Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn on Tuesday tried to defuse harsh criticism about anti-Semitism leveled in a newspaper column by Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.
Corbyn addressed Chief Rabbi Mirvis’ remarks while taking questions at a campaign event just over two weeks before Britain’s Dec. 12 election. He denied Rabbi Mirvis’ claim that Labour and its leader have been deeply tarnished by pervasive anti-Semitic attitudes.
The Chief Rabbi’s suggestion that Corbyn was unfit for high office represented a break from his traditional position of not commenting on party politics. He said Britain’s Jews are “gripped by anxiety” about Corbyn’s possible election.
Corbyn said that if he becomes prime minister, he wants to lead a government that has an “open door” to all faith leaders.
He said he would invite Mirvis and other religious leaders “to come talk to us about what their concerns are,” and said no community would feel at risk because of their faith.
The Chief Rabbi’s column was published on the day Labour was launching its “race and faith” platform as part of its campaign.
In his speech, Corbyn said anti-Semitism was “vile and wrong” and that Labour has a speedy, effective way of dealing with complaints. But he has been repeatedly criticized for tolerating anti-Jewish comments from party members.
Rabbi Mirvis, who has not intervened in politics before, said the Jewish community has watched with “incredulity” as Labour supporters have hounded Labour legislators who have challenged anti-Jewish racism and even driven them out of the party.
The Chief Rabbi also pointed out that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is investigating whether the party’s discrimination against Jews is now institutionalized.
Corbyn, 70, has long been a champion of Palestinian rights and is highly critical of the Israeli government. He has at times supported the political grievances of groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby tweeted Tuesday that the Chief Rabbi’s comments should alert the country to the unease felt by many Jews. He said Rabbi Mirvis’s statement “ought to alert us to the deep sense of insecurity and fear felt by many British Jews.”
The Muslim Council of Britain praised the Chief Rabbi for speaking out and said it agreed with his conclusion that too many politicians have been silent while racism has spread.
The council said Muslims face hostility, particularly at the hands of the governing party led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
“This an issue that is particularly acute in the Conservative Party, who have approached Islamophobia with denial, dismissal and deceit,” the group said.