The leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, said Wednesday that he would immediately recognize a Palestinian state if elected to lead the country, while also acknowledging that his party has faced a tough summer grappling with the issue of anti-Semitism.
During his keynote speech at the annual Labour conference in Liverpool, Corbyn protested “the ongoing denial of justice and rights to the Palestinian people” and declared Labour was “united in condemning the shooting of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators in Gaza by Israeli forces and the passing of Israel’s discriminatory nation-state law,” referring to recent Knesset legislation defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
“The continuing occupation, the expansion of illegal settlements and the imprisonment of Palestinian children are an outrage,” he said, referring to minors convicted by Israel of terror activities.
According to AP figures, more than 130 Gazans have been killed by Israeli fire since the start of weekly border clashes dubbed the “Great March of Return” at the end of March. Hamas, an Islamist terror group that seized control of Gaza in 2007 and seeks to destroy Israel, has acknowledged that dozens of the fatalities were its members.
During the ongoing demonstrations, protesters have launched incendiary kites and balloons into Israel, sparking fires that have destroyed forests, burned more than 8,000 acres of land in southern Israel and killed livestock. Israel says its actions — and in particular the use of live ammunition — are necessary to defend the border and prevent mass infiltrations from the territory, and accuses Hamas of encouraging the protests and using them as cover to attempt to carry out terror attacks.
Corbyn went on to say Labour backs a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“A quarter of a century on from the Oslo Accords, we are no closer to justice or peace and the Palestinian tragedy continues, while the outside world stands by,” he charged.
“And in order to help make that two-state settlement a reality we will recognize a Palestinian state as soon as we take office,” Corbyn announced, receiving some of the most prolonged applause in he speech and a standing ovation.
He also referred to widespread anti-Semitism scandals dogging him and his party in recent months, saying: “Ours is the party of equality for all — the party that has pioneered every progressive initiative to root out racism from our society.”
But, he said, “being anti-racist means we must listen to those communities suffering discrimination and abuse.”
“The Jewish people have suffered a long and terrible history of persecution and genocide. I was humbled to see a memorial to that suffering two years ago, when I visited the former Nazi concentration camp at Terezin. The row over anti-Semitism has caused immense hurt and anxiety in the Jewish community and great dismay in the Labour Party. But I hope we can work together to draw a line under it,” Corbyn added.
He then issued a promise to Britain’s Jews: “I say this to all in the Jewish community: This party, this movement, will always be implacable campaigners against anti-Semitism and racism in all its forms. We are your ally.
“And the next Labour government,” he vowed, “will guarantee whatever support necessary to ensure the security of Jewish community centers and places of worship, as we will for any other community experiencing hateful behavior and physical attacks. We will work with Jewish communities to eradicate anti-Semitism, both from our party and wider society. And with your help I will fight for that with every breath I possess.”
He proceeded to use the issue to attack the Conservative government, saying that “we won’t accept it when we’re attacked by Tory hypocrites who accuse us of anti-Semitism one day, then endorse Viktor Orban’s hard right government the next. Or when they say we are racist, while they work to create a hostile environment for all migrant communities.”
On Tuesday, Labour passed a motion strongly criticizing Israel and pledging to halt all UK weapon sales to the Jewish state if it rises to power.
Delegates voted to criticize Israel’s use of force against violent protests and riots on the Gaza border, urge more UK funding for the UN agency for Palestinians, and back a freeze on British arms sales to Israel.
The vote came after a heated debate that saw Palestinian flags waved in the convention hall and participants chanting “Free Palestine.”
On Sunday, Corbyn insisted 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, 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.”
Corbyn insisted to Marr that he was “absolutely” not anti-Semitic, while defending a remark he made about British Zionists not understanding irony, his attendance at a memorial for Palestinian terrorists, and Labour’s reluctance to fully adopt the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism.
While allegations of anti-Semitism have dogged Corbyn since he became Labour leader three years ago, the furor has reached fever pitch since March.
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.
JTA and AP contributed to this report.