Should rabbis dabble in politics? Should they use their influence to persuade their congregation to follow a certain political path? Should this authority extend to interventions in parliamentary elections and other matters of national debate?
I pose these questions because in recent days British Jews has been confronted with some dramatic instances of very public rabbinical interventions which are of a shamelessly political, not to say party-political, nature.
Consider two recent examples. In the City of London on Monday 14 October –during Succot (the Jewish festival of Tabernacles) – a rabbi dressed in full ecclesiastical attire attempted to block a public highway in support of Extinction Rebellion (XR) and had to be removed – indeed arrested – by the police.
On Wednesday 30 October another rabbi sent a letter to all of his congregation (some 823 families reportedly spread across no less than 16 parliamentary constituencies) urging them all to put aside their own political loyalties and vote instead for the party most likely to defeat Labour. And just in case this letter did not itself make headline news, the same rabbi arranged to have an article published in the Times attempting to justify what he had done.
Before I consider these rabbinical initiatives in more detail I want to make two things absolutely clear.
First, I do not hold and have never held the view that rabbis should not intervene in matters of national politics. On the contrary, I think they should and that they have every right to. Moreover there are plenty of precedents for this.
For instance, in the 1960s and 1970s Saul Amias, the self-publicising extrovert minister of the Edgware United Synagogue, was a regular attendee at the Aldermaston anti-nuclear-bomb marches. In 1973, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war, both Amias and Leslie Hardman (minister at the Hendon United Synagogue) used their pulpits to denounce the then Tory government’s embargo of arms shipments to Israel, and in 1980 both clergymen publicly urged their congregation to use the power of the ballot box to punish the Tory government’s rapprochement with the PLO. In 1975 Rabbi Chaitowitz (Stanmore United Synagogue) publicly condemned a Labour government initiative that he held would harm Jewish charities. The same year Rabbi Marmur (Reform Synagogue, Golders Green) preached a sermon urging congregants to vote 'Yes' in the Common Market referendum, because of the 'menace of Soviet Communism.' Indeed I could fill this entire column with further examples of rabbinic involvement in domestic British politics over the past half-century.
But – and this is the second clarification I need to make – I hold and have always held the view that rabbis should be absolutely free to make public fools of themselves. For that is what Rabbi Jeffrey Newman did when he engineered his own arrest on 14 October and what Rabbi Jonathan Romain did when he gave his very public electoral advice sixteen days later.
It’s important to remember that Extinction Rebellion are intent on undermining parliamentary democracy and engaging in confrontation and law-breaking to force their views upon the populace at large. As its leaders proudly confess: access to Parliament is to be blocked; people going about their lawful business (including hospital visits) are to be obstructed; and travel is to be purposely and dangerously disrupted. And I should add that there are worrying signs that some elements of XR are less than admiring (to put it mildly) of Israel – the Jewish state.
Rabbi Newman has every right to be concerned about global warming. But his narcissistic attempt to legitimise XR’s activities in the name of Judaism strikes me (as a religious Jew) as little short of blasphemous.
In targeting the Labour party as he has done, Rabbi Romain (Theresa May’s local Maidenhead rabbi) has, meanwhile, displayed a woeful ignorance of present-day British electoral politics. If Rabbi Romain really does believe that a Labour government would be bad for British Jewry (a view he is perfectly entitled to hold), what he should surely be doing is calling on the Brexit Party to stand down and not fight in Tory-held marginals, where they risk splitting the anti-Labour vote and so facilitating Labour victories.
But would a Labour government really be bad for British Jewry? According to the Jewish Chronicle the answer is unequivocally yes. Its front-page published yesterday was a semi-hysterical appeal to its non-Jewish readership to beware the spectre of a Corbyn-led Labour government whose election would apparently strike fear into the hearts of all British Jews.
As a counterbalance to the Jewish Chronicle's irresponsible scaremongering I need to point out that in September 2018, 29 British-based Orthodox Jewish religious leaders published a statement condemning the view that Jews would actually leave the UK should a Labour government take office. For what it’s worth – and writing as neither a Labour party member nor supporter – I think these rabbis were and are absolutely right.