Challenging accusations of a weak response to growing anti-Semitism within his ranks, spurred in part by what many perceive as his own anti-Israel sentiments, embattled UK Labour leader Jerermy Corbyn faced members of London’s Jewish community on Sunday in the last debate of a closely fought internal election for the leadership of the party.
In his first such comments, Corbyn said that he supports Israel’s right to exist, based on Israel’s “original border,” a reference that presumably meant without Israeli control over the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and Gaza.
“Yes,” he said in response to an audience question, “Israel has the right to exist. I support the right of the State of Israel to exist, under the agreement of the original borders of 1948.”
In the past, Corbyn has responded to inquiries as to whether he thinks the State of Israel has the right to exist by saying that he and his party back a two-state solution.
It was not entirely clear which “agreement of the original borders of 1948” Corbyn was referring to in his remarks Sunday. The UN partition plan of 1947 recommended a partition of Mandatory Palestine into two states, Arab and Jewish, but the borders in the plan were very different from those that Israel controlled by the time war ended in March 1949. Israel accepted the Partition Plan while the Arab states votes against the proposal.
It is more likely that Corbyn was referring to what are commonly known as the “pre-1967 borders,” which is the ceasefire line from March 1949. Unlike the UN plan, the ceasefire line set in place two years later, and now accepted by much of the world as Israel’s international border, places parts of Jerusalem and more of the southern Negev and northern Galilee within Israel.
Standing opposite challenger Owen Smith at the JW3 Jewish community center in North West London, Corbyn faced a prickly crowd keen to hear — and at times shout over — his responses to claims that as party leader he has embraced an ideological bent towards radical left-wing politics that demonize Israel and encourage anti-Semitism. The debate — organized by the Jewish Labour Movement, Labour Friends of Israel and JW3, along with The Times of Israel’s local partner, the UK-based Jewish News — came at the end of what some have described as one of the most bitter leadership races in living memory.
Corbyn, a 67-year-old socialist known for his anti-war, anti-austerity campaigning and opposition to the party’s former centrist leader Tony Blair, won a crushing leadership victory exactly 12 months ago. But while his left-wing policies are popular with many grassroots supporters, they do not impress most of the party’s more moderate lawmakers, who say such views cannot win general elections. Corbyn’s position as Labour leader appears solid thanks to the backing of powerful trade unions and his vociferous grassroots supporters, with a recent YouGov poll predicting he will smash Smith with 62 percent of the vote to Smith’s 38.
Many Jewish voters, however, view him with skepticism due to his past comments on Israel and associations with vehemently anti-Israel figures. The Labour leader has come under fire for referring to Iranian-backed Islamist groups Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends,” which Corbyn dismissed as a diplomatic term intended to engage with the groups. During a speech in 2009, as patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Corbyn invited members of the two terror groups to speak at the British Parliament.
Asked by a Jewish News reporter at the Wednesday debate what he most admired about Israel and its achievements, Corbyn expressed rare praise, saying, “I admire the verve and spirit of the towns and cities in Israel. I admire the separation of legal and political powers in the system of democratic government that’s there.”
But those comments were not enough to prevent a barrage of questions from the crowd over claims of anti-Semitism in the party and Corbyn’s poor handling of a series of recent crises.
An internal inquiry in June found Labour was not overrun by anti-Semitism but reported an “occasionally toxic atmosphere.” But in remarks made during an event marking the release of the report, Corbyn seemed to draw a comparison between Israel and the Islamic State terror group, saying that, “our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those various self-styled Islamic states or organizations.”
The report was commissioned after a controversy exploded when Labour MP Naz Shah was suspended by the party pending an investigation into allegations that she shared anti-Semitic posts on social media before being elected. A number of other low level party officials were also suspended for similar posts and statements.
Defending Shah in a series of interviews, Labour party veteran Ken Livingstone said that criticism of Israel’s policies was being confused with anti-Semitism, and claimed that Zionism was initially supported by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
“When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews,” he said. Livingstone has since repeatedly stood by the assertion that Hitler supported Zionism for a time.
Drawing applause, Corbyn and Smith both said on Sunday that they would support a rule change to be voted on at the party conference next week specifically naming anti-Semitism as a disciplinary offence and making it punishable on the same level as expressing support for another party.
But Corbyn’s nonchalant responses to past incidents were not appreciated by some in the crowd. Audience members could be heard shouting “shame” when, asked if Livingstone should be permanently expelled from the party, Corbyn responded hastily: “He was suspended, he is under investigation, due process will follow. I have nothing to do with it.”
Similarly, Corbyn was heckled when he defended a political ally’s objection to Israeli vegetables in a local supermarket by brushing off the incident as “relating to settlement goods.”
Smith pounced on Corbyn as “mealy-mouthed and weak” in his response to the anti-Semitic incidents.
Not all opposed the Labour leader at the event. Corbyn was welcomed by some in the audience who raucously applauded his statements.
“I want there to be a place in the party for everyone, whether they be supporters of Israel, critics of Israel or friendly supporters of Israel who also criticize it,” Corbyn appealed to the audience. “I want everyone to feel absolutely safe within the party.”
Voting for the Labour leadership ends on Wednesday this week and the result will be announced at the party’s annual conference on September 24.
AFP contributed to this report.