Jeremy Hunt has accused the Labour leader of harbouring “deeply-held prejudices” towards Jews as his campaign to become the next prime minister gathered pace.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Jewish News, the foreign secretary also spoke of the importance of the UK-Israel relationship and why stopping Iran getting the bomb would be his “number one priority in the Middle East” if he enters Downing Street this month.
He recalled a Holocaust Educational Trust visit to Auschwitz with Rabbi Barry Marcus in his second year as an MP as “the single most emotional day in my time in Parliament.
“When I went to Auschwitz I rather complacently said to myself, ‘thank goodness we don’t have to worry about that kind of thing happening in the UK’ and now I find myself faced with the leader of the Labour Party who has opened the door to antisemitism in a way that is truly frightening.”
Asked if he concurred with former leadership contender Matt Hancock’s description of Jeremy Corbyn as an antisemite, he said: “He has turned a blind eye to antisemitism, and I think he has crossed the line from criticising Israel and its foreign policy – which everyone has a legitimate right to do – to criticising the Jewish people. I think some of his comments, for example about Jewish people not understanding English irony, betray some deeply-held prejudices which ought to worry people.”
I think some of his comments, for example about Jewish people not understanding English irony, betray some deeply-held prejudices which ought to worry people
Corbyn faced widespread condemnation last year after video surfaced of describing a group of British Zionists of lacking any “sense of irony” despite having lived in this country “for a very long time”. The Labour chief said he had not used the term as a “euphemism for Jewish people”.
If he defeats the favourite Boris Johnson to the top job, he vowed to fund security for Jewish communal buildings at at least the current levels and offered an unequivocal “yes” when asked if he would protect the rights of Jews and Muslims to carry out religious slaughter.
He described himself as a “strong supporter” of faith schools, adding: “They make a tremendously important contribution to our education system. Of course they need to make sure they encourage tolerance and understanding of other religions – that’s a fundamental part of our British core beliefs.”
Whoever enters Number 10 would become the third prime minister since David Cameron’s government committed to creating a national Holocaust memorial and learning centre in Westminster – something Hunt is also keen to back despite strong opposition to the planned location. “You can never to too much to remind people of that simple message ‘never again’,” he said.
You can never to too much to remind people of that simple message ‘never again’
On bilateral relations with the Jewish state, he said: “The way I look at our relationship with Israel is that there are things we don’t agree with and we are very open about those. But in the end the big battle is going to be between open and closed societies, between societies that share our democratic values and those who that don’t. In that respect, Israel is a beacon light in the most troubled and dangerous region of the world.”
I think Britain’s role post-Brexit is to be the invisible chain linking the democracies of the world, making sure we stand together against the threats we jointly face. I think Israel is part of that invisible chain because of their commitment to democratic western values – and we should never forget that.”
Hunt said he “completely gets the importance of the symbolism” of moving an Embassy to Jerusalem, as America did last year. “All of these things is possible when you have a negotiated peace.”
Israel is a beacon light in the most troubled and dangerous region of the world
But asked if he would consider it before a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, he said only: “I think it has to happen in the context of what is the most likely thing that would allow a peace process to start and be concluded successfully.”
Hunt’s support was seen as crucial in Sajid Javid’s decision to finally outlaw Hezbollah in full, breaking with the EU in doing so. He has now pledged to “look very closely” at concerns – expressed in a Brexit paper by the Jewish Leadership Council and Board of Deputies – that some antisemitic terror groups proscribed under EU law but not in the UK could no longer be subject to sanctions if the UK doesn’t take action on leaving the EU. They include Hamas’ military wing and the Popular Front for The Liberation of Palestine.
Speaking as the Tehran announced it had enriched more uranium than permitted under the nuclear deal, the foreign secretary insisted: “We are trying to preserve a non-nuclear Iran. We are strong supporters of the deal because we think that Israel and the Middle East is safer today than it would have been if Iran had gone ahead and developed a nuclear weapon.
“When that deal was signed Iran was reported to be 18 months out from having its own nuclear weapon. As foreign secretary I’ve made it clear that if they don’t comply there of course will be consequences.”
As foreign secretary I’ve made it never clear that if that if they don’t comply there of course will be consequences
He declined to commit on whether Britain would seek further sanctions but pressed on whether he is committed to ensuring Iran doesn’t get the bomb, he said: “That has been our number one priority for the Middle East for some time and it will continue to be my number one priority as prime minister.”
With three weeks until the new Tory leader and prime minister is announced, Johnson continues to hold a big lead in the race for support among Conservative members. But a YouGov poll at the weekend suggested Hunt had overtaken his rival when it comes to who voters in general hope will succeed Theresa May.
“How am I going do I beat Jeremy Corbyn?,” he said. “Look at what I’ve done in a week. To win an election we’ve got to appeal not to just the Conservative Party base but to the whole country – and I am the person who can do that. The lesson in British politics is that once you deliver Brexit, the way you win an election is by appealing to the centre ground and I won my seat against the Liberal Democrats – it was one of the most marginal seats in the country – and that is the battle I’ve been fighting my whole life.”