Anti-Semitism row forces UK Labour on defensive at conference
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Anti-Semitism row forces UK Labour on defensive at conference

‘I am fed up of talking about anti-Semitism in the Labour party,’ says MP Ruth Smeeth as leader Jeremy Corbyn refuses to apologize for a series of incidents

Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn gives a thumbs up gesture as he arrives for an interview by BBC TV journalist Andrew Marr, in Liverpool, England, Sept. 23, 2018 (Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP)
Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn gives a thumbs up gesture as he arrives for an interview by BBC TV journalist Andrew Marr, in Liverpool, England, Sept. 23, 2018 (Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP)

LIVERPOOL, United Kingdom (AFP) — Having spent the summer fending off accusations of anti-Semitism, Britain’s main opposition Labour Party is once again being forced to confront the toxic issue at its annual conference.

“Like everybody in this room, I am fed up of talking about anti-Semitism in the Labour party,” said frustrated MP Ruth Smeeth at a party-affiliated Jewish Labour Movement rally on Sunday in a pub in Liverpool, northwest England, yards from the party’s main conference.

The issue has dogged party leader Jeremy Corbyn, a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause and critic of Israel, ever since the veteran leftist’s 2015 election victory.

Several party members have been suspended, expelled or forced to resign for making anti-Semitic statements, but the leader is accused of not doing enough to clamp down on the issue.

Jewish Labour Party MP Ruth Smeeth (screen capture: YouTube)

Corbyn defended himself vigorously again on Sunday, telling the BBC’s flagship political program that he “will die fighting racism in any form.”

But for his critics, Corbyn’s words are not enough.

“If it was simply a few members saying stupid things on social media, perhaps it would be overblown,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London, told AFP.

“But the fact is that anti-Semitism seems to be almost within the DNA of some people on the hard-left, and many would say that Jeremy Corbyn should be included in that category,” he added.

MP Luciana Berger, a target of insults and death threats on social media, called for Labour to clean house and investigate reported cases of anti-Semitism through a “faster, fairer, more transparent system.”

Corbyn’s supporters maintain his accusers are conflating his pro-Palestinian activism and criticism of Israel with racism.

Jon Lansman, the Jewish founder of far-left pro-Corbyn group Momentum, told the JLM rally that there was “absolutely no contradiction between fighting anti-Semitism and supporting Palestinian rights,” and called for a period of “calm and reflection.”

‘Real problem’

The issue has bubbled under the surface for years, but intensified over the summer with a series of incidents.

Corbyn told Jewish News in March that he was “not an anti-Semite in any way, never have been, and never will be,” after Jewish leaders wrote an open letter accusing him of siding with anti-Semites “again and again.”

A few days earlier, he had been forced to apologize for once supporting an artist who had created a fresco containing clearly anti-Semitic tropes.

The issue flared up again in July when the party’s decision making body, the National Executive Committee, voted to leave out some of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) internationally recognized examples of “contemporary anti-Semitism” in its own definition of the term.

Illustrative: People hold up placards and Union flags as they gather for a demonstration organized by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism outside the head office of the British opposition Labour Party in central London on April 8, 2018. (AFP/Tolga Akmen)

It sparked uproar, with Jewish newspapers accusing Corbyn of posing an “existential threat” to the Jewish community while furious Labour MP Margaret Hodge described her party leader as “racist” and “anti-Semitic.”

Corbyn acknowledged in August that his party had a “real problem” with the issue and that he was “working to overcome” it.

But the wound did not heal, and the emergence of a 2013 video poured fuel on the fire.

The clip showed Corbyn declaring that British “Zionists… don’t understand English irony” despite having lived in the country for a long time.

The Labour leader refused to apologize, saying only that he was “now more careful with how I might use the term” Zionist.

But the row looks set to continue to haunt the party.

“I am going nowhere,” Smeeth told the Jewish Labour Movement rally in Liverpool, to cheers from the 100-strong crowd. “We are going to win that fight.”

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