordinary Jewish people, who do not have first hand experience of the solidarity, friendliness and cooperation that I have received from Labour Party members. It is clear that many Jewish people have an image of the Labour Party membership being overwhelmingly anti-Semitic. Even among the general public, in one academic study, those surveyed believed that more than a third of Labour Party members have been reported for anti-Semitism, though the total number of cases reported is around one in a thousand. It is really awful that Jewish people have been subjected to these fears.

I cannot determine Rabbi Mirvis’s motivation for his intervention, and would like to think that he is sincere but ignorant. I do think, though, that if he wished to be seen as an objective commentator, it would have been better not to have issued his effusive congratulations to Boris Johnson on becoming leader of the Conservative Party, nor to have invited Theresa May to dine in his house on the eve of her taking up the Conservative Party leadership. This was after her “hostile environment” policies that led to the Windrush scandal.

It is important, as Rabbi Mirvis says, to challenge racism. But the racism he points to in the Labour Party is either illusory or being dealt with, while the real racism in the Conservative Party has gone unchallenged.

Ian Saville is a theatre worker, teacher, Socialist magician and Labour party member

Comments (3)

  • michael murray says:

    All this needs to be said – and given equal billing with jewish anti-Labour opinion. One important new piece of information I gleaned from the article is that the Chief Rabbi represents only 40,000 of the 300,000 jewish community. Is there a source for this? The impression I had, from recent media coverage, was that he represents, if not all jews, certainly a majority. One published estimate was “over 50%.”

  • Richard Kuper says:

    Wikipedia says:
    The United Synagogue (US) is a union of British Orthodox Jewish synagogues, representing the central Orthodox movement in Judaism. With 64 congregations, comprising 40,000 members,[3] it is the largest synagogue body in Europe.[6] The spiritual leader of the union bears the title of Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Empire – a title that bears some formal recognition by the Crown, even though his rabbinical authority is recognised by only slightly more than half of British Jews.[7]

    That last point must be clarified: “more than half of British Jews” means more than half of religious British Jews. Again, from Wikipedia, over 40% of Jewish households do not have a single member who belongs to a synagogue.

  • Sue Glanville says:

    Please contrive to make Ian Saville’s letter (or blog or whatever is the current term) appear in mainstream news media. As a non-Jew it is such a relief to read his testimony.

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