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The main opposition party in Britain, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, has an anti-Semitism problem. That was reconfirmed by an all-party panel of members of Parliament just last week. Anglo-Jewry constantly battles to ensure that shehita (ritual slaughter to produce kosher meat) is not banned; maintaining circumcision is no cakewalk either. Numbering somewhere from 300,000 to 350,000, the Jewish community is overwhelmingly outnumbered by a Muslim community estimated at about 2.7 million — or some 4.5% of the total British population.
And yet Jonathan Arkush, the lay leader of British Jews as the president of the Board of Deputies umbrella group, is optimistic, and credibly so, about British Jewry — its present and its future. He’s even begun holding meetings in mosques with Muslim leaders and congregants, to explain the community to them, build bridges, and encourage them to follow Anglo Jewry’s example in simultaneously embracing a religious lifestyle and what he calls “British values.
Arkush is relatively upbeat, too, in discussing British attitudes to Israel, vouchsafing that an official visit to Israel by a senior member of the royal family (more substantial than Prince Charles’s two fleeting trips for the funerals of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres) may now be imminent — the ultimate establishment confirmation of approval.
Visiting Israel, as he often does, Arkush, a good-natured barrister who chooses his words with an admirably direct precision, spoke to The Times of Israel about Labour and Corbyn’s prejudices, life on UK campuses for Jewish students, Muslim conspiracy theories, and the Jewish capacity for dissatisfaction. Edited transcript:
David Horovitz: Good to see you again. So how’s Anglo Jewry doing?
Jonathan Arkush: Broadly speaking, we have a community that is in a very good place, although not all of them realize it all of the time. Britain is a great place to be Jewish. I said that the last time we spoke, and I’m even more certain of that now as a result of the widespread reaction, for example, to anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. I can also cite, as of last week, the Home Affairs Select Committee report, which was thorough, absolutely comprehensive. Unlike (Labour’s own internal report, by Shami) Chakrabarti, who produced a skimped report, devoid of almost any intellectual content, the Home Affairs Select Committee wrote a serious report which will stand as a critical source document on this subject in the future.
This was a report which endorsed very strongly all the concerns expressed about Labour, about anti-Semitism in various parts of British society, about Chakrabarti, about Jeremy Corbyn, and about hate on the internet.
Is Labour a party riddled with anti-Semitism?
No. With a far-left leader, people on the far-left — I don’t think they’re new anti-Semites; I don’t think they’ve ever been sympathetic to Israel; and I think they’ve always had problems with Jews — they feel a space has opened up for them. They feel there’s room to flex their muscles and say things which they knew previously could not be said. I think they’re wrong. I trust they will be comprehensively rejected by the electorate… Labour is going down in the polls inexorably, despite the fact that Corbyn has attracted 500,000 or 300,000 new members of Labour who are undoubtedly Corbyn followers and they like his brand of anti-establishment protest vote politics. They are not the electorate.
Do you tell Jewish voters they have to stay away from Labour in its current form?
I am saying (to existing Labour members) stay in, join the Jewish Labour Movement, which has seats in all sorts of important policy-making bodies. They are fighting a phenomenal fight at the moment. All is not lost. The battle is there to be won. I’m saying to Jewish Labour members, join JLM and fight for the party, which has been taken away from you by people who don’t really represent traditional Labour ideals. People on the far-left is not the Labour party… It will probably take an election or two where Labour gets a complete and utter trouncing at the polls, but eventually the penny will drop.
And for voters?
I wouldn’t encourage people to join the Labour party right now. I think they will find it a tough place to be, but if they’re already in the party or they actually feel support for Labour ideals, and they’re tough enough, join or stay in the party and fight within the Jewish Labour Movement.
What’s the climate like for Jews in England? I ask you in comparison, say, to France, which is providing the largest component of immigrants to Israel and where people say you can’t wear a kippa in parts of Paris. That’s not the climate in London, right?
Thank the Lord, London and Britain is a very different place.
You wear a kippa out on the streets?
I wear a kippa out on the streets in London, and have no fear whatsoever. Lots of Muslims are out there wearing versions of kippot… I was in Paris recently and I was told that in some areas of Paris, it’s actually perfectly safe to wear a kippa, but it’s true, generally, there are violent anti-Semites in Paris. They might attack you on the Metro. This would be basically unknown in England.
The CST (Community Security Trust) chart incidents. Very few involve violence. Serious violence hardly ever happens.
I’m not complacent. There is a certain amount of low-level street abuse, particularly in the north of England. My cousin who lives in Birmingham, who’s a rabbi and wears a big hat and a beard — and it’s a very large Muslim population in the West Midlands — he tells me, and I’m sorry to say, that a lot of this does come from certain elements within the Muslim community, not the majority, who seem to have inherited a very vicious form of anti-Semitism. We’re not surprised. We know where they get it from. Places in the Middle East.
We have a community that feels alert, concerned, but is still able to get on with their lives. They can put up with a certain level of anti-Israeli prejudice in the media. A lot of the time, they don’t actually see as clearly as they might that overall Britain is a good place for Jews.
I’m spending a lot of time at the moment in mosques and Islamic centers. There’s another huge battle to be won there, in giving a pathway to the moderate British Muslims, who form the majority — not the extremists and not the completely assimilated; people in the middle — who are being wooed by all sorts of messages, some from the Middle East, from extremists, but also British society is saying to them: You can be a God-fearing Muslim and you can embrace British values. Jews are a very good example of how to be a visibly religious Jew and embrace British values. Muslims have still got some way to go before they can confidently embrace that vision, but I’m trying to help.
And you’re a welcome figure?
You go to mosques with a kippa on, as the lay leader of Anglo Jewry?
Yes. I say to them, I know Britain can be a very challenging place for a religious person to be. It can be aggressively secular. But you could look at the Jewish trajectory. I’m not saying this is how you have to do it, but it’s a useful case study to look at. A hundred years ago, a lot of the things that are said about Muslims now were said about us. We got through it. We have a place in British society.
What was said?
Foreign-born preachers. Jews didn’t understand the ways of the country. Jews were taking our jobs. Taking our houses. They were a bit uncouth. Foreign-born preachers, was quite a strong one. Foreign born preachers, who didn’t speak the language, who were teaching an alien creed.
Muslims are quite shocked by that. Because Muslims’ view of Jews is that they have so much influence. How do they do it?There must be something sinister. That is very commonly held.
And you say to them?
I say to them, let me give you an example of the things we used to do: We’d have a community. We would realize that someone had to look after our old community. We needed them to be looked after in a facility that catered to their Jewish needs. So we didn’t want them just put in a local state home where the care wasn’t very good, and where they wouldn’t get kosher food and wouldn’t be able to mix with other Jews and go to religious services. Step forward someone who had begun to do modestly well in the country, and he would donate money, and an old age home for Jewish people would be built, and we wouldn’t be going to the government for funds, we would be doing it ourselves. That person might become more successful, and ultimately could be given an honor, even a seat in the House of Lords. Over time you build up Jewish figures who have genuinely given to society, and above all given to their own religious faith and society. If you want influence, there’s no secret about it. That’s how you do it.
Who’s in these mosques?
The leaders. It can be quite challenging. I’m talking to the imams.
You initiated this?
Yes, I’ve initiated this Muslim engagement program…
You speak to the leadership…?
And the congregation. They’re in full Islamic dress.
You take off your shoes. You keep your kippa on. You sit at the front of the room…
Absolutely. Sit on the floor, cross-legged, with them in rows or a circle around me. And I say, Let’s talk: How many of you actually know what a Jewish person looks like? I say, I’m a British Jew, I’m a leader of the community, you can ask me anything you like. I’m a Jew, I’m a Zionist, I support the state of Israel, let’s have an honest chat.
I say to them, We can talk about the Middle East if you want. I don’t mind. I don’t mind what you say. I’m perfectly prepared to deal with all the arguments around Israel-Palestine. But I’m not sure it’s going to get us very far. You passionately have one view of the conflict. I have passionately another view of the conflict. I can’t alter it. I have no influence with the Israeli government. And I doubt that you have influence with the Palestinian Authority or other government. So we’ll have a discussion but it won’t actually lead anywhere. Why don’t we just park it? In the end, it’s a conflict 2,400 miles away which we can’t change. But look at the major agendas we share. We need to protect halal and kosher food.
Many Muslims, ‘in their heart of hearts, believe there is some sort of Jewish conspiracy’
They understand as well as we do that if there was a referendum we would lose shehita overnight. They know also we have to battle to protect circumcision. They know that we have to protect faith schools. We need to protect and promote the role of faith in our society, to show society what communities do, how we look after our own, how we bear so much weight and take it off the shoulders of central government.
They immediately are alert to that message. They appreciate that message. Nobody’s given it to them before. Muslims in Britain often feel isolated.
How many talks like this have you done?
I’ve been to Leicester. East London several times. North London. Leeds. I have visits scheduled shortly to Bradford, one of the largest (Muslim) centers in Britain. I could spend all my time on this. So I need help. I’ve recruited the Union of Jewish Students interfaith side to do it. I’m getting local communities to do it. This is a job that’s going to take decades.
It energizes me. I’m getting a much more positive reaction from Muslims than I expected.
But boy, you get some very interesting questions. They have endorsed the polls that show that Muslims — a large section; probably half; even Muslims I would call highly integrated into British society — in their heart of hearts, they believe there is some sort of Jewish conspiracy. To them, that’s the answer to influence.
The questions take what kind of form?
Tell me, Mr. Arkush, how you explain Jewish control of the media? I say, What Jewish control of the media? (Laughs.) They say, Well, look at the reporting on Israel and Palestine. The media is in the grip of the Zionist lobby.
If you go to a Jewish audience, the media is in the grip of the pro-Palestinian lobby. The BBC is ineradicably anti-Israel. I get the exact opposite from the Muslim community. And both are speaking from genuine conviction. And they can’t both be right.
The truth is, if you look at our media, you get programs which are undoubtedly sympathetic to Israel. You get programs which are undoubtedly not sympathetic to Israel. And we each have our hackles raised by things we don’t like. The things that we see that we think are neutral or fair, or in our case sympathetic to Israel, we don’t react to, because that’s what they should be saying, shouldn’t they…? I’m not excusing the BBC or Channel 4 for one moment, there is some terrible stuff out there.
Apart from Jewish control of the media, what are the other ostensible signs of Jewish conspiracy that the Muslim audiences put to you?
They of course wonder how Israel, in their narrative, gets away with all the things it does. They receive a narrative that is all about Israel, and rarely about breaches of human rights or other things in other countries. They tell you that Israel manages to escape censure at the United Nations. I say to them, the opposite must be true.
Their main thing is about Jewish influence in politics and the media.
How does Israel look to you?
Seen not through my eyes, but through English eyes, the overwhelming majority of British people don’t know about or care about the conflict in the Middle East. Even if they’ve heard some utter libels about Israel, it’s in one ear, out of the other. The same would apply to Ukraine. Syria for that matter. They may remember for a day or two a newsreel which shows a child being dug out of the rubble of a bombed building in Aleppo. But it won’t last very long. They’re not really interested. Like most people: foreign affairs don’t interest them. The more well-read, intellectually curious group in British society, I’m often amazed by how many are strongly, if not passionately, pro-Israel, and have got enough intellectual integrity to reject the narrative that they sometimes read in the Guardian. And there are too many others who have swallowed a lot of the prejudices and they think that Israel is more in the wrong than in the right.
What about on campus?
More BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) motions last year failed than succeeded, including on campuses where there were virtually no Jewish students. The hate speech, which was a product grown when you and I were on campus 30 years ago, and became a real problem about five or six years ago, the Board of Deputies has dealt with. We pioneered… a set of regulations which comprehensively crack down on controversial speakers… It has now become a National Union of Students policy, highly successfully, extending far beyond the issue of the Middle East. We now only get a couple of complaints of hate speech a year. We used to get two a week.
There are very few universities you wouldn’t want to send your child to. In fact, I’m not sure there are any.
And yet Israeli speakers can be hassled, shouted down. Labour’s wars started around Oxford.
Yes. But at the same time, in a debate about whether Israel was a pariah state, at the Oxford Union, Alan Dershowitz led the charge, won the debate.
Mark Regev, Israeli ambassador, a very effective public spokesman for the state of Israel, now gives talks at every university, including in Scotland, which were previously…. Universities, a bit like the previous abortive attempts to sabotage Israeli cultural performances, have wised up. They get the security in place. The vice chancellor is engaged right from the start. They know exactly what to allow and what not to allow. The blip was King’s College, last year, where there were some scuffles. Israeli speaker Ami Ayalon — ironically, a champion of the left and opponent of occupation — was shouted down, because the red mist came down to some of these far-left lunatics, who couldn’t see the wood for the trees. One of them has now received a criminal conviction. I could say that that’s the exception that proves the rule. We’ve seen a strong improvement.
The academic year has just started. Every year UJS goes into a new academic year without completely knowing how it’s going to turn out. If there’s any violence in Israel-Palestine, it will have a negative effect.
There’s a relatively new leader of the National Union of Students (Malia Bouattia) who’s pretty hostile to Israel.
She’s shortly to see the Union of Jewish Students. Beginning to row back on some of her statements. Got slammed by the Home Affairs Select Committee, and has said she didn’t mean to say anything anti-Semitic. She’s coming under some pressure. She’s a woman of ugly views, ugly prejudices. I don’t think UJS would feel they could place much trust in her. But we’ve learned over the years, there’s an intellectual argument to be won here. If someone’s got intellectual honesty, they will have to row back from some of the prejudices. The question is whether the prejudices still occupy a disproportionate part of their world picture.
In Jeremy Corbyn, we have a person whose prejudices, despite all the intellectual arguments, will get in the way of a rational appraisal. So sometimes you’ll manage to get him to accept certain things — like, recently, he finally accepted that Hamas and Hezbollah were not his friends, and he shouldn’t have said that. And yet…
And yet, what, with him?
He’s got baggage in his head which I don’t think he’s capable of shifting. He has been comprehensively accused, across the board, including by the Home Affairs Select Committee, with two senior Labour MPs, three senior Labour MPs, on it, of being someone who is unable to fully appreciate the extent of anti-Semitism in his own party, amongst his own political allies. And that, I think, is British understatement.
Where does it come from?
The far-left doesn’t like Israel. Doesn’t like the West. And Jews stand out against the tide. And extreme hostility to Israel, in our experience, always morphs into hostility to Jews. They stop appreciating the distinction. And perhaps, also, it’s not even accidental: Jews represent a religion, a belief in a divine being, a set of values that make up life that are very ancient — all the things that people on the far-left, and the far-right for that matter, don’t want to have any truck with.
Is there any Jewish figure in the leadership of the Labour Party, any Jewish figure in there at all, close to him?
No. No. Not one. That says something, actually. Very often in political life, when we have people perceived to be enemies of the community, there’s often a Jew, a renegade Jew, one might say, in there some way. No. This is quite interesting. There are some senior figures in the far-left group that is one of Corbyn’s prime sources of support, called Momentum, and one of them is called John Lansman. John Lansman was recently finally driven to speak out about anti-Semitism, said that it’s got too far. He’s Corbyn’s supporter. John Lansman. is now very unpopular within Momentum.
There are figures who are very divisive, like Jackie Walker. She is said to have part-Jewish ancestry, part Black ancestry. She was the one who made the infamous statement that the Jews were responsible for financing the slave trade. She recently repeated some bad remarks about Holocaust Memorial Day. She’s now been suspended from the Labour Party for the second time. What she succeeded in doing is driving a wedge between different factions in the far-left. There was a split over whether to support her because ideologically she’s a soulmate, or whether to say, Jackie Walker, you are just off the wall. You are, as one Labour MP recently said to me, a completely crazy person. And so they’re against her. So you’ve got a division. Thank you Jackie Walker. That’s what you’ve succeeded in doing.
How does Israel look to the Jewish community?
Overwhelmingly, Israel is a massively positive element in Jewish life. Most British Jews would take the view that whatever the Israeli government does, I support it. I support Israel, thick and thin. You then, of course, have got Jews who will say that the Israeli government doesn’t go far enough, the right of center, and of course you’ve got a left of center. Like everywhere else, the left of center has been reduced, because (more people are) fed up with the constant rejectionist views. So we have a left of center grouping, called Yachad, which is a little bit the counterpart of J Street but doesn’t command very strong levels of support at all, and that is what shows me that although there are groupings to the left of the center, I don’t think that they represent the consensus view among British Jews: Israel is a positive force.
I had the privilege of leading the community’s representation, together with the chief rabbi — me as the lay person, he as the religious leader — at the funeral of Shimon Peres. I watched it with my own eyes. It reflected enormous credit, not just on the figure that was Shimon Peres, but on the state of Israel. It was beautifully done. The ceremony was dignified. British people notice these things. We have a long history of dignified state events. The speeches were good. It was widely watched and quoted. President Obama was there. Prince Charles, wearing his kippa with the feathers of the Prince of Wales…
We were invited to be part of the UK official government delegation. We were invited to travel here on the government plane (which we had to pay for, by the way; it wasn’t a free ride). That was an important precedent that said something about the status of our community.
That was widely reported. It was a big deal. It’s an open secret, so I can tell you: We are pushing hard for a royal visit. It’s not about time. It’s past time for a royal visit
What does that mean — a royal visit?
A visit by a senior member of the royal family to Israel. It should have happened a long time ago. As I said to Prince Charles., it’s lovely that you came for two funerals — Rabin’s funeral and this funeral. Perhaps now, could you come for a happy occasion? Prince Charles is not the decider. He smiled. He nodded. He’s a professional up to his fingertips. It’s not his decision.
Wheels are turning. The Foreign Office is no longer the old-style Foreign Office. It’s young. It’s open. It’s much more representative than it used to be. We have a very fine foreign minister in Boris Johnson. He’s a character. He’s a personality. I’m hopeful that we will see a visit by a member of the royal family before too much longer.
Someone once asked Shimon Peres what the Jewish people had most contributed in the world, and he said dissatisfaction. I live in a community of dissatisfaction. And yet, when I talk to them, and I go up and down the country — almost every Shabbat, and often in the week, to different parts of the country — I try to put the issues facing our community in context, the good and the bad. Most people at the end actually feel very heartened and encouraged. They know I’m not complacent. But they do understand how much good is out there for our community. How many good things are happening.
Yet you’ve got the main opposition party that has an anti-Semitism problem and a leader who loathes Israel. That’s got to be troubling.
Absolutely. I don’t make light of it. But look how we’re fighting it, how we’re putting our case, and winning in the serious places — and I certainly include the Home Affairs Select Committee.
Is that something different, in that Anglo-Jewry of decades ago might not have made a fuss?
Our community is more “spoken up.” We don’t shout, but we don’t whisper either. One of my predecessors once remarked, in the most well-intentioned way, that sometimes whispering is better than shouting. And that led people to accuse the Board in times past of being frightened to raise its voice. Well, I don’t believe in shouting, but I certainly don’t believe in whispering either. We speak up for ourselves and we do it professionally. And you can see the results out there in the media very frequently.
Seems to me there’s not been a situation like this since the war. It’s very sad what’s happened to Labour.
We’ve had politicians who are perceived to be anti-Semitic. We’ve had politicians, sometimes senior, who were undoubtedly very hostile to Israel. We’ve had arms embargoes on Israel…
The Yom Kippur war, there was a problem with arms.
We’ve had torrents of problems with shehita. Brit mila is more recent. Jews have had to fight for their, I wouldn’t say existence, but their ability to live Jewish lives without a feeling of… I don’t think it’s worse now. It’s different. In many ways, it’s better now. We’re a more cosmopolitan society, that is more tolerant of minorities.
I’m thinking of that political world. Certainly the Conservatives in our lifetimes never had a leadership that is as hostile as the Labour leadership.
And since the war, Labour was never like this.
No. No. And what’s happened to Labour far eclipses, frankly, issues about Jews and Israel.
We’re fortunate as a community that we have the ability to gain access to senior political figures. I’m going to see the leader of the Lib Dems the day after I get back from Israel. I’m seeing the home secretary shortly. And if I seek meetings with senior ministers, right up to prime minister, then in due course I would expect to get that. And I will be heard sympathetically. I won’t say that the Jewish community’s views always win the day, but overall we do. Because there is intellectual honesty and rigor in our arguments, and I think we can always win the arguments.
In the end, that’s how a small community survives around the world. How we have survived. By the intellectual strengths of our arguments. And that’s why I’m pretty confident about a Jewish future in Britain.