Baroness Shami Chakrabarti has urged Jewish critics to “come back into the room” and engage with the party over its approach to anti-Semitism – while criticising Rabbi Lord Sacks and Margaret Hodge for their comments on the issue.
Labour’s shadow attorney general’s call came after the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) agreed to incorporate the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, including all its examples of prejudice against Jews, in the party’s code of conduct.
Jewish groups hit out after the move was accompanied by a statement that said the party will ensure the changes do “not in any way undermine freedom of expression” on Israel or the rights of Palestinians. And Mr Corbyn was attacked for his unsuccessful call for the NEC to accept a clarification that said it should not be considered anti-Semitic to describe Israel as racist.
Labour MPs and peers were voting on Wednesday on the adoption of the full IHRA definition and examples into the Parliamentary Labour Party’s standing orders.
Senior Labour backbencher Dame Margaret Hodge, who clashed with Mr Corbyn over anti-Semitism, said the leader had “sullied” the adoption of the IHRA definition by trying to amend it.
But Lady Chakrabarti, who conducted an inquiry into anti-Semitism for Mr Corbyn, insisted that the NEC’s additional statement did not dilute its commitment to fighting the problem.
The shadow attorney general told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “There was no sullying. The words were not a caveat, were not a dilution; the words are true, which is that accepting these examples, in my view, in no way negates reasonable free speech around these difficult issues around Israel and Palestine.”
The NEC statement was “about reassuring people that you can be a critic of Israel without being anti-Semitic, you just need to conduct your debate in a certain way,” she said.
Lady Chakrabarti dismissed comparisons – made by former chief rabbi Lord Sacks – between Mr Corbyn’s previous comments about Zionism with the “rivers of blood” speech made by Enoch Powell.
Insisting Mr Corbyn had been “misquoted, misrepresented and spun”, she said: “I’m a British Asian who grew up in the 70s and 80s, I remember the real Enoch Powell, before this stuff gets hyperbolised and exaggerated.
“I know what it’s like to be listening to misreports in the media that make you feel scared.”
Lady Chakrabarti said: “I say to Margaret and I say to Rabbi Sacks and I say to everybody who has been hurt by this, this is the time to come back into the room for discussion.
“We have accepted these examples. It took so long because of genuine anxieties – however misplaced – about free speech on one of the most intractable problems in the world.
“Come back into the room. I will open the door. I will put the kettle on. But come back into the room because it’s time for reasonable debate.”
But Dame Margaret said Mr Corbyn had sought a “get-out clause” from the IHRA definition, telling Today: “It demonstrates to me a reluctance on his part, rather than a very public and intense acceptance of the need to deal with the issue.
“I would love it if he proved me wrong, but we have to see both in his actions and in the way he consults and engages with the Jewish community over the coming period whether or not we are on the right road back to rebuilding trust.”
Mr Corbyn wanted the NEC to endorse a statement that it should not be regarded as anti-Semitic to “describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact”.
Labour MP John Mann, chairman of the all-party parliamentary group against anti-Semitism, said there would have been “turmoil” if the proposal had been accepted.
He told The Times: “What was he thinking of, after all we have gone through, to try and create another almighty row?”
Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) said it showed that Mr Corbyn was “part of the problem, not the solution”.
Labour Against Anti-Semitism said the move “appears to be about protecting the freedom of racists to present vile views”.
And Jewish Leadership Council chief executive Simon Johnson said: “It has now become absolutely clear that the leader of the party attempted shamefully to undermine the entire IHRA definition.
“The ‘free speech caveat’ drives a coach and horses through the IHRA definition. It will do nothing to stop anti-Semitism in the party.”
The Board of Deputies of British Jews tweeted that Mr Corbyn’s statement was “of great concern & would undermine the spirit of the attempt to tackle antisemitism”.
“There need to be answers to the many questions it raises,” the group said