'We have to take a long, hard look at ourselves'

Deputy Labour head warns party faces ‘eternal shame’ over anti-Semitism scandal

Tom Watson urges under-fire leader Jeremy Corbyn to accept international anti-Semitism definition, drop probes against MPs Hodges and Austin who have spoken out

Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson, left, party head Jeremy Corbyn, center, during a referendum event in London on June 7, 2016. (AP/Frank Augstein)
Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson, left, party head Jeremy Corbyn, center, during a referendum event in London on June 7, 2016. (AP/Frank Augstein)

The deputy leader of the UK’s Labour party said the faction risked descending into “eternal shame” if it did not immediately take measures to rectify a rapidly mounting anti-Semitism scandal that has rocked British politics and threatened to tear the party asunder.

Tom Watson, who is second only to party leader Jeremy Corbyn, also urged Labour to drop inquiries launched against two lawmakers who have been threatened with disciplinary action for speaking out against the party leadership.

The Saturday comments came a day after Corbyn published a column in the Guardian online vowing to root out anti-Semitism, but which failed to mollify the Jewish community or other critics.

“This is one of those moments when we have to take a long, hard look at ourselves, stand up for what is right and present the party as fit to lead the nation – or disappear into a vortex of eternal shame and embarrassment,” Watson said in comments to The Observer, the Guardian’s Sunday publication.

Deputy Labour party leader Tom Watson, left, is congratulated by Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn after delivering a speech to delegates in the main hall, on day three of the annual Labour Party Conference on September 26, 2017 in Brighton, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Pressure on Corbyn has intensified after a series of anti-Semitic scandals involving both members of the party and himself.

Last month, the party’s ruling body and leadership endorsed a code of conduct that excluded several of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance examples of anti-Semitism.

The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is the benchmark for countless organizations, as well as 31 countries including the US, Canada, Germany, France, and the UK itself.

The party has come under fire from Jewish members of Labour and the British Jewish community for not adopting the full definition — particularly several items that define anti-Semitism masquerading as legitimate criticism of Israel.

Keith Walker engaging the driver of a van transporting a billboard about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party on London’s Parliament Square, April 17, 2018. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)

The current Labour guidelines on anti-Semitism, approved last month, omit at least four points featured in the original IHRA list, including accusing Jews of “being more loyal to Israel” than their own country; claiming that Israel’s existence is a “racist endeavor”; applying a “double standard” on Israel; and comparing “contemporary Israeli policy” to that of the Nazis.

Two MPs who have criticized the party for failing to adopt the definitition, Margaret Hodge and Ian Austin, are facing disciplinary action from the party, a move which has angered many. Hodge is Jewish and Austin was raised by adoptive Jewish parents.

Watson said the party should immediately drop probes into the two and adopt the IHRA definition.

“I think it is very important that we all work to de-escalate this disagreement, and I think it starts with dropping the investigations into Margaret Hodge and Ian Austin,” he said.

Britain’s opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival in Tolpuddle, England, Sunday July 22, 2018 (Ben Birchall/PA via AP)

On the IHRA definition, he added: “We should deal with this swiftly and move on. We can’t have this dragging on throughout the summer.”

In recent days, numerous critics have charged that Corbyn resisted adopting the IHRA definition because he himself would fall foul of some of its provisions.

The opinion piece by Corbyn had addressed mounting accusations that Corbyn’s party is a haven for anti-Semites and that, if not one himself, he has done little to stop them.

“I do not for one moment accept that a Labour government would represent any kind of threat, let alone an ‘existential threat,’ to Jewish life in Britain, as three Jewish newspapers recently claimed,” Corbyn wrote, before dismissing it as a kind of “overheated rhetoric.”

UK Jewish newspapers unite against Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, July 2018 (via JTA)

But he was accused of employing spin tactics and making do with a “vague and meaningless statement.”

“Today, other than another article bemoaning a situation of the Party’s own making, nothing has changed. There is no trust left. We find ourselves asking once again for action, not words,” the Jewish Labour Movement said in a statement.

The Labour leader was also accused of giving a “copy and paste” apology, with critics noting the similarities between Friday’s article and one he wrote for London’s Evening Standard newspaper in April.

Among the scandals personally involving Corbyn that have emerged in the last week alone were the revelations that he gave an interview to Iraqi TV in 2015, in which he called the Balfour Declaration “bizarre” and questioned the founding of Israel; that he hosted a parliamentary event in which a Holocaust survivor compared Israel to the Nazis; and that in 2011, Corbyn was among a group of predominantly Labour politicians who proposed changing the name of Holocaust Memorial Day to “Genocide Memorial Day – Never Again For Anyone,” to reflect that “Nazism targeted not only Jewish [people].”

On Saturday, the Mail on Sunday reported that Corbyn had called Louise Ellman, a Jewish lawmaker, “the MP for Tel Aviv” in private comments. Labour denied the charge to the paper.

In the past Corbyn has called the Hezbollah and Hamas terror groups his “friends.” In 2016, an interparliamentary committee accused Labour of creating a “safe space for those with vile attitudes towards Jewish people.”

‘Don’t censor criticism of Israel’

Corbyn claimed on Friday that “driving anti-Semitism out of the party for good, and rebuilding that trust, are our priorities,” before vowing to take Jewish fears seriously.

“I do acknowledge there is a real problem that Labour is working to overcome. And I accept that, if any part of our national community feels threatened, anxious or vulnerable, not only must that be taken at face value but we must all ensure those fears are put to rest,” he wrote.

Corbyn said he would consult with Jewish community leaders to try and resolve the dispute over the definition of anti-Semitism, saying that the only real difference in opinion revolved around the issue of “free speech in relation to Israel.”

“I fully understand and respect the strong affection and affinity most Jews in Britain feel for Israel, whatever their view of the current Israeli government,” he wrote.

“It is unfortunately the case that this particular example, dealing with Israel and racism, has sometimes been used by those wanting to restrict criticism of Israel that is not anti-Semitic,” he wrote.

“All of us committed to peace and justice in the Middle East accept that the perspective of the Palestinian people, and their experience as victims of racism and discrimination, should not be censored or penalized any more than the right of Jewish self-determination should be denied.”

Corbyn said his concerns over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and its Arab minorities were shared by many UK Jews and that this “should not be a source of dispute.”

However he slammed Israel’s “killing of many unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza,” while failing to address the threat from terrorism faced by Israel.

He ended by calling on British Jews to join with Labour in confronting the rise of the far-right in the country which was “threatening black, Muslim and Jewish communities alike. That is a clear and present danger,” he wrote.

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