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The week the community finally lost patience with Corbyn

Lee Harpin looks back on an extraordinary week for the Jewish community, and a terrible week for Labour

    Community leaders are expected to respond within days to a request by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for an urgent meeting to attempt to resolve the deepening crisis over antisemitism within the party.

    At the end of a tumultuous week in which tensions between the Jewish community and the Labour leadership rose to boiling point, the meeting between Mr Corbyn and both the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council was by no means certain to take place.

    The Board and the JLC are believed to want Mr Corbyn to agree to a specific agenda for discussion before they will accept his invitation to meet. That includes the appointment of independent auditors to conduct all outstanding Labour investigations into allegations of antisemitism within the party.

    The latest dispute was sparked after Labour MP Luciana Berger asked Mr Corbyn’s office last Friday to explain a 2012 Facebook post in which he had defended an antisemitic street painting that depicted Jewish bankers playing Monopoly on the backs of the poor.

    The JC had first asked the Labour Party about Mr Corbyn’s Facebook message of support for the mural, painted by American artist Mear One, in 2015, but the party failed to respond.

    The Labour leader sparked fury within the community when his office responded to Ms Berger’s query by suggesting he had defended the mural, which was removed from a wall in Tower Hamlets, east London, “on the grounds of free speech”. He said that he had failed to look at the painting, which he now accepted was antisemitic.

    Mr Corbyn then issued a second statement on Sunday in which he acknowledged the pain caused to the community by “pockets” of antisemitism within his party, but failed to make a personal apology for supporting the mural.

    In response, the Board and the JLC issued an open letter accusing Mr Corbyn of repeatedly siding with antisemites “time and time again”.

    As the crisis escalated, the Board and the JLC announced plans for a rally in Parliament Square on Monday evening under the banner of ‘Enough is Enough.” The protest was timed to coincide with a meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party in Westminster,

    Responding to the letter, Mr Corbyn insisted he was a “militant opponent” of antisemitism, apologised for the “hurt and pain” caused by anti-Jewish incidents and accepted that antisemitism within the party had “too often been dismissed as simply a matter of a few bad apples.”

    Mr Corbyn repeated his offer of an urgent meeting with communal leaders.

    The Labour leader has struggled to contain the fall-out from the mural revelations — and the disclosure that he was a member of three Facebook groups which shared antisemitic material.

    John Mann MP at the rally in Parliament Square
    John Mann MP at the rally in Parliament Square (Sarah Ebner)

    There was also a further damaging revelation on Tuesday when it emerged that Labour had failed to investigate a formal complaint, made in 2017, about Mr Corbyn’s support for the mural.

    Up to 2,000 people attended the hastily arranged Parliament Square demonstration on Monday evening.

    Protestors waved black and white placards saying “Dayenu”— Hebrew for “Enough”.

    Plans for the demonstration had been hatched after a flurry of phone calls between community leaders once Shabbat went out last Saturday evening.

    Speaking at the rally, Jonathan Goldstein, the JLC chair, said: “Antisemitism has no place whatsoever in a mainstream political party. We are here to say to Jeremy Corbyn: ‘enough is enough’.

    “The time for talking is over and the time for words is over, and the time for action has begun.”

     

    Board President Mr Arkush told the JC that the demonstration was needed because for “nearly three years, we have heard Jeremy Corbyn saying how he opposes antisemitism.

    “We have had enough of repeatedly witnessing and condemning instances of antisemitism in and around the Labour Party, and so should he.”

    To loud cheers from supporters at the rally, Ms Berger urged Mr Corbyn to “disassociate himself from people who are carrying the banners saying this is all some kind of smear.”

    Her words were directed at a small group of anti-Zionist protestors from the Jewish Voice For Labour group.

    In a thunderous address, Labour MP Wes Streeting called Baroness Chakrabarti’s 2016 report into Labour antisemitism a “whitewash” and insisted Ken Livingstone be expelled from the party.

    The Ilford MP added: “To those Jewish members who felt enough is enough and cut their membership cards and walk away, our commitment to you is to work with every ounce of strength to drain the cesspit of antisemitism within the Labour Party so you can come back and call it your party once again.”

    Louise Ellman
    Louise Ellman (Sarah Ebner)

    Labour MP John Mann asked the crowd: “What is going wrong with our party that this event has even needed to be considered?” He said antisemites had to be driven out of the party.

    More than 30 MPs attended, including Chuka Umunna, Louise Ellman, Ruth Smeeth, Joan Ryan, Dame Margaret Hodge, Liz Kendall and Stephen Kinnock.

    Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities, also attended the protest, as did Tory MP Zac Goldsmith.

    Supporters from the Muslim, Christian, Sikh and Hindu communities also joined the rally.

    One protestor, Josh Leigh, 18, became involved in a heated exchange with members of Jewish Voice for Labour. He said: “I’m here because I’m sick of every day going on Twitter and seeing different Jews being abused.”

    Russell Lowy, from Winchmore Hill, north London, added: “I’ve voted Labour all my life — but I won’t vote for them while Jeremy Corbyn remains in charge.”

    After the protest, Ms Berger was given a standing ovation when she addressed the parliamentary Labour Party.

    She said that antisemitism in the party was now “more commonplace” and “more corrosive” and attacked those who “believe that the McPherson principles which came from the Stephen Lawrence enquiry — and say that a racist incident is one that is perceived to be so by the victims or any other person — don’t apply to Jews.”

    The JC has learned that she decided to raise her concern about Mr Corbyn’s mural post last Friday after seeing reference to his Facebook message for the first time only four days earlier.

    Ms Berger is understood to have felt as though she could not defend the Labour leader’s actions in front of Jewish audiences who regularly raised concerns about antisemitism within the party.

    In the aftermath of Monday’s protest there was concern over social media posts attacking the demonstrators in Parliament Square as “racist Zionists.”

    Trade union officials from Unite and the GMB called for its members to back the anti-Zionist JVL group and suggested that the anger over Mr Corbyn’s support for the antisemitic mural was “politically motivated”.

    In a joint statement on Tuesday, the Board and JLC said the demonstration had shown the strength of feeling in the community about the issue.

    They said: “Never has our community made a more powerful statement that we will not tolerate antisemitism in the Labour Party. We will not be silent and we will continue to hold it to account.”

     

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