This is the full transcript of a forthright exchange at the Opposition leader’s Westminster office on Wednesday.
Listen to the full interview on The Jewish Views podcast HERE.
Jewish News (JN): 1,500 people felt compelled to come onto the streets of London on Monday to protest you and your party’s handling of anti-Semitism, some of whom are ready to call you personally an anti-Semite. How does that make you feel?
Jeremy Corbyn (JC): I’m not an anti-Semite in any way, never have been, never will be. I’ve opposed racism in any form all my life. It’s the way I was brought up, it’s the way I’ve lived my life. I recognise the hurt that’s felt within the community and that’s why I responded immediately with an invitation to the Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies to come and meet me.
I did say that processes in our party had to be speeded up and that all of the recommendations of the Chakrabarti report had to be carried out so that we could address the issue. Let me say this very bluntly: anti-Semitism is a cancer in our society and it has resurfaced across Europe and in Britain in recent years. It has to be challenged at every single stage.
JN: Were you ashamed to see such large numbers took to the streets?
JC: It makes me determined.
JN: In the last few days alone we’ve seen a candidate removed for alleged Holocaust denial, MPs who came out to protest against anti-Semitism being targeted by a blog which supports you, Jewish councillors in Haringey speaking out about the terrible treatment they faced. Surely this makes you profoundly concerned, even ashamed?
JC: Any abuse makes me profoundly concerned and any abuse that is done is certainly not done in my name. People have a right to speak out and a right to demonstrate and that surely is something that is intrinsic in any democratic society. I will not tolerate abuse of people for their beliefs.
JN: I’m interested in how you feel as a human being, when you see that stuff every single day…
JC: I am concerned, of course I want to do something about it – and that’s what I’m doing.
JN: There are a number of MPs who have been very comfortable saying they are ashamed of the party that they’ve been attached to their whole lives. You don’t seem to feel that you can go that far?
JC: Look, I want to be proud of our party, I want to deal with these issues and that’s what I am doing.
JN: How do you explain then to our readers who really don’t understand how an anti-racist has repeatedly come to be associated, to repeatedly lend support to people with anti-Semitic views while still saying you have this zero tolerance approach?
JC: I’m zero-tolerant of racism. I want to see, as I’ve repeated, a peace process in the Middle East. I want to see a society free of the scourge of racism and our party conference last year passed a very strict and very clear rule on this. And that has been repeated to all party members. There is also an education process in place which we will develop even further, because we want people to understand what it is like to be accused of something because of your ethnicity, because of your faith, because of where you come from. It is very hurtful but also very dangerous and corrosive to our whole society. So today I say quite clearly, anti-Semitism is completely wrong, as is any other form of racism.
JN: One example is Raed Salah who had been accused of a blood libel among many other things, yet you called him “an honoured citizen”?
JC: I met Raed Salah after he’d appealed the case. He came to Britain as an Israeli citizen and was given normal access and normal entry. There was later a ban order placed on him by the Home Office which was challenged in court. He was then released essentially on house bail. He then challenged in court the whole process and actually he won the case on his right to be visiting Britain. I met him because he was a very significant figure in the Israeli-Palestinian community.
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I questioned him on the whole blood libel issue which he emphatically denied and the conversation I had with him were along the lines of ‘what kind of future peace can there be,’ ‘what kind of relationship can there be between Israel and the Palestinians’. Does it mean I agree with everything he’s ever said? Obviously not. He was later convicted in Israel on that case but it was not a pending case at that time. But I did make my position extremely clear to him and I felt it was right to have that discussion. You have to have discussions with people you disagree with within the Israeli-Palestinian community.
JN: You’ve said he didn’t say anything anti-Semitic to you but it didn’t change the fact he faced accusations and you said you’d be happy to welcome him for tea in Parliament…
JC: That was when he was here and then the order was placed by the Home Office after he’d arrived, which was a little unusual, because he was already here. I met him, I set out my views, I asked him for his views and we had a discussion about future prospects for peace and a two-state solution to the Middle East crisis
JN: Can you understand why calling him ‘an honoured citizen’ would be extremely offensive?
JC: It was inclusive, polite language I used which I now recognise of course can be easily misinterpreted.
JN: You regret the words you used at the time?
JC: They were inappropriate.
JN: Another expression of regret that you’ve made in relation to your description of Hamas and Hezbollah as ‘friends’. Can you see that to call a group that wants me dead, wants our readers dead, that want all their relatives in Israel and around the world dead, means that British Jews are bound to be profoundly concerned?
JC: The context was a discussion about a future peace in the Middle East. I used that language. I obviously realise this can be misinterpreted and indeed has been. I clearly do not support their views but recognise – and I’m sure everyone else does – that there has to be a peace process that involves all groups in the Middle East, and that indeed is what many people have attempted to bring about over past governments.
JN: On the subject of Hezbollah you have, in the past, attended a number of Al Quds Day parades. Hezbollah supports obliterating the State of Israel. You’ve said that you support the existence of the State of Israel and that anything other than that is actually anti-Semitic, so why would you attend…
JC: I’d argue there that there has to be a just solution for the whole region. That means that the settlement policy should end, the occupation of the West Bank should end, to have an effective two-state solution. As you know my party’s policy, which Ed Miliband led us on, was for recognition of Palestine alongside the State of Israel, and that was included in our manifesto as well. Indeed that’s what Parliament voted for.
JN: Hezbollah’s flag has a gun on it. You’ve marched with that flag repeatedly….
JC: I do not support Hezbollah.
JN: So you shouldn’t have been at the march…?
JC: I’d rather the flag wouldn’t…
JN: And what about you?
JC: Listen, I was on a march for the rights of Palestinian people and I think 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
JN: Do you regret attending those marches under that flag?
JC: Look, I’ve said my piece in parliament and here about Hezbollah and Hamas and I’ve made my position clear. That is, I do not support what their aims are. I do believe you have to engage in political discourse with people that you fundamentally disagree with. Any society that wants to embark on a peace process has to engage with people they disagree with
JN: The Palestinian cause is one which many in the Jewish community are happy to support. It’s obviously a just cause…
JC: I’ve seen Jewish people on all the Palestinian events, particularly those organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and I work with them. Indeed there are a number of rabbis who attend and that’s absolutely right and proper because actually the solution is essentially one where you have to recognise the rights of all people in order to bring about peace
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JN: However you seem to have been willing, over many years and consistently, to have overlooked the inconvenient truth of the background of people you’ve associated with, what you knew to be allegations against them, what you knew to be the Hamas charter, because you supported the Palestinian cause. Surely there are people in the Palestinian cause who you felt able to associate with who hadn’t said or didn’t stand for horrific things
JC: People turned up at Palestine meetings that I’ve been at and indulged in language of Holocaust denial, or have indulged in anti-Semitic language, or who have abused people because of their faith. We chucked them out. We’ve done so. I’ve been at meetings where I’ve voted for people to be excluded because of their language and the use that they put to it. There is no place for that kind of thing in bringing about a serious peace process
JN: It looks as if you cared more about Palestinian rights than you did about allegations that were put repeatedly from the mainstream Jewish community about anti-Semitism and those associated with it?
JC: Not at all. Anti-Semitism is a poison and evil and wrong that brought about genocide of the Holocaust against the Jewish people. It’s what our parents’ generation fought to defeat. I think there has to be a process to bring about peace in the Middle East and that has to involve justice for the Palestinian people and, as I’ve consistently repeated, an end to the occupation and the settlement policy so that Palestinians can also grow up in peace and their own security. The best security is peace.
JN: Almost every case of suspensions and expulsions from Labour we’ve seen people who considered themselves activists for Palestine but who crossed the line into anti-Semitism. Is there a problem within the pro-Palestinian movement in general?
JC: I don’t think it’s a general problem. I think there are anti-Semitic people who latch onto all kinds of causes but in my experience in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign they were absolutely assiduous and specific. They’re not accepting Holocaust denial and they’re not allowing anti-Semitic behaviour to take place.
Of the Labour Party cases, some of which I inherited on becoming leader, there’s been 300 references since 2015, 60 are still under investigation, 24 have gone to the National Constitutional Committee, 24, roughly, went to a final warning, and 150 were either expelled or resigned. That represents 0.02 percent of the party membership. There are other cases pending.
I’ve said to our newly-appointed general secretary that her first priority has to be the full implementation of the Chakrabarti Report and there has to be an appointment of an in-house lawyer, a legal team, to ensure that there is a proper approach to all of these cases and of the – I understand – 70 cases due to be dealt with. They must be dealt with as quickly as possible.
I’ve looked again at the procedures of what is after all a member-led organisation and it means getting lay members together to deal with committees and appeals. I’ve looked at ways in which we can speed that up. So I’ve looked at ways in which we can speed that up. I am the leader of the party and very proud to be, but there are rules and processes that I have to follow.
JN: It’s a fact however that most of the people who have been suspended are activists for Palestine who have crossed the line into anti-Semitism…
JC: There is a problem of anti-Semitism within our society. Is there a general problem with everybody who supports the Palestinians’ rights to exist in peace? No. Are there some people that latch themselves onto that who do hold anti-Semitic views? Obviously there has been and obviously they have to be challenged. And that is what we have been doing.
JN: Why didn’t you challenge them through your 30-year career, to the extent that you challenge them now?
JC: I just told you I did. On Palestine Solidarity conferences we’ve voted to remove people who behaved in an anti-Semitic way or been practicing Holocaust denial. And that is very clear. You can ask those within the Palestine Solidarity, they are very, very clear about that.
JN: There are obviously also many incidences where it appears that wasn’t the case but let’s move on. Some people are suggesting that to raise your past connections amounts to a smear, is it legitimate for me to ask you about these connections or is that a smear?
JC: No, it’s perfectly reasonable to raise any question about one’s public profile activities. So I don’t see that as a smear. I hope that I get a fair hearing, I hope that a get a recognition that all of my life I’ve opposed racism in any form, be it National Front, the BNP, English Defence League, whatever else in my time as MP for Islington North and before that at council in Haringey, or before that as an anti-racist activist in rural Shropshire in the 1970s. I go back a long way on this.
JN: You do keep on saying that.
JC: Well it’s true.
JN: Nevertheless, do you understand why our readers would have such profound concern about your suitability to be their Prime Minister?
JC: They have asked the questions and that’s reasonable. My answer is I want to see peace, I’m opposed to anti-Semitism in any form and I’ve made that abundantly clear and I think your readers will accept the letters I sent on Sunday in relation to the statements put out, my offer to meet the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council constitute that. And I’m also very been proud to work with the Jewish community locally and continue to do so.
After all, I was the one person who was clear on commemorating the contribution made by Jewish people to my community. I was among those who helped prevent building over the Jewish cemetery. There’s been a massive contribution made by Jewish activists and intellectuals to the Labour movement in Britain, they were there at the founding of the party.
JN: I’ve been trying to get this interview for three years since before you became leader of the party. Why has it not happened until now and why today?
JC: You’ve come today and I’m delighted you’re here. Obviously it’s a matter of regret we haven’t been able to have this conversation before but we are having it now. And that’s probably a good thing.
JN: Our readers might think that if we had been talking about racism aimed at the black community or the Muslim community, you would have done something before now….
JC: I’ve dealt with racism in any form within our party and indeed racism within our society. I represent a very mixed community. Islamophobia is a problem and has been a growing problem and I’ve obviously locally met people from the mosque and so on to deal with that and indeed Muslim women groups because they have suffered the most in exactly the same way as many Jewish people have suffered abuse as well. Abuse is wrong whoever it is against.
JN: In the letter this week from community leadership, they pointed out the specific difference between anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in that Jews are viewed as all-powerful?
JC: Yes I do recognise that. It’s completely unacceptable and I do not allow or subscribe in any way to those kind of theories.
JN: Are you ready now to separate those two, to recognise that when you are talking about anti-Semitism, there is this difference?
JC: Well, there is a difference and I understand and accept that. In the conference speeches I’ve made that clear that I do recognise the specifity of anti-Semtism.
JN: Luciana Berger highlighted the anti-Semitic mural and your comments around that in 2012. For her efforts she’s been accused of being in the wrong party for bringing it up, accused of being a racist because of her links to Labour Friends of Israel, accused of a smear campaign and has faced personal threats. Can make it clear today that you don’t support anyone expressing such views?
JC: Absolutely. Luciana has suffered terrible abuse and I support her. None of it can be done in our name or in my name. It’s just not acceptable. The two women who have received the most abuse appear to be Luciana Berger and Diane Abbott. It’s equally wrong.
JN: I’m talking about the specific abuse Luciana received as a result of standing up against anti-Semitism at this rally…
JC: She should not be abused.
JN: How would you get that message across to people, because some of your supporters don’t seem to get it?
JC: I have made it very clear. The message has been sent to all party members and MPs and I’ve made it clear in the very public statements I’ve put in the letter to the JLC and BOD. I want the imagination, the creativity and the contribution of everybody in our party, free from racist abuse or threats.
JN: So regardless of what impact it may have at the polls, you don’t want support from these people who abuse Luciana…
JC: I don’t want anybody who is abusing anybody.
JN: There have been calls for David Lammy to be deselected in Tottenham because he turned out to support the rally against anti-Semitism. Again will you make it clear that you don’t want anyone deselected…?
JC: It’s up to the local party, but not for that, no. Obviously the local parties must decide what they want to do in the future. David Lammy is a colleague, a friend of mine, I admire what he stands for and what he does and he should not be condemned for that.
I’ve gone further than any other Labour leader in instituting the Chakrabarti enquiry, in dealing with our procedures, in producing an education programme for our members, writing to all members and indeed party membership is now bigger than it’s been for probably most of my lifetime. I’m very keen that all those members feel comfortable and at home in the Labour Party.
JN: Some of your key supporters are still calling allegations of anti-Semitism smears including Chris Williamson. Are they smears?
JC: I am not an anti-Semite in any form, therefore it’s unfair to say that and I hope people would understand that. I’ve recognised there is an existence of it [anti-Semitism in the party], I’ve recognised the vitality, the importance, the crucial nature of getting rid of it.
JN: So you’ll call on your supporters to stop calling allegations of anti-Semitism smears?
JC: The fight against anti-Semitism should be one that unites us all. Because it is in our society, it’s a dangerous poison and that is what message I would want to give out so let’s move the debate to where it’s got to go. A society free of anti-Semitism.
JN: Jewish Voices for Labour organised a counter-demo to the main from the Board and JLC. They put out a shocking statement saying it was about local elections and not the fight against anti-Semitism. Will you distance yourself from that comment?
JC: JVL are committed to fighting anti-Semitism and making sure there is a Jewish voice in the party. We already have the Jewish Labour Movement. JVL was established last year and I think it is good that we have organisations within the party that are giving that voice to people. I’m not a member of that or JLM, but they’re good people, they are in the party because they love and believe in it.
JN: You supported their counter-demo?
JC: I didn’t support either demonstration. I found out they were going on. It’s up to people where and what they demonstrate about. I don’t think it’s my job to tell people what they should or shouldn’t demonstrate.
JN: For many people the fact Ken Livingstone hasn’t been expelled remains the biggest sore. Do you think he has a place in the future of the party?
JC: Ken was suspended in April 2016 for two years and a further administrative suspension after April 2018 was imposed by the outgoing general secretary. That now has to be subject to investigation. Ken will have a right to be heard.
JN: Do you personally want him to remain?
JC: It’s not up to me to decide, there is a process and the process is going on. There are legal considerations around all these processes. It’s very important that when a charge is made against somebody it’s accurate, it’s correct and it’s thoroughly investigated. I do not decide on the outcome of cases.
JN: It is alleged that you being leader has brought out, emboldened some of these figures who have expressed anti-Semitism. Are you ready to express an element of responsibility yourself?
JC: I challenge anti-Semitism whenever it arises and no anti-Semitic remarks are done in my name or would ever be done in my name. Our party membership is bigger than it’s ever been, more active than it’s ever been. I’m proud of that. I’m also very well aware that with leadership comes the responsibility to ensure our party is safe, secure, open and welcoming. That’s why I appointed Chakrabarti to undertake an inquiry, that’s why I’ve tasked Jennie Formby with ensuring it’s fully adhered to and carried out. That’s why I’m clear there has to be education within the party, that’s why I’m happy to have discussions with all groups. I’ve met the JLM to discuss these issues and will do so again.
JN: Your shadow foreign secretary was happy to describe you as a Zionist – is that a term you would accept for yourself?
JC: I wasn’t quite sure in what context she meant that or said that. What I want to do is ensure there is a process that brings about peace in the Middle East. A Labour government would be fully engaged in bringing that about – that involves recognition of the state of Palestine, an end to the settlement policy and occupation and a two-state future.
JN: Do you plan to visit Israel?
JC: At some point, yes, I will be in the Middle East.
JN: Would you be happy to meet Netanyahu?
JC: Well I will be visiting the state of Israel so yes, of course.