Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s Labour party, insisted to the BBC on Sunday that he was not an anti-Semite, but refused to apologize for a series of incidents involving him and other party members that have drawn accusations of rampant anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment.
In an interview with BBC host Andrew Marr ahead of the party’s annual conference in Liverpool, which opened Sunday, Corbyn defended his own conduct and his handling of some of the scandals that have rocked the opposition party in recent months.
When asked by Marr if he wanted to “express personal remorse” over the ongoing crisis, Corbyn responded: “I’ll simply say this, I am an anti-racist and I’ll die an anti-racist. Anti-Semitism is a scourge in any society. I have opposed it all my life and I will continue to oppose it all my life.”
He said that under his leadership, Labour had “set up much better processes for dealing with incidents,” and that the party was a “safe and welcoming place for all communities.”
Corbyn insisted to Marr that he was “absolutely” not anti-Semitic, while defending his remark about British Zionists not understanding irony, his attendance at a memorial for Palestinian terrorists, and Labour’s reluctance to fully adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance‘s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism — a move which, when finally adopted earlier this month, he unsuccessfully attempted to undermine by seeking a caveat asserting that branding Israel a racist endeavor is not anti-Semitic.
Corbyn defended his opposition to removing a mural in London several years ago that depicted anti-Semitic caricatures of Jewish bankers and businessmen counting their money, saying he was concerned over the wider issue of removing public art.
The Labour leader conceded that he had “perhaps been too hasty” in his judgment, and said the mural “should have never have been put up.”
When Marr asked him to to explain his comments from 2013, when he said that British “Zionists” were unable to understand British Irony, Corbyn said he was defending Palestinian Authority ambassador Manuel Hassassian from two people who had berated him during a meeting.
He said the hecklers “were both British-born people who’d clearly been here all their lives.”
“I was upset on his behalf… about the way he had been treated. I felt I should say something in his support,” Corbyn said.
The Labour leader said the remark “was not intended to be anti-Semitic in any way,” underscoring that he opposed anti-Semitism in all forms “because I can see where it leads to now in Poland, Hungary and in central Europe, I can see where it led in the past.”
He also stood by his decision to attend a 2014 memorial service in Tunisia, saying he was “not sure” if Palestinian terrorists linked to the Munich massacre were buried at the cemetery where it was held.
“I thought it was right to take part in what was a very solemn ceremony… I’m not even sure who was buried there at the time,” he said. “I’m not a supporter of Black September, of course, but I always think we should commemorate those who have been killed in bombing raids. And that’s what I was doing.”
Corbyn had initially claimed he attended the ceremony at the Cemetery of the Martyrs of Palestine in Tunisia to commemorate the 47 Palestinians killed during an Israeli bombing raid there in 1985. But images recovered from a Palestinian Embassy archive by the Daily Mail earlier this year showed Corbyn holding a wreath near a plaque dedicated to members of the Black September terrorist group.
“A wreath was indeed laid by some of those who were at the conference to those that were killed in Paris in 1992,” Corbyn later admitted, adding that he while he was present at the ceremony, he did not “think I was actually involved in it.”
When asked by Marr on Sunday whether he believed that Israel was a “racist endeavor,” Corbyn told Marr: “No… the establishment of the state of Israel was in agreement with the United Nations and its borders were defined.”
However, Corbyn said he thought it was ” right that people should be able to discuss the establishment of the State of Israel but recognize the existence of the State of Israel and not prevent that kind of debate.”
Corbyn said that while the party decided this month to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, they “made it absolutely clear that there can and should always be a debate.”
“Because the only way we are going to bring peace in the Middle East is when people talk to each other, and when there is an end to the settlement policy and a withdrawal of the occupation,” he said.
While allegations of anti-Semitism have dogged Corbyn since he became Labour leader three years ago, the furor has reached a new magnitude since March.
The revelation that Corbyn defended the mural, and the Jewish community’s “Enough is Enough” demonstration in Parliament Square in its wake, were swiftly followed by the row over the party’s initial refusal to adopt in full the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. Also, over the summer, there broke a lengthy series of revelations about Corbyn’s own links to terrorists, anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers. Former British chief rabbi Lord (Jonathan) Sacks last month branded Corbyn a dangerous anti-Semite.
The crisis over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party has caused a major schism within its ranks and led Jews to express fears over their future in the country.
Almost 40 percent of British Jews would “seriously consider emigrating” if Corbyn became prime minister, according to a recent poll conducted for The Jewish Chronicle.