Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former British chief rabbi, became the latest major public figure in the United Kingdom to brand Jeremy Corbyn, the far-left leader of the British Labour Party, as an “antisemite” on Tuesday, as the row over recently uncovered comments by Corbyn about “Zionists” continued unabated.
In an interview with the British political weekly The New Statesman — the full version of which will appear on Thursday — Sacks slammed Corbyn as “an antisemite” who has “given support to racists, terrorists and dealers of hate.”
The latest conflict between Corbyn and the Jewish community stems from his comments at a 2013 meeting of a pro-Palestinian group in London. The Labour leader, then still a backbench MP, claimed that British-born “Zionists” had “no sense of English irony” despite “having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives.”
By way of comparison, Lord Sacks in his interview invoked one of the most infamous speeches delivered by a British politician in the post-war era, that has become, for many Britons, virtually synonymous with racism and intolerance.
“The recently disclosed remarks by Jeremy Corbyn are the most offensive statement made by a senior British politician since Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech,” Lord Sacks told The New Statesman. “It was divisive, hateful and like Powell’s speech it undermines the existence of an entire group of British citizens by depicting them as essentially alien.”
In 1968, the late Enoch Powell, a Conservative MP, caused a storm when he spoke in the House of Commons advocating the mass repatriation of black immigrants to the UK. During that speech, Powell, a noted classics scholar, declared that if immigration was allowed to continue, “Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’”
Powell’s address — in which he also approvingly quoted antisemitic journalist Douglas Reed — subsequently became known as the “Rivers of Blood” speech, and it provided the point of departure for Sacks’ attack on Corbyn.
“When he [Corbyn] implies that, however long they have lived here, Jews are not fully British, he is using the language of classic pre-war European antisemitism,” Sacks asserted.
Sacks continued: “When challenged with such facts, the evidence for which is before our eyes, first he denies, then he equivocates, then he obfuscates. This is low, dishonest and dangerous.”
Corbyn, Sacks warned, “has legitimized the public expression of hate, and where he leads, others will follow.”
In other sections of the interview previewed by The New Statesman, the former chief rabbi observed, “Now, within living memory of the Holocaust, and while Jews are being murdered elsewhere in Europe for being Jews, we have an antisemite as the leader of the Labour Party and her majesty’s opposition. That is why Jews feel so threatened by Mr Corbyn and those who support him.”
Sacks argued, “For more than three and a half centuries, the Jews of Britain have contributed to every aspect of national life. We know our history better than Mr. Corbyn, and we have learned that the hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews. Mr. Corbyn’s embrace of hate defiles our politics and demeans the country we love.”
The harsh words of Sacks were angrily rejected by a spokesperson for Corbyn.
“This comparison with the race-baiting Enoch Powell is absurd and offensive,” the spokesperson said. “Jeremy Corbyn described a particular group of pro-Israel activists as Zionists, in the accurate political sense — not as a synonym or code for Jewish people.”