by Justin Cohen
During the final days of the race to become Labour leader and amid ongoing concern over his links to a string of extremists, Jeremy Corbyn issued a ‘pledge to the Jewish community’.
Stressing his undeniable record of “opposing racism, prejudice and intolerance”, the Islington North MP to told the Jewish News: “If elected leader of the Labour Party I will work with Jewish community organisations to combat anti-Semitism.”
So the leader’s firm condemnation of Gerald Kaufman’s ‘Jewish money’ slur – perhaps the clarity of which many feared was beyond Corbyn – must be clearly welcomed. It shouldn’t have taken a week. But that Corbyn himself sent out a message that such remarks do nothing to advance the Palestinian cause to which he has been so passionately attached should not be lightly dismissed – it is significant in terms of this case but also going forwards, in the corridors of power and beyond.
But this issue won’t now disappear simply because he has spoken out; that he has done so does not absolve him and his party of the responsibility to back up words with actions. All the more so for a politician known for being a man of principle and of his word. Honouring his pledge means Corbyn must tackle and be seen to tackle echoes of the most poisonous anti-Semitic tropes. As the CST put it: “On its own, his “Jewish money” and “Jewish donations” comments invite antisemitic interpretation. Coming after the words, “I can tell you in a way which perhaps nobody else in this room can”, the comments are begging antisemitic interpretation…nobody is unaware of the connotations of what Kaufman said.”
So what next? For a start it’s important that the party or whip’s office clarify what was resolved during this week’s meeting with the veteran MP. Did he apologise? Agree not to repeat such rhetoric? Was he warned that a repeat would result in the withdrawal of the whip? Was this meeting part of an ongoing disciplinary process? So far we have heard precisely nothing from the whip’s office. Indeed, Jewish News understands that community leaders are still to receive any formal response to their complaint from last week.
If Sir Gerald was to publish a fulsome apology, pledging that there would be no repeat, some would consider this case dealt with. But again there has been no such thing so we are left assuming that he harbours no such regret for the remarks and offense caused. If that’s the case, action taken must be taken if this isn’t to become a festering sore in relations with the party and Anglo-Jewry akin to the impact of David Ward on relations with the Liberal Democrats. On top, of course, of the outstanding concerns over the approach of elements within the left to anti-Semitism and Corbyn’s links to extremists over his years as a backbencher.
Sir Gerald’s comments about Jewish money influencing Tory policy on Israel is the latest major test Labour has faced in terms of its relationship with British Jewry and supporters of Israel since the election of Corbyn. The first being how to respond to a councillor who appeared to link Israel to the 9/11 attacks and Islamic state: she was quickly suspended even before community leaders have a chance to react. The second was the reaction to the knife attacks on Israelis in recent weeks: Hilary Benn’s statement was seen as well considered and was certainly received better than foreign office minister Tobias Ellwood’s.
But this is perhaps the biggest test yet. The new leader may not have covered himself in glory during THAT speech to Labour Friends of Israel but in reacting to Sir Gerald’s comments he should be on far more comfortable ground. Indeed, his forthright statement yesterday suggests he is. But letting this drag on will risk a repeat of the situation with the Lib Dems where Nick Clegg could barely say anything to some in the community without the lack of action over Ward being thrown in his face.