Labour leadership candidates clash at Jewish community hustings

By Marcus Dysch, July 20, 2015
The Labour leadership hopefuls and hustings chair Jonathan Freedland (Picture: John Rifkin)

The Labour leadership hopefuls and hustings chair Jonathan Freedland (Picture: John Rifkin)

The Labour leadership candidates have outlined their positions on Israel in a packed hustings with the Jewish community.

Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn and Liz Kendall appeared at the JW3 community centre at an event organised by Labour Friends of Israel and the JC.

Three quarters of the session focussed on Israel, with questions on boycotts, the current Israeli government, West Bank settlements and the 2017 centenary of the Balfour declaration.

Mr Corbyn was asked about previous comments in which he had referred to Hamas and Hizbollah terrorists as "friends".

He told the packed audience that he had spoken of Hizbollah using the term during a welcome to a number of groups he had invited to speak in Parliament.

WATCH: Labour Party Leadership Hustings (LIVE STREAM)

The backbencher suggested he would back a boycott of goods from Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but that he would oppose an academic boycott of the country.

But Mr Corbyn did not directly answer a question from Community Security Trust communications director Mark Gardner about his leadership of the Stop the War Coalition and its support of the anti-Israel Quds Day rally. Mr Gardner described the event as a "festival of hate".

The candidates were asked how important they would see it to visit Israel if they were elected as leader. Mr Burnham said his first foreign trip would be to the country.

On the topic of boycotts, Ms Cooper said the party should be "very clear about opposing boycotts - it's counter-productive."

Mr Burnham added: "I agree, what message would it send [to boycott Israel]?"

Mr Corbyn outlined his concerns about Israeli policy in the West Bank, with settlements, in Gaza and with child detentions.

"Is it right to supply arms in that situation," he added.

Ms Kendall said she would fight boycotts "with every fibre in my body".

Both Ms Cooper and Mr Burnham urged party supporters and members to be careful in the language used to discuss Israel and the Palestinians.

Ms Cooper said: "We have to be immensely careful about the language we use. You cannot describe as 'friends' groups who engage in terrorist activity."

Mr Burnham said he would consider sanctioning MPs who invite terror groups such as Hizbollah to Parliament.

But he also added to his past criticism of the current Israeli government, saying he would not describe himself as a friend of Benjamin Netanyahu's administration.

As leader, Ms Kendall said she would ensure the party showed a "strong lead" in tackling antisemitism. During the spike in Jew hatred in Britain last year, there was, she said, "no reason something couldn't have been done sooner" by the Labour leadership.

In his closing statement, Mr Burnham railed against the damage done to the party's relationship with the Jewish community in the past five years.

"How did it get to this for Labour and the Jewish community, that it feels so alienated from the Labour Party? This cannot carry on," he said.

Ms Kendall said that the event's focus on matters relating to Israel showed how "damaged" the relationship had become.

The hustings was chaired by JC columnist and Guardian writer Jonathan Freedland.

Last updated: 1:45pm, July 21 2015