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With Britons heading to the polls for their third general election in five years, the two frontrunners for prime minister have been facing accusations of bigotry. Current prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson, has faced accusations of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments. At the same time, his chief opposition, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, has been facing multiple charges of antisemitism.
On Thursday, December 12, British citizens will vote for their local members of parliament (MPs), which will ultimately determine the next prime minister of the United Kingdom.
Accusations of antisemitism against Jeremy Corbyn
With the Conservative Party, also known as the Tories, ahead in the polls, Jeremy Corbyn has become a divisive figure to lead the opposition party. He has not heeded calls to step down and has remained defiant in the face of accusations that he is antisemitic.
Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, called Corbyn “unfit for the office” in a column for The Times. At least one Labour MP has resigned over Corbyn’s handling of the issue.
Corbyn has been accused of antisemitism due to a number of activities. In 2010, he hosted an event that featured a speaker, Hajo Meyer, who compared modern Israel to Nazis – something Corbyn later apologized for. The next year, Corbyn was among 23 MPs who proposed changing the UK’s Holocaust Memorial Day to Genocide Memorial Day, which has been viewed as an act of Holocaust denialism. Corbyn also wrote the foreword to a book “Imperialism: A Study” by John A. Hobson, which suggests that Jews control banks and the press.
Critics also say Corbyn has failed to stamp out antisemitism in his own party. Some have claimed that the issue has become worse under Corbyn’s leadership, with over 130 cases or complaints against Labour Party members being unaddressed.
In a November 26 BBC interview with veteran journalist Andrew Neil, Neil asked Corbyn if he wished to apologize for the way he and his party had handled the antisemitic accusations. Corbyn did not apologize but did say he wanted to ensure that “our society will be safe for people of all faiths.” The interview was labeled “bruising” and received a host of unfavorable headlines the next day.
In another interview on December 2, this time with ITV’s “This Morning”, Corbyn did apologize, saying, “Obviously I’m very sorry for what has happened.” He had previously said that his party had offered “its sympathies and apologies” to those that had experienced antisemitism.
Corbyn has promised his government would be “the most anti-racist government you’ve ever seen.” He has received support from some Jewish citizens, including over 200 members or supporters of the Labour Party who claim his lifetime record of fighting for tolerance and equality makes him a “crucial ally” against bigotry.
Still, recent polling has found that 78% of British Jews would rather prefer a no-deal Brexit than elect Corbyn to prime minister. This is despite the fact that many British Jews feel the UK’s inclusion in the European Union has been beneficial to their community and leaving could pose risks for a minority group such as them. If the party replaced Corbyn with a new leader, 42% say they might vote Labour.
Accusations of Islamophobia against Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson has faced his own accusations of bigotry – but against Muslims. In a column for the Telegraph in August 2018, he wrote that it was “ridiculous” for Muslim women to wear face-covering veils. He was writing to express his disagreement with Denmark’s recent ban of the clothing items that some Muslim women wear as part of their faith, but his remarks offended many.
After a man associated with al-Qaeda, the militant Islamic fundamentalist group, stabbed and killed two people on London Bridge on November 29, Johnson was accused of exploiting the attack to support his longer prison terms policy. His policies have been criticized for failing to address the roots of crime in a country where racial minorities make up a disproportionate number of prisoners. Dave Merritt, father of one of the stab victims, has criticized Johnson for using the attack to push for stricter prison sentencing. Merritt said his son, Jack Merritt, would have opposed such measures, as his passion was “helping people to redeem themselves.”
According to Anadolu Agency, Anti-Muslim hate crimes in the UK have seen spikes at various times in recent years, including a drastic increase after Johnson’s article was published. There was also a significant increase in such crimes in the week immediately following the white supremacist attack on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Religious make-up of the UK
Jews make up only 0.5% of the UK’s population. According to a 2011 census, Christians constitute nearly 60% and Muslims 4.4% of the country. People with no professing religion account for just over a quarter of the population.