EXCLUSIVE: John McDonnell backs Corbyn over ‘racist Israel’ clause

EXCLUSIVE: John McDonnell backs Corbyn over ‘racist Israel’ clause

Shadow Chancellor admits Labour may not reach consensus with community on its antisemitism code, as he reflects on the “absolute nightmare” of the row

Justin Cohen is the News Editor at the Jewish News

Credit: Marc Morris Photography
Credit: Marc Morris Photography

John McDonnell this week said the anti-Semitism crisis had been “an absolute nightmare” but warned it may not be possible to reach a consensus over the Labour Party’s final code of conduct.

The shadow chancellor spoke exclusively to Jewish News hours after the party’s governing body finally adopted all 11 examples accompanying the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, reversing its decision to exclude some following a summer of anger.

But a proposal from Jeremy Corbyn for it to be made explicit in the party’s code of conduct that it is acceptable to call ‘the circumstances around Israel’s foundation racist’ provoked fresh anger. Although the Labour leader lacked the requisite support to push the issue to a vote at Tuesday’s National Executive Committee (NEC), McDonnell said he backed the proposal.

He added: “I quite like the extra text because it was absolutely explicit and what I heard during the period there was a consultation [was that] people hadn’t got that message so they needed to have it more explicit. It is anti-Semitic to oppose a Jewish state. But it is not anti-Semitic to call a state racist. I call the British state racist on a regular basis.”

The NEC has now launched a new consultation on the code of conduct and McDonnell said he could not give guarantees there would not be any future attempts to add Corbyn’s text because he is not part of the NEC.

  • LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW on the Jewish Views podcast: 

While he acknowledged the mainstream community along with countless councils and countries did not see the need to additions to protect freedom of speech, he added: “There are a number who do think it is and we’ve got to listen to them and try to build consensus. We might not be able to, but let’s try.”

McDonnell  has spoken out about the time it has taken to deal with the IHRA row and personally backed adoption of all the examples on the eve of the U-turn – but he refused to apportion blame to his close friend Corbyn or those in his team. “All of us are involved,” he said, admitting he personally should have spoken out much earlier on IHRA.

As Labour Friends of Israel chair Joan Ryan faces a vote of no confidence from her local party over her outspoken criticism of Corbyn on anti-Semitism, with fears it could be a step towards deselection moves, McDonnell warned against any such action against those fighting the scourge. “That cannot be grounds for deselection,” he said. “These people are speaking out on anti-Semitism and are doing it with the best of hearts. They’ve got to be supported.”

He was “saddened” to hear more young Jews had abandoned the party following the re-election of Peter Willsman, inviting them to contact him directly as part of dialogue he wanted to see with the community.

But he gave short shrift to the idea of an apology from Corbyn for his repeated associations with those with anti-Semitic views, including terror group Hamas.

  • LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW on the Jewish Views podcast: 

Former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks has made clear he would not sit down with Corbyn until he has done more to address anti-Semitism, while the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council have demanded he “acknowledge his failings and offer a heartfelt apology” as part of a raft of measures to build bridges. But McDonnell said: “We‘re all bigger than this now. We’ve all just got to get around a table.”

On Willsman, who had ranted about never having seen anti-Semitism in the party, he said the veteran activist had apologised. “I don’t think it is enough and that’s why I’m saying it’s important we engage with him,” he added. “The fact he had recused himself for a disputes panel meeting this week suggested “he’d learnt a bit of a lesson and needed to go further”.

  • LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW on the Jewish Views podcast:

But when it was put to McDonnell he could send out a message of zero tolerance by saying he was uncomfortable with Willsman remaining on the governing body, he said only: “The democratic principles of our party override everything. With Pete Willsman, I’ve given him the benefit that he didn’t know what he was doing.”

He refused to be drawn on the case of Jackie Walker, whose removal as Momentum vice-chair he is said to have played a key role in following comments at Labour Party conference two years ago. Her disciplinary case remains active.

During the wide-ranging interview, he was also challenged on his links to the Labour Representation Committee, which spoke out against IHRA and described the Livingstone case as a ‘witch hunt’.  He said: “I’m not going to disassociate myself from an organisation I founded because they disagree with me or I disagree with them on these particular issues because on most issues I do agree with them and they have been a beneficial force in the Labour party and in other policy areas. I’ve made my position clear, I completely disagree if I’m honest.”

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