Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner pulled no punches at the Board of Deputies’ Chanukah reception in Parliament on Monday, saying that she wanted to make it clear that “those who distort history by likening Hitler to Zionism are no longer welcome” in the Labour Party.
Ms Rayner, whose invitation caused anger in some parts of the community and had led to attacks and anonymous briefings against the Board, and especially President Marie van der Zyl, told the more than 150 guests in the packed out Cholmondeley Room in the House of Lords: “I know the invitation wasn’t universally popular, so straight off let me deal with the elephant in the room.”
Rayner looked unsure at first, but warming to the task, she continued: “Some years ago, I wrote an article reflecting on my visit to Auschwitz, in which I intended to show my solidarity with the Jewish community over the Holocaust and modern antisemitism.”
In the article, Rayner had quoted from anti-Israel activist Norman Finkelstein’s book, The Holocaust Industry – which claimed US Jewish leaders exploited the Shoah for political gain – and was roundly condemned for doing so. She said: “[The article] included a reference that now I deeply regret. I am certain that I would not use it again. And I can only repeat how sorry I am.”
She added that this year “we have seen the horrifying consequences of bigotry, the culture of conspiracy theories about Israel and Jewish people generally. That must be confronted in the wider society, but we cannot rest as a party until we have also rooted out antisemitism from our own ranks.
“I know it has taken far too long and I have seen the appalling abuse that my colleagues Luciana Berger, Ruth Smeeth, Louise Ellman and Margaret Hodge among others have received. And I have no doubt that being Jewish women has played a big part in that abuse.
“It must be stamped out for good.”
Rayner said she hoped Labour’s internal procedures would now be speeded up, adding that she was “glad that the likes of [Jewish anti-Zionist] Tony Greenstein have been expelled and I want to make it clear that those who distort history by likening Hitler to Zionism are no longer welcome.”
Marie van der Zyl was also scathing of Jeremy Corbyn, who, she said, “must apologise for the hurt he has personally caused, whether by calling antisemitic terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah his ‘friends’, defending an antisemitic mural, laying wreaths by the graves of terrorists, or allowing so many racists and their apologists to remain as Labour members.
“Labour must kick out the racists from the party, no Ifs, no Buts, and it must do so without further delay. Enough is Enough!”
However, she made it clear that “with all the difficulties of the past year between the Labour Party and our community it is perhaps inevitable that attempts to engage are fraught with controversy. But I believe we have to communicate if we are to overcome the present challenges”.
The event took place as Prime Minister Theresa May was giving her statement to the House on the G20 summit in Buenos Aires and Attorney General Geoffrey Fox was making a statement on the legal advice the government had been given on Brexit.
As a result, some MPs had to leave early, including Labour’s Jess Phillips, a strong supporter of the party’s women Jewish MPs, Luciana Berger, Ruth Smeeth and Dame Louise Ellman. Others, such as Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, could not get to the event – he was replaced at the last minute by Lord Pickles.
Lord Pickles said: “Jewish values are a fundamental part of British identity.” And in a thinly-veiled attack on the Labour leadership he added that “those who wanted to amend the IHRA definition wanted to be free to compare Israel to the Nazis. That is bigotry.”
And Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable arrived mid-reception to give his party’s best wishes for the celebration.
The candles were lit by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and the choir of Clore Tikva Primary School gave a rendition of Maoz Tsur and other Chanukah favourites
The progressive strands of Judaism were represented by Senior Rabbi to the Reform Movement Laura Janner-Klausner and Senior Rabbi to Liberal Judaism, Danny Rich.
Among the diplomats present were the Tunisian and Moroccan ambassadors, Nabil Ben Khedher and Abdesselam Aboudrar, respectively, as well as Israel’s ambassador Mark Regev and Germany’s envoy, Peter Ammon.
In his speech, Regev said: “The Maccabees beat the odds in antiquity & we Jews continue to beat the odds now. 70 years ago, we once again regained our sovereignty, and the Jewish state did not only survive: it thrived… As we light the candles, let us remember Chanukah’s lesson of resilience and survival.”