British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn denied Thursday that the party had an anti-Semitism problem, as former London mayor Ken Livingstone became the latest member to be suspended for anti-Semitic comments.
“[T]here is not a problem. We are totally opposed to anti-Semitism in any form within the party,” Corbyn said, according to the Guardian. “The very small number of cases that have been brought to our attention have been dealt with swiftly and immediately, and they will be.”
The Labour leader said that it was “very sad” that disciplinary measures had to be taken against Livingstone, who was suspended for bringing the party “into disrepute.” Earlier Thursday, Livingstone, who sits on Labour’s national executive, told the BBC that Hitler initially “was supporting Zionism… before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews,” and who charged that “the Israel lobby” in the UK had for decades tried to “smear” all critics of Israel as anti-Semites.
The comments triggered outrage within the party and among the British Jewish community, with Labour MPs openly calling for Livingstone to be suspended. John Mann, who heads the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism, confronted Livingstone in a scene caught on camera, calling him a “fucking disgrace” and “Nazi apologist.” Mann was summoned by the Labour leadership over his outburst.
Corbyn rejected suggestions that Labour was failing to tackle anti-Semitism and vowed to flush out any other such cases.
“It’s not a crisis. There’s no crisis. Where there is any racism in the party it will be dealt with and rooted out. I have been an anti-racist campaigner all my life,” he said. A bitter critic of Israel, Corbyn himself has come under fire in the past for referring to Hamas and Hezbollah representatives as “friends.”
He suggested that the complaints of anti-Semitism in the party were triggered by its high level of grassroots support.
“I suspect that much of this criticism that you are saying about a crisis in the party actually comes from those who are nervous of the strength of the Labour Party at local level,” Corbyn said.
Livingstone made his comments as he defended Labour MP Naz Shah, who was also suspended from the party on Wednesday, after it emerged that she had posted comments on Facebook calling for Israel to be dismantled, compared Israelis to Hitler, and posted pro-Hamas tweets.
“There’s been a very well-orchestrated campaign by the Israel lobby to smear anybody who criticizes Israeli policy as anti-Semitic. I had to put up with 35 years of this,” Livingstone told the BBC, striking a distinctly less conciliatory note than Shah herself, who publicly apologized for the posts.
“Frankly,” Livingstone also said, according to the Guardian, “there’s been an attempt to smear Jeremy Corbyn and his associates as anti-Semitic from the moment he became leader. The simple fact is we have the right to criticize what is one of the most brutal regimes going in the way it treats the Palestinians.”
British politicians, Jewish groups and Israel’s ambassador all condemned the former London mayor for his comments, with the Board of Deputies of British Jews saying Livingstone should be kicked out of Labour altogether.
“If anyone has gone mad, it is Ken Livingstone,” said Rabbi Danny Rich, the chief executive of Liberal Judaism in Britain. “Claiming Hitler was a Zionist is not only a huge historical perversion, but it directly equates Nazism and Zionism. It suggests they share objectives and values; it is guilt by association. It is hard to think of a more offensive linkage.”
Corbyn, who was elected Labour leader in September, told the BBC on April 11 that anyone making anti-Semitic statements “is auto-excluded from the party.” This policy was announced amid intense media scrutiny of Labour in connection with several incidents of hate speech against Jews.