A top official in the UK Labour Party on Thursday compared legal proceedings against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the anti-Semitic Dreyfus affair, which rocked France at the turn of the 20th century.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, a top ally of party leader Jeremy Corbyn and his de facto No. 2, made the controversial comparison after he visited Assange at Belmarsh Prison, where he is being held while fighting extradition to the United States on spying charges.
“I think this is one of the most important and significant political trials of this generation,” McDonnell said, according to the Guardian. “In fact, longer. I think it is the Dreyfus case of our age, the way in which a person is being persecuted for political reasons for simply exposing the truth of what went on in relation to recent wars.”
Alfred Dreyfus was a French soldier who in 1894 was falsely convicted of treason after a show trial because he was Jewish. Despite the lack of evidence, he was convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment at the infamous Devil’s Island penal colony in French Guiana and publicly stripped of his rank.
The scandal rocked the assumption that Jews had become an integral part of French life — revealing the depths of anti-Jewish sentiment in the country.
McDonnell defended the comparison in a tweet, claiming that the accusations against Assange were an example of a case in which “the establishment is out to victimize an innocent.”
“It was quite clear what I meant. Just like the Dreyfus case, the legal action against Julian Assange is a major political trial in which the establishment is out to victimize an innocent. On that basis, of course it’s right to assert than it’s a parallel,” McDonnell wrote.
Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, branded McDonnell’s as comparison “outrageous, ridiculous and so deeply offensive,” Sky News reported.
“Dreyfus was a French artillery officer falsely accused of treason because he was Jewish,” Pollock said. “Go figure how or why John McDonnell could make such an inappropriate comparison with the Assange case.”
Claudia Mendoza, policy director of the Jewish Leadership Council’s policy director said the comparison was “crass and offensive.”
“Julian Assange’s case cannot be compared to the Dreyfus Affair, one of the most important moments in Jewish history,” Mendoza said.
US prosecutors have charged the 48-year-old Australian computer hacker with espionage over WikiLeaks’ hacking of hundreds of thousands of confidential government documents. If found guilty, he faces up to 175 years in jail.
Assange spent seven years in Ecuador’s London embassy before being evicted in April 2019. He was arrested by British police for jumping bail in 2012. In November, Sweden dropped a sex crimes investigation against him because so much time had elapsed.
The Labour Party has come under fire over inaction on anti-Semitism after Jewish groups and others have accused Corbyn of allowing a massive rise in Jew hatred within the ranks of the party, and of being anti-Semitic himself. Corbyn and his supporters claim Labour had made an effort to clamp down on anti-Semitic members.
Thousands of cases of alleged hate speech against Jews have been recorded within Labour since 2015, when Corbyn was elected to lead it. The party is currently being formally investigated by the UK’s anti-racism watchdog.
Agencies contributed to this report.