The newly elected leader of Britain’s Labour Party was heckled for avoiding the word “Israel” as he addressed a pro-Israel group within the political party Tuesday.
Jeremy Corbyn is seen by some as hostile to Israel, and the opposition leader shied away from mentioning the Jewish state during a 10-minute speech at a Labour Friends of Israel event.
At the end of the speech, which focused on renewing dialogue between the two sides and advocating a return to the peace process, a man at the back of the room interrupted the gathering shouting, “Say the word Israel. Say the word Israel.”
The heckler was abruptly removed from the room leaving an embarrassed looking Corbyn on stage alongside his deputy leader Tom Watson and shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn. Corbyn remained on stage for the ensuing speeches but left after a few minutes when an aide announced, “Jeremy needs to leave now because he has a meeting to go to.”
Throughout the address, Corbyn did not mention the word Israel, while referring broadly to “the region” and “the Middle East”.
He also failed to acknowledge the presence of Israeli Knesset Member Erel Margalit and Eitan Na’eh, the chargé d’affaires of the Israeli embassy in London.
A long-time supporter of the Palestinian cause, Corbyn has been criticized for ties to anti-Israel figures and organizations. He told the gathering, “I, as you know, have taken an enormous interest in the affairs of the Middle East for a very long time.”
“I’ve been nine times on visits, I’ve visited many places in the region and met many people – some I agree with, some I don’t agree with, some, I have neutral opinions on lots of things,” he said.
Corbyn overwhelmingly beat out his three younger and more centrist opponents earlier this month to become the new head of Britain’s main opposition Labour Party.
Corbyn, who has been accused of being empathetic to Hamas and Hezbollah — terror groups committed to destroying Israel — is widely regarded as one of the British MPs most hostile to Israel.
He has publicly endorsed a blanket arms embargo on Israel and the boycott of Israeli universities involved in weapons research. He recently fell into hot water when he defended an Anglican minister who posted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories online.
Corbyn has hit back at some of the criticism for his associations.
Calling Holocaust denial “vile and wrong,” Corbyn denied reports a pro-Palestinian activist he donated money had publicly denied the Holocaust at the time of their meeting 15 years ago.
His Jewish critics have said that if he is to be trusted, he must first clarify or backtrack from such remarks or stances.
Labour Friends of Israel chairwoman MP Joan Ryan said the speech was “the start of a process.”
“It’s good that we are opening this dialogue. It would be wrong to turn away,” she told the London-based Jewish Chronicle. “There’s no reason to believe dialogue is not welcome. We have an open door and we will go through it with all our good and strong arguments.”
JTA contributed to this report.