When the leaders of the British Jewish community sat down for a two-hour meeting in late April with Jeremy Corbyn, head of the opposition Labor party that has been dogged by accusations of anti-Semitism, the event ended badly. Jewish leaders proclaimed disappointment, dismissing Corbyn's apologetic words and saying they would prefer actions. It was a moment of truth for British Jewry in some ways, a symptom of a situation that has gotten worse through misplaced outrage and mismatched expectations. And it seems to have exploded because of a seder.
I hardly expect news from Europe these days to be good for the Jews, and--spoiler alert!--Britain is still part of Europe until March 2019. But in Italy over Passover, reading the English newspapers, even I was taken aback by the torrent of criticism against Corbyn for attending a seder--albeit a wildly unconventional one.
The seder was held by Jewdas, a little-known anti-establishment Jewish group (the name says it all) that has published spoofs such as "The Protocols of the Elders of Hackney." Officially, it is non-Zionist, with all too many unfortunate rhetorical slips by individual (inebriated?) members into anti-Zionism, as well as comments that evoke the old stereotypes of Jew-as-capitalist.
A constituent invited Corbyn to attend the Jewdas seder and to bring some of the beetroot he grows in his community garden for "bitter herbs." He spent four hours there, reading, at one point, a Jewdas version of the prayer for Elijah's cup, in which the coming of the messiah brings revolution and socialism. Attendees' names were not to be made public, but in this iPhone age, someone leaked.
The British Jewish establishment was outraged, though it wasn't clear at exactly what. One Labor MP charged that Corbyn was "deliberately baiting the mainstream Jewish community." The Holocaust Education Trust found attending the seder "disrespectful." Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain, said he would have refused to sit down with Corbyn. Jonathan Arkush, executive director of the Board of Deputies, charged that Jewdas was a "source of virulent anti-Semitism" and also, perhaps more to the point, that "they are not all Jewish."
British Jewry has a tortured relationship with the Labor party, which was founded by unions, Marxists and Jewish intellectuals in 1900. It was the antifascist party before World War II, and most Jews continued to support it based on that history up through the 1980s, though...