The Labour Party’s leftward tilt under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn has emboldened some on the far left to express prejudice against Jewish people, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews has told MPs.
Jonathan Arkush told the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee that Ken Livingstone’s controversial claim that Hitler initially backed Zionism was “plainly anti-Semitic” and that the former Labour mayor of London should be a “political pariah” as a result.
And he said he was concerned that Mr Corbyn himself had so far declined to accept that his earlier meetings with Hamas and Hezbollah had been “inappropriate” and should not be repeated.
Mr Arkush said that the influx of new members and supporters following Mr Corbyn’s election as leader may have brought people with anti-Semitic sympathies into Labour.
“The election of a leader who is associated with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, with Stop the War, with a very, very hostile position on Israel, very well-known and well-publicised, and someone who has thought it appropriate to meet here in the democratic mother of parliaments with terrorist organisations, whose stated mission in life is to kill as many Christians and Jews as possible, has clearly sent the wrong sort of message to some people”, he said.
He gave credit to Mr Corbyn for setting up an inquiry into anti-Semitism headed by former Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti, but added: “We are concerned that the impression is being given by the leader of the Labour Party of a certain reluctance to accept these issues. The impression we have got is that every step taken has had to be wrung out of him by public pressure.”
Mr Livingstone defended himself against accusations of anti-Semitism in a written statement to the committee’s inquiry into anti-Semitism, in which he insisted: “I detest racism and condemn anti-Semitism. Indeed my political career has totally opposed any such views concerning any religious or ethnic group.”
The former London mayor was suspended from the Labour Party in April amid a row over alleged anti-Semitism, including a public confrontation with furious Labour MP John Mann who branded Mr Livingstone a “Nazi apologist”.
Mr Arkush described Mr Livingstone’s comments were “a completely false and distorted version of history” which had been debunked by reputable academics. “To say Hitler was a Zionist was not only the most absurd thing to say, but a hateful thing to say,” he told the committee.
“What he said, in trying to say Jews were like Nazis, is something that is plainly anti-Semitic. I find it astonishing he could have made these remarks and still stand by them. Anyone who exhibits that sort of bigotry, I think is clearly anti-Semitic,” said Mr Arkush.
“His views are utterly repellent to our community. If he was to say anything like that about any other people, I think he would be labelled a political pariah, and I think that is what he is.”
Mr Arkush said Mr Livingstone’s remarks reflected a wider problem on the left.
“Traditionally, anti-Semitism has come from the far right and we are not seeing very much far right activity at the moment,” he said. “Traditionally, there has always been prejudice against Jews coming from the far left as well.
“I think with the advent of a more leftwards tilt in the leadership of the Labour Party, some people feel that a space has been opened up for them, or they feel emboldened to say things which previously they felt they couldn’t say in polite society. I think that partly explains some of the statements made by people in the Labour Party.”
He added: “In the old days, people from the far right would try to smear Jews by accusing them of being communists. Now we are seeing sometimes people on the far left trying to smear Jews by saying they behave like Nazis.”
Asked whether Mr Corbyn was responsible for allowing anti-Semitism to emerge in his party’s ranks, Mr Arkush said: “We are concerned that leadership comes from the top. We are concerned that the leader of the Labour Party has met Hamas and Hezbollah right here in the House of Commons, not in the guise of peace-making but at a reception which was about celebrating the resistance and he has called them friends.
“Despite my requests to him … I wasn’t able to get him to accept that these meetings were inappropriate or to say that they wouldn’t be repeated. I really am waiting to hear him say that.”
He warned of a “culture of denial” among Labour members who have claimed that allegations of anti-Semitism were part of a campaign to undermine Mr Corbyn.
Mr Arkush said that he and other representatives of the Jewish community met Ms Chakrabarti earlier on Tuesday in order to discuss her inquiry.
He expressed confidence in Ms Chakrabarti, though he said some in the Jewish community had “conflicting emotions” on hearing she had joined Labour when she was appointed.
“In the end, whether we have faith in her review will depend on its outcome,” he said, adding that he was hopeful the affair would result in the introduction of clear codes of conduct with effective sanctions.