(LONDON) — Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn sought Tuesday to defuse harsh criticism about anti-Semitism leveled at the party by Britain’s chief rabbi.
Corbyn addressed Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis’ remarks in The Times newspaper while taking questions at a campaign event just over two weeks before Britain’s Dec. 12 election.
He denied Mirvis’ claim that Labour and its leader have been deeply tarnished by pervasive anti-Semitic attitudes.
The influential 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 rabbi’s damaging column was published on the day Labour was launching its “race and faith” platform as part of its campaign to win voters with its views on tolerance and equality.
The left-wing party pledged in its platform to teach children about the legacy of the British empire, including slavery and colonialism, and also says it will treat attacks on places of worship as a specific aggravated offense.
Outside the launch event, protesters put up anti-Labour posters including one that read, “a vote for Labour is a vote for racism.”
In his speech, Corbyn said anti-Semitism was “vile and wrong” and insisted 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. The ongoing questions about anti-Semitism have damaged traditionally strong ties between Britain’s Jews and the Labour Party.
Louise Ellman, a former Labour legislator who quit the party over the issue, said the chief rabbi’s column reflects “widespread concern and anxiety” across the mainstream Jewish community.
“The reason I have left the Labour Party is because I cannot ask people to vote for Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister while we have a Labour Party that is institutionally anti-Semitic,” she told BBC.
The situation, she added, was “unprecedented.”
Mirvis, who hasn’t 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. Some have been driven out of the party.
He said “the very soul of our nation is at stake,” pointing 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 critical of the Israeli government. He has at times appeared to be sympathetic to the grievances of groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said in a tweet that the chief rabbi’s comments should make clear to the country that many British Jews feel uneasy.
He said Mirvis’s statement “ought to alert us to the deep sense of insecurity and fear felt by many British Jews.”
Earlier this month, the influential Jewish Chronicle newspaper had warned about the dangers of Corbyn becoming prime minister.
The Muslim Council of Britain praised the 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 within 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.
All 650 seats in the House of Commons will be decided in the election, which was called by Johnson with the goal of getting a new Parliament that would back his Brexit policy.