Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour Party’s embattled leader, got credit for not being an anti-Semite Sunday night, but little else.
Corbyn, who faced off against Owen Smith, his challenger for leadership of Great Britain’s official opposition party, before a London audience of Jewish Labour voters, assured those attending the forum that he recognized Israel’s right to exist. At the same time he restated his support for organized boycotts of exclusively Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and refused to condemn certain supporters of his who have been caught up in anti-Semitism scandals.
Dressed in an off-white suit, Corbyn voiced admiration for “the verve and spirit of the towns and cities in Israel,” and the country’s “separation of legal and political powers, and system of democratic government.” He also praised Israel’s innovations in “medicine and telecommunications technology.” But he defended his support for a West Bank boycott as “a reasonable reaction to what are illegal settlements.”
Smith said he did not support any organized effort to boycott settlements.
The debate, organized by the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Friends of Israel, saw Corbyn decline to condemn or distance himself from several prominent party figures whose comments have ignited angry controversies and charges of anti-Semitism within the party. One of them, Jackie Walker, a vice-chair of Momentum, a left-wing faction within the party, was briefly suspended this past spring after charging that “many Jews were the chief financiers of the slave trade.” Another, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, was likewise suspended for stating that Hitler had supported Zionism “before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews.” Livingstone, who has not been reinstated, claimed there was a “well-orchestrated campaign by the Israel lobby to smear anybody who criticizes Israel policy as anti-Semitic”.
“He was suspended, he is under investigation, due process will follow. I have nothing to do with it,” Corbyn said when asked about him.
Corbyn was also challenged on his association with Paul Eisen, a Jewish pro-Palestinian activist and self-described denier of the Holocaust. Eisen is one of the leaders of Deir Yassin Remembered, a group dedicated to commemorating the slaughter of Arab Palestinian civilians by Zionist militia forces in the lead-up to the 1948 war that established Israel. Many of its board members and advisors have resigned in recent years, in protest of Eisen’s leadership role in the organization, among other things.
Corbyn, who has attended the group’s commemorations, told the audience that Eisen was a constituent. Moreover, he added, “I did not attend any events when I became aware of his Holocaust denial.” But critics point to Corbyn’s attendance at a 2013 Deir Yassin Remembered event, six years after the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, of which Corbyn is a patron, dissociated itself from Eisen for his stand on the Holocaust.
Audience members at the forum, which took place at JW3, as the Jewish Community Center London is known, heckled Corbyn when he said “there is no place in the Labour Party for anti-Semitism of any sort.”
“What about Jackie Walker?” came the reply. There were groans when he claimed that the issue of anti-Semitism in Labour “predates my leadership” and yelps of surprises when he added that “very rapid action was taken in a number of cases” of abuse within the party. The moderate Smith, who is pitching himself as competent and electable, criticized Corbyn for “downplaying and ignoring” cases of anti-Semitism.
As for Israel, Corbyn told the audience, “I recognize and support the right of the State of Israel to exist” on the basis of the original borders of 1948. It was not clear whether he was referring to the United Nations’ 1947 partition plan or the expanded armistice lines that have constituted Israel’s internationally recognized boundaries pending a peace agreement since the 1948 war.
Pointedly, Corbyn did not refer to himself as a Zionist, but then neither did Smith, who said, “I’ve never used the word Zionist to describe myself.”
“I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn holds anti-Semitic views. The problem is what actions are being done,” said Alon Or-bach, a Labour Party member of the Barnet local governing council in north London, after the debate. “For the Labour leader to be associated with [Walker] and go out and share a platform with her—how do we defend that?”
Adam Langleben, who also represents Labour on the Barnet Council, told The Forward, “Owen Smith is the only one who both wants to win elections, which is the founding principle of the Labour Party, and also to deal with anti-Semitism.”
Langleben also described Ken Livingstone as a “red line.”
“At best, he’s taken every single opportunity over 30 years to be antagonistic towards a minority community, and at worst, he’s crossed the line into blatant racism,” he said.
The JW3 event was the final public face-off in a Labour leadership contest triggered in the wake of Britain’s referendum on European Union membership. In the days that followed the June 23 vote, when it was felt Corbyn had not done enough to make the Labour case against Brexit, Corbyn lost a vote of no confidence among his Members of Parliament 172-40. Members of his Shadow Cabinet resigned en masse. After refusing to resign, Corbyn was challenged first by Angela Eagle, who subsequently dropped out, and Smith.
The issue of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party has dogged Corbyn throughout the contest. On June 30, two days after the vote of no confidence, the human rights activist Shami Chakrabarti presented the findings of an inquiry Corbyin appointed her to conduct into Labour Party anti-Semitism. Her report found only that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere” in the Party. Corbyn subsequently nominated Chakrabarti for a seat in the House of Lords, leading to accusations that the report was a whitewash. Chakrabarti denied there was any discussion of her becoming a peer prior to the inquiry.
Even on the day the report was presented, Corbyn came under fire for appearing to put Israel on the same footing as ISIS. “Our Jewish friends,” he said then, “are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those of various self-styled Islamic states or organizations.”
“There must be something seriously wrong when Jews don’t feel safe voting Labour. Owen Smith tried to address it and Jeremy Corbyn sidestepped that one big time,” Laura Marks, the founder of Mitzvah Day and former Senior Vice President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told The Forward after the hustings.
The result of the leadership contest will be announced at a special conference in Liverpool later this month.