Report by Jenni Frazer
Hard-left MP Jeremy Corbyn did little to allay the concerns of Israel’s supporters about his candidature for the Labour leadership this week as he made a fervent pitch for sanctions against Israel “particularly in the import of arms”.
Fears about the Islington MP’s stance towards the state grew after footage emerged of a speech he had given in Parliament in which he branded Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”, as poll suggested he was enjoying a surge in support in the four-way contest.
And Corbyn didn’t hold back during Monday’s Jewish community leadership hustings at JW3 at which he lined up alongside Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall.
“I’m not in favour of preventing academic arrangements but I am in favour of economic [restrictions], particularly relating to arms and particularly relating to the importation of settlement produce, which would be illegal anyway”. Asked if he were against imports of produce from “Israel proper”, Mr Corbyn responded: “That’s ok… but there is an issue of re-labelling and I want to see much tougher sanctions. We have got to get real about the issue of Israel and the settlements.”
Mr Corbyn was directly at odds with all three of his rivals. Ms Cooper told the forum – initiated by Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Labour Movement – that the Labour Party should be “very clear” about opposition to the boycott, describing it as “counter-productive”.
Andy Burnham – who said his first visit as leader would be to Israel – professed himself perplexed that “unjustified spitefulness” was being applied against a country which stood up for gay rights, trade union rights and civil liberties. Ms Kendall vowed to “fight BDS with every fibre of my being”, adding that she found the increasing delegitimisation of Israel of great concern.
Mr Corbyn repeated the defence he had made on Channel 4 TV last week of the use of the term “friends” to describe Hamas and Hizbollah after he had hosted receptions for them in parliament. He said it was important to reach out and have a dialogue even with those with whom there was strong disagreement; but he was sharply pulled up by Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper, both of whom condemned the hosting of those who continued to embrace terrorism and reject recognition of the state of Israel.
Corbyn decried West Bank settlements, claimed Gaza had been placed “under siege” and spoke of “serious issues concerning the bombardment of Gaza”, adding that both sides had been accused of war crimes.
“Is it right that we should be supplying arms in that situation, is it right that we should be importing goods made in illegal settlements across the West Bank? Wouldn’t a stronger message be to those Israelis who want to live in peace with the Palestinians – and there are very many people in Israel that do, we recognise that – that the process of some economic measures might be helpful?”
Almost all the questions at the JW3 event related to Israel, antisemitism, boycott, and the 2017 centenary of the Balfour Declaration. A whipped vote on the government’s proposed Welfare Bill on Monday evening meant that all four MPs had to cut short the session in order to return to parliament – so other issues of interest to the community, such as security, faith schools, shechitah and brit milah were not addressed
The Islington North MP clearly ducked a question from the Community Security Trust’s Mark Gardner, who asked what steps he would take to dissociate the Stop The War Coalition, which he chairs, from continuing to support the annual al-Quds Day rally, which Mr Gardner described as “a festival of hate.” The MP responded: “It is certainly not designed as a festival of hate.” Denouncing antisemitism and racism, he recalled that his late mother had taken part in anti-fascist demonstrations in Cable Street in the 1930s.
Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall made impassioned pleas that Labour should work to rebuild its historic links with the Jewish community, and regretted the situation in which, as Ms Kendall put it, “we have lost your trust.”
All acknowledged mistakes made by the Labour Party last summer in not addressing quickly enough rising antisemitism, and each of the three pledged to improve relations with the community if they were elected leader. “Let’s offer people a choice, not a grievance,” said Ms Kendall. Andy Burnham asked: “How did it get to this with the Jewish community? This can’t carry on. The party has lost the art of communication, and the art of listening.”
Jewish Labour Movement supporters nominated Yvette Cooper as their preferred candidate for the party’s leader.