Jeremy Corbyn said he admires Israel’s “spirit and verve” at a highly charged Jewish community hustings in north London.
Asked by Jewish News what he most admired about Israel and its achievements, the Labour leader told a packed audience at JW3: “I admire the verve and spirit of the towns and cities in Israel. I admire the separation of legal and political powers in the system of democratic government that’s there.”
The Islington North MP added: “I recognise and support the right of the state of Israel to exist.”
Both he and leadership challenger Owen Smith committed to backing proposals by the Jewish Labour Movement to introduce stricter rules and sanctions to be placed on members who make anti-Semitic comments.
But Corbyn, who has faced allegations of allowing anti-Semitism to thrive under his leadership, was accused of offering a “mealy-mouthed and weak” response to the issue by leadership challenger Owen Smith.
Smith said: “I would stand against anti-Semitism. I would say it, I would mean it and I would do something about it.”
The Pontypridd MP added that he was “heartbroken” by the party’s anti-Semitism scandal.
The two clashed fiercely on party loyalty during the debate, chaired by BBC correspondent Lucy Manning and organised by the Jewish Labour Movement, Labour Friends of Israel and JW3, and media partnered by Jewish News.
Owen Smith told Corbyn: “You’re either going to condemn yourself for being disloyal to previous Labour leaders or you’re going to have to accept some Labour MPs being disloyal to you.”
He added: “I will serve loyally on the back benches” in the event that he loses Labour’s leadership election.
Corbyn is widely expected to win by a landslide when the results are announced at Labour’s party conference next month.
Responding to allegations that his supporters have infiltrated and taken over the party, Corbyn claimed: “It was a split in the Labour Party which caused the problem with the formation of the SDP. We need to stay together.”
On Monday Channel 4 is expected to air a undercover documentary into Momentum, the group established last year to further Corbyn’s leadership.
Asked what he would do in the event that it tried to deselect MPs critical of his lesdership, such as Peter Kyle, who represents Brighton, he said: “I’ve got a big heart and I’m very friendly and I want to talk to them.”
Owen Smith rejected Corbyn’s call for unity and in response said: “The hard left is the most sanguine about the prospect of a split.”
The two continued to clash on issues of party unity and anti-Semitism.
Since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader last year, the Labour Party has expelled several members for using anti-Semitic language and been forced to hold an independent inquiry into the matter.
He was heckled by the audience when he said anti-Semitism “predated my leadership” and roundly booed for refusing to comment on whether his political ally Ken Livingstone should be permanently expelled from the part.
Corbyn said “very rapid action was taken in a number of cases (of anti-Semitism)” and that “due process will be followed” in regard to the former London mayor.
Remarks relating to Israel by Livingstone and MPs such as Naz Shah led to the party’s independent inquiry into anti-Semitism.
Shami Chakrabati released the subsequent report in June and concluded that although anti-Semitism was not “endemic within the party”, ignorance among members and the use of anti-Semitic language was a problem.
Although Owen Smith received more support from the audience across the debate, Corbyn fared better than might have expected and received a rapturous response when discussing the Jewish community’s role during the Battle of Cable Street.
The deadline for voting in Labour’s internal leadership election ends on Wednesday this week.