Ed Miliband has called ‘zero tolerance’ of those who question Israel’s right to exist, stressing that criticism of policy should not extend to delegitimisation.
The Labour leader, whose parents came to Britain as refugees fleeing the Nazi regime, said there was a “palpable sense of anxiety” which required a “zero tolerance” approach to anyone guilty of abuse or of questioning Israel’s right to exist.
He rejected criticism of his attack on the Israeli government’s military assault on Gaza last year and Labour’s backing of Palestinian statehood, insisting such political stances were in no way anti-Semitic.
But he accepted that there remained work to do to persuade others – notably on university campuses – that those legitimate opinions could not be allowed to become “an excuse for prejudice”.
Mr Miliband was repeatedly tackled on the issue when he held a public “question time” in Mill Hill, north west London, which has a significant Jewish community.
He said that he spoke out “as a friend of Israel” as he believed the aggressive response was counter-productive.
“If you are a long-term supporter of Israel and a long-term friend of Israel, the best thing that can happen is serious and engaged negotiations,” he said – noting that opinion was divided within the Jewish community on the issue.
“We should have zero tolerance of those who question the right of Israel to exist and we should fight anti-Semitism wherever we find it.”
“What we can’t do is put ourselves in a position where disparate views in the community and disparate views that are expressed by politicians become one side being pro-Israel and one side being anti-Israel. I just don’t buy that.”
The Labour leader was told by one first-year student that she and Jewish friends felt vulnerable because student bodies were “infected” by anti-Israel sentiment which translated into physical attacks.
“I am deeply upset by what you are saying and I am incredibly sorry that that’s what it feels like,” he told her.
“The thing that we have got to get across to people is that scepticism about some of the actions of the government of Israel is of a totally different category either of questioning the right of the state of Israel to exist or of anti-Semitism.”
“You can criticise a government but it doesn’t mean to slip into either saying Israel shouldn’t be there or somehow become an excuse for prejudice.”
“I am determined to get that message across on campuses.”
But he hit back firmly when one member of the audience said local Jews were unsure about voting for Labour because of Mr Miliband’s criticism of the Gaza policy – one woman telling him some felt “your general support for Israel is just not there”.
Both sides had to be engaged because a “vacuum of no negotiations produces violence, produces conflict and produces no positive outcome” Paying tribute to local MP Andrew Dismore as a “driving force” behind the creation of Holocaust Memorial Day, he said this year’s would be especially poignant.
“At a time when there is a deep concern about anti-Semitism, about anti-Semitic attacks, this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day will have special meaning.
Police say there is “heightened concern” about risks to Jewish people in the wake of the terror attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris.
Home Secretary Theresa May has called for efforts to be redoubled, telling a memorial event for the Paris victims she never thought she would see the day when members of the Jewish community would be “fearful” of staying in the UK.
“All of us who are British Jews feel a sense of solidarity in terms of the people of France and the terrible attacks we saw.
“All of us have to be incredibly vigilant about anti-Semitism and I know that is something that is shared across political parties.”
“There is a palpable sense of anxiety in the community, that is deeply, deeply troubling,” he said.
“The best answer to this is to stand up loud and clear against anti-Semitism in all its forms.
“That is what I do and that is what i will continue to do. It is very important that we speak out clearly.”