The Rabbis' letter protesting Labour antisemitism was an extraordinary display of unity

Simon Rocker cannot remember when so many Orthodox rabbis have put their names alongside representatives from non-Orthodox synagogues

July 19, 2018 13:03

The letter signed this week by 68 British rabbis calling on Labour to listen to the Jewish community about antisemitism was an extraordinary display of unity.

Extraordinary because I can recollect no other occasion in 30-odd years when so many Orthodox rabbis have put their names alongside representatives from non-Orthodox synagogues.

The signatories spanned the denominational spectrum from Liberal to Charedi. True, there was just a single Charedi rabbi, Avrohom Pinter, a former Labour councillor in Hackney, who signed it in the name of the schools of which he is principal rather than as a member of London’s main Charedi umbrella body, the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations.


But the number of United Synagogue rabbis willing to sign was striking. Dayan Ivan Binstock of St John’s Wood, a member of the London Beth Din; Rabbi Nicky Liss, chairman of the Rabbinical Council of the US; his vice-chairman Rabbi Harvey Belovski; Rabbi Baruch Davis, a former chairman of the council; along with the ministers of some of the biggest US synagogues.

Rabbi Liss explained the US had received a request to act from the Jewish Labour Movement and he had circulated it among colleagues. “There’s no question that this is cross-communal,” he said. “It is an unprecedented show of strength from the British rabbinate and British rabbis, absolutely clear that it is right and proper that all Jewish leaders should call out the Labour Party on this important issue.”

It is certainly not unheard of for US rabbis to join their Progressive and Masorti counterparts in a protest in print, for example, a recent letter asking Israel not to deport African asylum-seekers. But the US contingent usually amounted only to the odd one or two and from the left flank of Orthodoxy.

The rules of engagement between the US and the non-Orthodox were laid down more than 30 years ago by the then Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits. He supported co-operation on communal defence, Israel or welfare — but not on issues that might encroach on religious differences.

This week’s cross-communal initiative does not mark any departure in substance from the Jakobovits guidelines.

Yet it does signal a change of mood within the community since the 1990s, when clashes between Progressive and Orthodox reached their bitter climax in the events that followed Chief Rabbi Sacks’s absence from the funeral of Reform leader, Rabbi Hugo Gryn.

In the fallout from that episode, the US, Reform, Liberal and Masorti signed the 1998 “Stanmore Accords”, determined to prevent any repeat of such infighting. Reducing communal tensions, they slowly paved the way for greater collegiality.

While many will welcome this week’s inter-rabbinic alliance, still some may still feel a twinge of regret that it has taken an issue like the threat of antisemitism to produce it.

July 19, 2018 13:03

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