Nearly three years into his term as leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn on Tuesday issued his plainest denunciation so far of the antisemitic scandals that have plagued the UK’s official political opposition — but it was too little, too late for the Jewish community’s leaders, who described their crisis talks later in the afternoon with Corbyn as a “disappointing missed opportunity.”
In an op-ed for the London Evening Standard, Corbyn — once a marginal parliamentarian from the far left who won the Labour leadership contest following the party’s humiliating performance in the May 2015 general election — admitted that he had to “face the uncomfortable fact that a small number of our members and supporters hold antisemitic views and attitudes, which need to be confronted and dealt with more rapidly and effectively.”
Corbyn’s acknowledgement of Labour’s internal problem with antisemitism came one week after the British Parliament held a general debate on the subject. While the Labour leader did not speak before leaving the debate early, several of his Jewish and non-Jewish Labour colleagues gave excruciating accounts of the abuse they had been subjected to as a result of their pushback against the party’s antisemites — among them outspoken supporters of Corbyn who insist that the Labour leader is the victim of a “Zionist smear campaign” out to destroy his personal reputation.
“The evidence is clear enough,” Corbyn wrote in Tuesday’s oped. “Labour staff have seen examples of Holocaust denial, crude stereotypes of Jewish bankers, conspiracy theories blaming 9/11 on Israel, and even one member who appeared to believe that Hitler had been misunderstood.”
He continued: “So let me be clear. People holding those views have no place in the Labour Party.”
Corbyn added that action was being taken by the party’s internal bodies to discipline members who expressed antisemitic sentiments.
“In the past fortnight more than 20 individuals have been suspended from party membership, and more are being investigated,” he said. “But we have not done enough to get to grips with the problem, and the Jewish community and our Jewish members deserve an apology. My party and I are sorry for the hurt and distress caused.”
But Jewish leaders were dismayed to discover at Tuesday’s meeting that Corbyn had rejected every one of their proposals to counter Labour antisemitism. Notable was Corbyn’s continued refusal to expel former London Mayor Ken Livingstone from the Labour Party, over the latter’s allegation that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had been a “supporter of Zionism” before the Holocaust. At last week’s parliamentary debate, Labour MP Luciana Berger won a standing ovation for a speech in which she called for Livingstone’s expulsion.
After Tuesday’s meeting with Corbyn, a joint statement from the heads of the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) and the Board of Deputies (BoD) — Jonathan Arkush and Jonathan Goldstein — described the encounter as a “disappointing missed opportunity regarding the problem of antisemitism in the Labour Party.”
“We are disappointed that Mr Corbyn’s proposals fell short of the minimum level of action which our letter suggested,” the statement said. “In particular, they did not agree in the meeting with our proposals that there should be a fixed timetable to deal with antisemitism cases; that they should expedite the long-standing cases involving Ken Livingstone and Jackie Walker; that no MP should share a platform with somebody expelled or suspended for antisemitism; that they adopt the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism with all its examples and clauses; that there should be transparent oversight of their disciplinary process.”
“Words in letters and newspaper articles will never be enough,” the statement said. “We welcome the fact that Mr Corbyn’s words have changed but it is action by which the Jewish community will judge him and the Labour Party.”
The head of an antisemitism monitoring group in the UK said he was not surprised by the meeting’s outcome.
“We did not expect Jeremy Corbyn to change his ways after three years, and having set the bar so dismally low he lived up to expectations,” Gideon Falter of the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) said in a statement.
Corbyn himself described the meeting as “positive and constructive” in a statement issued on social media. But while the Labour leader reiterated the party’s desire to be a “safe and welcoming place” for Jewish members, the statement pointedly did not refer to the proposals urged on him by Jewish leaders.
Corbyn’s article on Tuesday also revealed a second goal that will do little to mend his relations with British Jews, among whom support for the Labour Party is at an all-time low. Namely, defending the Palestine solidarity movement from the charge of antisemitism, despite its support for the elimination of Israel as a sovereign Jewish state and its advocacy of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel alone.
“Anti-Zionism is not in itself antisemitic and many Jews themselves are not Zionists,” Corbyn asserted. “But there are also a very few who are drawn to the Palestinian question precisely because it affords an opportunity to express hostility to Jewish people in a ‘respectable’ setting. Our movement must not be a home for such individuals.”
Corbyn’s robust defense of anti-Zionism effectively means that past and future cases of Israel-related antisemitism in the Labour Party will be judged from the flawed assumption that, in the vast majority of cases, what is being held up as antisemitic will turn out to be merely “anti-Zionist.”
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