Response to anti-Semitism divides UK Jews, Labour chief

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JTA — Even before he was kicked out of Britain’s Labour Party for saying that Israel runs the Islamic State terrorist group, Bob Campbell was a marginal figure within the party.

A former forest ranger and first-aid trainer from northern England, Campbell, 49, began his Labour career last year volunteering to help the campaign of Jeremy Corbyn — a veteran socialist backbencher who, since being elected Labour chair in September, has both impressed and alienated many Britons with his views on the redistribution of wealth inside Britain and beyond.

One of thousands of voters who became Labour members since September in what British media have termed “the Corbyn effect,” Campbell was elected on March 25 to his first position within Labour, as a regional party outreach officer.

But his short-lived career with Labour ended abruptly last month. Amid intense media scrutiny over anti-Semitic rhetoric by party members, the Labour leadership banned him for a Facebook post claiming that Israel got ISIS to kill 32 people in Brussels to punish Belgium for supporting the Palestinians.

Corbyn’s detractors say his past support for enemies of Israel is now emboldening Labour activists like Campbell and eroding the Jewish community’s trust in what historically has been a political home for many of its members. Defenders of Corbyn, however, argue that the ejection of Campbell illustrates the Labour leader’s determination to fight vitriol and anti-Semitism.
UK Labour Party chair Jeremy Corbyn meeting with Board of Deputies President Jonathan Arkush and Chief Executive Gillian Merron, February 9, 2016. (courtesy)

UK Labour Party chair Jeremy Corbyn (right) meeting with Board of Deputies President Jonathan Arkush and Chief Executive Gillian Merron, February 9, 2016. (Courtesy)

The debate came to a head last month after Jonathan Arkush, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said that under Corbyn, “most people in the Jewish community can’t trust Labour.” In an interview with the Evening Standard, Arkush cited a string of incidents of anti-Semitic speech by Labour activists. (British media has reported at least five cases since March).

Such criticism by a mainstream and non-partisan organ of the Jewish community against a specific party and its leader “is something we haven’t seen in many decades,” said Keith Kahn-Harris, a sociologist and fellow of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and a lecturer at Leo Baeck College in London.

One case that triggered Arkush’s rebuke involved Vicki Kirby, a party activist who suggested on social media that Adolf Hitler might be a “Zionist god” and that Jews have “big noses.” She was suspended. In another, Aysegul Gurbuz, a London-area politician, was suspended and later resigned after her Twitter account was found to include posts praising Hitler and Iran’s plans to “wipe Israel off the map.”
Screenshot of tweet by suspended Labour councillor Aysegul Gurbuz (Credit: Campaign Against Antisemitism website)

Screenshot of tweet by suspended Labour councillor Aysegul Gurbuz (Campaign Against Antisemitism website)

Corbyn has caught flak in the past for his ties to groups and individuals with similar views. During his campaign for Labour chair, he was challenged repeatedly for his 2009 invitation to Hamas and Hezbollah activists to attend an event at Britain’s Parliament that he hosted.

“It will be my pleasure, my honor, to host” the event, Corbyn said at the time, “where our friends from Hezbollah, obviously, will be speaking and I’ve also invited friends from Hamas.”

Corbyn’s Jewish supporters — a minority in Britain but nonetheless a sizable group, according to Kahn-Harris — defended him, citing his consistent opposition to racism.

Jon Lansman, an ex-kibbutznik who is one of Corbyn’s right-hand people, blamed leaders of “right-wing Zionism” for the attacks on his boss. The right-wing Zionists “have other reasons for castigating Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, and there is no shortage of commentators or politicians who have little interest in combating anti-Semitism in Britain to lap this up,” he wrote in February in a Jewish Chronicle column about alleged anti-Semitism at the Oxford University Labour Club.
London mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan (2nd right) and Labour politician Andrew Dismore (left) pack parcels for the elderly at Belsize Square Synagogue on November 22, 2015. (Yakir Zur)

London mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan (2nd right) and Labour politician Andrew Dismore (left) pack parcels for the elderly at Belsize Square Synagogue on November 22, 2015. (Yakir Zur)

Yet with incidents piling up, Corbyn has come under mounting pressure from senior members of his party, who accuse him of doing too little to stop such behavior. Former Labour minister Tom Harris said the party has “a problem with Jews,” while another former minister, Angela Smith, urged Corbyn to do more. So did Sadiq Khan, Labour’s London mayoral hopeful and a Muslim.

Eric Moonman, a Jewish former politician for Labour, told JTA that “under Corbyn, Labour is no longer my home.”

And a Jewish Labour member of Parliament, Louise Elleman, told Sky News on April 6 that while Corbyn has “spoken out clearly” against anti-Semitism, “there’s got to be some action, and we haven’t seen enough.”

Heeding this pressure, Corbyn on Monday told the BBC that “anti-Semitism is absolutely abhorrent and wrong” and that anyone making such statements “is auto-excluded from the party. We have suspended, we will suspend, any member that behaves in that way.”

But leaders of British Jewry need additional reassurances, Arkush told JTA, in light of what he called Corbyn’s “belittling of the problem.”

Arkush was referring to Corbyn’s response last week about a tweet by his brother, Piers, dismissing Elleman’s claim that the Labour leader had not done enough to tackle anti-Semitism. Piers Corbyn wrote on Twitter: “Absurd. Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine.”

Asked for a comment by The Sun, Corbyn said: “My brother isn’t wrong.” He also said of Labour’s anti-Semitism issues: “I wouldn’t call it a crisis, we as a party are taking resolute action.”

Earlier this week, Michael Foster, a British Jew whose family gave Labour more than $570,000 last year, cited that quote in an op-ed explaining that he had stopped donating to Labour’s leadership. Corbyn’s statement “shows only his callousness and contempt for the history of the Jews in Europe,” Foster wrote.

The Board of Deputies wants Corbyn to distance himself from his brother’s statement, repudiate his expressions of friendship toward anti-Semitic entities or people, and continue to take disciplinary action against anti-Semites, Arkush told JTA.

If Corbyn does not meet these three expectations, Arkush said, then “the Jewish community has no choice but to speak loudly and clearly, and [if] this means a problem in the relations with the leader of the party, then so be it.”

Spokespeople for Corbyn and Labour did not reply to JTA’s request for comment in time for publication.

Still, Kahn-Harris says he is confident that as Corbyn matures as leader of the opposition, he will learn to apply better judgment on how he deals with the Jewish community and the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activists giving the party a bad name.

“This is a guy who was on the margins of politics for two, three decades, free to do pretty much whatever he wanted,” Kahn-Harris said of Corbyn. “In just a few months, he’s been heavily scrutinized and confronted with unwise choices he’s made in the people with whom he’s made common cause. Hopefully he’ll reconsider his choices.”