The governing body of Britain’s main opposition Labour Party met Tuesday in an attempt to defuse a crisis over anti-Semitism that has caused a major schism within its ranks and led to Jews to express fears over the future in the country.
Rival groups of protesters gathered outside Labour’s London headquarters, as the party’s national executive committee debated whether to adopt a definition of anti-Semitism approved by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).
Labour’s adoption earlier this year of a more limited definition — omitting some of the alliance’s language around criticism of Israel — renewed claims that the left-of-center party has become hostile to Jews under leader Jeremy Corbyn, a longtime supporter of the Palestinian cause and opponent of Israel.
Emotions ran high outside Tuesday’s meeting, where dozens of demonstrators shouted chants for and against Corbyn.
Video credit: David Alexander
Anti-Corbyn protesters held signs altering the party’s slogan “For the many, not the few” to “Labour: For the many, not the Jew.” The opposing group insisted that “Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism.”
Corbyn says anti-Semitism has no place in the Labour Party, but he has been roundly criticized over reports of rampant anti-Jewish prejudice, for his own allegedly anti-Semitic statements and activities, and for not backing the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.
Last week, veteran lawmaker Frank Field quit Labour’s grouping in Parliament, saying the party had become a “force for anti-Semitism.”
Corbyn has been accused of failing to expel party members who express anti-Semitic views and has received personal criticism for past statements, including a 2010 speech in which he compared Israel’s blockade of Gaza — intended to prevent weapons from reaching the Hamas terror group — to Nazi Germany’s sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad during World War II.
In the 1980s, he was also active in a Labour movement that called to “eradicate Zionism” and for a secular Palestinian state in the whole of British mandatory Palestine.
Critics have also condemned him for attending a 2014 wreath-laying to Palestinians whom Israel has linked to the murder of 11 Israelis at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Corbyn supporters accuse political opponents and right-wing media outlets of misrepresenting the leader’s views.
Labour’s leadership has argued that the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, signed by 31 countries and used by many British institutions, includes what they say is legitimate criticism of Israel.
The four clauses previously rejected by the party relate to unfair singling out of Israel or questioning the loyalty of Jews who support Israel.
The national executive committee is expected to adopt the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism, but could also include a clarification that the discussion of Israeli policies is protected by the right to free speech.
The debate on anti-Semitism comes a day after the reelection to the committee of party activist Peter Willsman, who has been accused of anti-Semitism over a claim he made that Jewish “Trump fanatics” were fabricating allegations of anti-Semitism within the party.
The IHRA guidelines could be used by the party to decide the huge backlog of up to 300 complaints against party members who have been accused of anti-Semitism, although it is possible that the party will take a “year zero” approach to ensure that no disciplinary action could be taken against those accused of breaching IHRA examples in the past.
On Sunday, MP Margaret Hodge, who faced party disciplinary action after clashing with Corbyn over his handling of anti-Semitism, warned that even if the committee embraces the full IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, it would not be enough to repair the damage and Corbyn must step down.
“It might have been enough three months ago, it might have just enabled us all to start talking to each other and bring trust again, but I think that moment has passed,” she said.
Jewish groups and leaders have also criticized the party for its failure to deal with allegations of anti-Semitism, with former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks charging on Sunday that the majority of Jews are questioning whether Britain is a safe place to bring up their children.
The peer, who is not affiliated with any party, insisted the Labour leader must “recant and repent” and that he risked engulfing the country “in the flames of hatred.”
Last month comments made by Corbyn in a 2013 speech at the Palestinian Return Centre in London were revealed, where he said of a group of British “Zionists”: “They clearly have two problems. One is they don’t want to study history and, secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony either.”
Corbyn claimed that he had used the word Zionist “in the accurate political sense and not as a euphemism for Jewish people.”
The party leader is now subject to an official complaint “for antisemitism and for bringing the party into disrepute,” lodged by the campaign group Labour Against Antisemitism, over his 2013 comments.
Two weeks ago, footage surfaced of Corbyn accusing Israel of committing genocide against Palestinians during a 2014 rally, as a Hamas flag waved behind him. Corbyn called the terror group “friends” prior to his election as Labour leader two years ago, a statement he has since walked back.
One of the photos published recently showed Corbyn hosting a panel featuring senior Hamas officials in 2012, including members convicted of murdering Israelis in terror attacks.