Rabbis who quit Unite over antisemitism stance switch to new union

GMB general secretary Gary Smith said 'antisemitism will be dealt with like any other form of racism'


Rabbis who quit in disgust as members of Unite over leader Len McCluskey’s “unhelpful” stance on Labour antisemitism have joined a rival union’s new branch for Jewish faith workers.

At the launch on Tuesday, GMB general secretary Gary Smith pledged: “I give you this absolute commitment that when we encounter antisemitism within our ranks it will be dealt with head on.

“We don’t want a league table of racists. Antisemitism will be dealt with like any other form of racism.”

He spoke of his horror that under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership “antisemitism” as a “haven for middle class racists” had manifested itself in the Labour party.

Mr Smith said “as a union” that “most of us were staggered by the way racism wasn’t being faced with or dealt with”.

In 2018, five rabbis quit Unite in protest after Secretary General Mr McClusky responded to concerns over antisemitism within the Labour Party by urging “the leadership of the Jewish community to abandon their truculent hostility”.

In a joint resignation letter, the rabbis said: “Len McCluskey’s most recent comments about the leadership of the Jewish community are not only unhelpful but are disingenuous, for he attempts to rewrite the story of the last six months and plays down the genuine concerns of the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community.”

One of the signatories, Rabbi Richard Jacobi of East London and Essex Liberal Synagogue, has now founded GMB’s Jewish Faith Workers branch alongside Rabbi David Mason, with support from the Jewish Labour Movement.

Recalling his resignation from his previous union, Rabbi Jacobi told the JC: “At that time in Unite history they were following previous lines of argument and behaviour in the Corbyn era. It was impossible to feel you could be supported by an organisation in that situation. Some battles you can’t win, you can only protest.”

Explaining why he needs a union, he said: “Rabbis can’t be experts in employment law.

“This is about hopefully improving the quality of conversations between rabbis, faith workers and their congregations.”

GMB’s new branch has 15 rabbis signed up so far, representing rabbis from the United Synagogue, Masorti, Reform and Liberal communities. Organisers hope to have 30 to 50 by the end of the year, in addition to other faith workers such as rebbetzins, chaplains and student rabbis.

Rabbi Mason said: “I would like to thank the GMB for building this new branch. There is a long history of the Jewish community being part of the trade union story. 

“This branch will allow that story to continue and give Rabbinic staff across the community an important voice on their workplace conditions. It has been a pleasure to have been part of bringing this to fruition.”

Harking back to his union’s Jewish roots at the launch, Mr Smith said: “Today marks a remarkable day and a new chapter in both GMB’s and the wider Labour movements’ history. 

“Our union was co-founded by Eleanor Marx in 1889 who, after seeing the dire conditions of Jewish factory workers in London’s East End, and led by her sense of justice, fought for a more compassionate world.  

“It is in this great tradition that we have listened to our members and supported their efforts to launch a specialist faith branch for those working for Jewish faith employers. Workers’ interests are best served when people organise themselves, from the bottom up, not the top down.”

Mike Katz, National Chair of the Jewish Labour Movement said: “We’re incredibly proud to have been part of establishing this ground-breaking, new branch.

"It’s in our values as an organisation to champion trade unionism in the Jewish community and beyond. Rabbis and Jewish faith workers, just like all workers, deserve trade union representation that advocates for them.”

Hailing the body’s creation, Board of Deputies President Marie van der Zyl said: "The Board of Deputies welcomes the new GMB Jewish Faith Workers Branch. 

“Many Jewish employers have been concerned in recent years on the track record of some unions regarding antisemitism, but this is a clear signal that there are unions who wish to support Jewish employees.”

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