LONDON — Britain’s pro-Israel community is viewing the race for the Labour Party leadership with concern after the UK’s biggest union, Unite, threw its weight behind the hard Left MP, Jeremy Corbyn, who has expressed open support for Hamas and Hezbollah.
Corbyn, MP for the inner city London constituency of North Islington since 1983, was a surprise addition to the leadership race, set for a September vote. Corbyn was encouraged to put his name on the ballot by Labour MPs who are unlikely to vote for him, but felt that the debate should be widened.
But Corbyn’s very difference from the other candidates — former health secretary Andy Burnham, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper (wife of ousted shadow chancellor Ed Balls, who lost his seat in the May election), and Shadow Health Care and Older People Minister Liz Kendall — has brought him into prominence.
Commentators say that where Israel is concerned, Burnham is the candidate most obviously akin to Labour’s former leader Ed Miliband, who led the party to an unexpectedly heavy defeat to Prime Minister David Cameron’s ruling Conservatives in May’s elections.
Not very interested in foreign policy, Burnham is said to be basically sympathetic to the Palestinians but opposed to boycotts. Labour Friends of Israel supporters such as MPs Michael Dugher and Luciana Berger have backed his nomination, although in March, after the Israeli elections, Burnham tweeted that Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election meant that “Palestine will need more international support.”
Cooper and Kendall are thought to be marginally more pro-Israel, particularly Cooper, who is said to “get” the anxieties of the Jewish community.
Brits have until August 12 to register as members of the Labour Party, for a nominal £3, to vote. Ballot papers go out on August 14 and must be returned by September 10. On September 11 the leadership result will be announced together with the name of the successful Labour candidate (from a list of six) running to succeed Boris Johnson as mayor of London.
The director of the lobby group We Believe in Israel, Luke Akehurst, is a Labour Party and Unite union activist. He wrote in the political website Labour List this week that “as a democrat I want members to have Jeremy [Corbyn] on the ballot paper as a choice. As someone who wants Labour to be in power, I definitely don’t want him to be the choice they make.”
Corbyn is unlikely to win the leadership race, although he may well come second, and is likely to do well in the first round of voting.
New rules require the winner to gain 50 percent of the votes after the transfer of second preferences. Those eligible to vote come from one of three categories: Labour’s 221,000 official individual members; a new category of registered supporters – number unknown, though probably about 10,000; and a third new category of affiliated supporters – members of affiliated organizations (mainly unions) who knowingly sign up as being affiliated supporters.
But Akehurst has condemned Corbyn’s “anti-American, anti-nuclear take on foreign policy and defense” and the fact that his commitment to “austerity, Greece, Cuba, Venezuela and Palestine” hardly represents the views of Unite’s 1.4 million members. Corbyn, he says, stands for “a brand of impossibilist Marxism.”
Even the hard-left general secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey, argued for backing Andy Burnham, but lost by 34 votes to 13. McCluskey’s position on Israel and the Palestinians is actually close to that of Corbyn, and according to Steve Scott of the Trade Union Friends of Israel (TUFI), McCluskey has made resources available to promote BDS within the Unite union.
The chief of staff at Unite, Andrew Murray, is the former chair of the virulently anti-Israel Stop the War Coalition, a position which Corbyn now holds. Murray is said to believe that the Histadrut is “not a proper trade union,” according to TUFI.
The next biggest trade union, Unison, mainly represents local government workers. It has encouraged its members to withdraw from local government pension schemes where funds are invested in Israel. So far it has not announced backing for any of the four Labour candidates.
Each of the four has agreed to take part in a hustings at London’s Jewish community center, JW3, on July 20, where there are likely to be some awkward questions for Jeremy Corbyn.
Writing in the political blog “Left Foot Forward” in June, Prof. Alan Johnson, who works for Bicom, the pro-Israel advocacy group, forensically dissected Corbyn’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah.
“You won’t get my vote. You won’t get it because Labour’s best traditions also include anti-fascism and internationalism while your support – to me, inexplicable and shameful – for the fascistic and anti-Semitic forces of Hezbollah and Hamas flies in the face of those traditions. In particular, your full-throated cheer-leading for the vicious anti-Semitic Islamist Raed Salah is a deal-breaker,” Johnson wrote.
‘It will be my pleasure and honor to host an event in Parliament where our friends from Hezbollah will be speaking. I’ve also invited our friends from Hamas to come and speak as well’
Corbyn said in a 2009 speech he gave as patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, “It will be my pleasure and honor to host an event in Parliament where our friends from Hezbollah will be speaking. I’ve also invited our friends from Hamas to come and speak as well… So far as I’m concerned, that is absolutely the right function of using Parliamentary facilities.”
Dave Rich of the Community Security Trust, echoing Johnson, wrote on the CST’s blog last week that “Corbyn’s support for extremists with a record of anti-Semitic statements or activities is extensive.”
Next month, Rich noted, Corbyn is due to speak at a conference organized by the Islamist lobby group, Middle East Monitor [MEMO] on “Palestine and Latin America: Building solidarity for national rights.” Other speakers include the Unite union’s Andrew Murray and the Israeli anti-Zionist academic, Prof. Ilan Pappe, who heads the European Centre for Palestine Studies at Exeter University.
“I don’t know what Corbyn plans to talk about at the MEMO conference. I don’t expect him to say anything anti-Semitic – he rarely if ever does. But I do know that a prospective leader of the Labour Party should not be associating with MEMO, or with some of the other speakers at that conference, and that Corbyn does this kind of thing far too often,” said Rich.
MEMO, Rich added, had repeatedly peddled conspiracy theories and myths “about Jews, Zionists, money and power. This has included questioning the suitability of Matthew Gould for the post of UK ambassador to Israel simply because he was Jewish.”
Corbyn visited Israel and the West Bank with a MEMO delegation in 2010 and it was MEMO which brought Raed Salah, subsequently convicted of inciting a riot and inciting anti-Semitism, to the UK — a visit defended by Corbyn.
“The problem is not that Corbyn is an anti-Semite or a Holocaust denier – he is neither. The problem is that he seems to gravitate towards people who are, if they come with an anti-Israel sticker on them. He is not alone in this. Corbyn and his supporters may well dismiss this as a cynical effort to deflect their criticisms of Israel, but they would be wrong to do so,” said Rich.
“Anti-Semitism is a serious problem and Islamist anti-Semitism can be deadly. Jewish concerns about this are sincere and urgent. Anti-Semitism isn’t something that can be excused or ignored by politicians in pursuit of some supposedly higher political goal,” said Rich.
Johnson, in his Left Foot Forward open letter to Corbyn, declared: “I just do not understand how you can support so unthinkingly those political forces which oppose to their dying breath everything – literally, everything – the Labour movement has ever stood for: trade union rights, freedom of speech and organization, women’s equality, gay and lesbian rights, anti-racism, the enlightenment, and reason.”
The Left Foot Forward editor, James Bloodworth, said: “Is he [Corbyn] deluded enough to think that anti-Semitic terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah care a jot for the human rights of women, of gay people and of Jews?” Corbyn has refused repeated requests from his critics to discuss his views.
The commentator Nick Cohen, writing in the Daily Beast, said: “If Corbyn apologized for neo-Nazis with near identical views to Raed Salah, or some kind of Ku Klux Klan-style militia that matched Hezbollah goose step for goose step, the left would excommunicate him. As it is, in Britain, Europe, and by the look of it, the States too, you can be an admired leftist, while going along with every vile and murderous movement.”