I interviewed Jeremy Corbyn hoping he'd reassure the Jewish community over antisemitism in the Labour Party: he didn't

This week, we moved a couple of steps forward and then moved back again

Justin Cohen
Friday 30 March 2018 12:09
Tom Watson defends Jeremy Corbyn over antisemitic mural

It took three years of waiting – and interview bids to four successive Jeremy Corbyn spokespeople – before the call finally came on Tuesday evening.

To say I was in shock (my colleagues at Jewish News and many in the community had long said it would never happen) would be an understatement, but I wondered whether this represented something of a turning point.

After the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council went further than they had before in condemning the lacklustre approach of Labour and its leader to antisemitism, Corbyn was forced to do likewise. He publicly listed various examples of contemporary antisemitism, recognised some cases had been dealt with too slowly and apologised for “pockets” of hate in the party: these were all important steps.

Away from a drafted statement, my interview with Corbyn for a Jewish newspaper could be seen as an attempt to start rebuilding relations. If not to move things forward, what was the point?

But now, a day after the interview, I’m still unclear on the answer. To say some of the key questions elicited disappointing responses wouldn’t explain my frustration.

The Labour leader doggedly continued to explain his past links to those who’ve expressed antisemitic views in the context of his pursuit of the Palestinian cause, and of peace in the Middle East.

On terror group Hezbollah, he conceded he wished that the terror group’s gun-emblazoned flag hadn’t been present at Al Quds Day marches he attended in London – but he couldn’t bring himself to say he shouldn’t have been there to support a group that sees my family and friends as legitimate targets for its murderous aims.

Instead, he repeated: “There are many people in Israel who would recognise that there also has to be justice for the Palestinian people. That means the settlement policy and the occupation has to end.”

His approach to some of the answers on the raging battle against Labour antisemitism were also particularly concerning after everything we’ve seen this week.

He condemned those abusing MP Luciana Berger for standing up to antisemitism but he couldn’t bring himself to rebuke his own MP Chris Williamson (the man who’d happily welcome Ken Livingstone back into the fold) and other allies for suggesting allegations of antisemitism in the party were “smears”.

Such language only perpetuates the myth that mainstream Jews are somehow acting in bad faith in speaking out and it totally undermines the Macpherson report principles about the victim determining if they perceive an incident to be racist. I only wish he’d agreed to debate me this morning on BBC Five Live, rather than just appearing after me.

Then there was my repeated attempt to get Corbyn to open up about how he feels about the state of his party in relation to this issue, as other MPs have done.

I wasn’t looking for him to break down in tears or announce he’s considered quitting over the matter, but I did think it important to hear how it feels deep down for a man who has dedicated his life to fighting racism to face being described by some as antisemitic (a view which, I should say, I don’t personally accept).

And then there was Corbyn’s remark on Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) being “good people”, and appearing to put them on a par with the party’s 200-year-old affiliate Jewish Labour Movement (JLM).

Endorsing a group which this week set up a counter-demo to a rally against antisemitism and which then said the mainstream event was motivated more by elections than by fighting racism could not have been more of a kick in the gut to the vast majority of Anglo-Jewry (check out the relative numbers of the two demos if you’re not inclined to believe me on those last few words).

Although I hope Jewish News did mainstream British Jews proud in asking the Labour leader the tough questions and pushing for answers within a tight time frame (I had a lot to get through as we had a three-year backlog of questions), I still regret not pressing further on the particular point about Jewish Voice for Labour.

As the blogger David Collier uncovered recently, some senior JVL figures were part of the hate-drenched Facebook group Palestine Live, while the fringe organisation’s very raison d’être appears to be as a counter to JLM – a group which has led the fight against antisemitism in the party.

I’ve always stressed the importance of acknowledging the occasions when the Labour party has taken promising steps on this issue over the last two years. The leader’s confirmation to me that he’d asked the incoming Secretary General to make it her priority to fully implement the Shami Chakrabarti enquiry was welcome, as were his commitments to be an “ally” in the battle against hate and to speed up the disciplinary processes.

But zero tolerance is simply incompatible with backing JVL and refusing to condemn the “smear” slur.

I genuinely went into the Labour leader’s office hoping the interview would help build further bridges after his earlier overtures.

But I can’t avoid the conclusion that this week, we moved a couple of steps forward and then moved back again. Relations now appear to have reached an impasse, with this interview unlikely to warm community leaders to the idea of talks.

I hope Corbyn finds a way to work with the mainstream community and he continues along the path he set out on at the start of this week.

Until then, most ambitious hope for relations is that there are no more incidents over the long weekend. I know, I’m an optimistic fellow. After the resignation of Christine Shawcroft, the chair of Labour’s dispute panel, I think I speak for many when I say we could do with a rest.

Justin Cohen is the news editor of Jewish News

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