Jewish leaders have criticised John McDonnell over his claim the Julian Assange extradition case is the “Dreyfus … of our age”.
The shadow chancellor made the comment after visiting the Wikileaks founder in prison in London on Thursday ahead of his extradition hearing next week.
McDonnell was referring to the Jewish French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus, who was accused of passing state secrets to the Germans and convicted of treason in 1895, before being later exonerated.
The controversial case – which inspired Roman Polanksy’s 2019 drama “An Officer and a Spy” – divided public opinion and sparked a national debate on race.
Dreyfus’ plight inspired the acclaimed novelist Emile Zola, best known for his book Germinal, to pen an incendiary letter on the subject, accusing his contemporaries of antisemitism.
“I think it’s the Dreyfus case of our age,” McDonnell told reporters.
“The way in which a person is being persecuted for political reasons, for simply exposing the truth for what went on in relation to recent wars,” he said.
The remark sparked outcry from Jewish leaders, with Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, calling the comparison “inappropriate …. outrageous, ridiculous and so deeply offensive.”
A statement from the Antisemitism Policy Trust on Thursday called the remark “crass and offensive” and said McDonnell “should know better.”
Joining a chorus of criticism, Mike Katz, the chair of the Jewish Labour Movement said it was “an absolutely ridiculous and offensive thing to say” in a tweet on Thursday.
A statement from the Community Security Trust claimed it was a “disgraceful false equivalence to one of the key learning moments of modern Jewish history.”
Assange, 48, is wanted in the US to face 18 charges, including conspiring to commit computer intrusion, over the publication of US cables a decade ago.
If found guilty he could face up to 175 years in jail.
He is accused of working with former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to leak hundreds of thousands of classified documents.
Assange has been held on remand since last September after serving a 50-week jail sentence for breaching his bail conditions while he was in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
He entered the building in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over sex offence allegations, which he has always denied and were subsequently dropped.