John McDonnell has stood by his claim the Julian Assange extradition case is the “Dreyfus … of our age” despite a backlash.
McDonnell appeared unapologetic as he defended his remarks in a statement to Jewish News on Thursday evening.
“It was quite clear what I meant,” the shadow chancellor wrote. “Just like the Dreyfus case, the legal action against Julian Assange is a major political trial in which the establishment is out to victimise an innocent. On that basis, of course it’s right to assert that it’s a parallel.”
The Labour frontbencher had sparked criticism earlier in the day with the comparison he made after visiting Assange in prison.
“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.”
Assange – the 48-year-old Australian founder of Wikileaks – is wanted in the US over 18 charges, including conspiring to commit computer intrusion. Extradition hearings will start next week at Woolwich Crown Court.
In his remarks, McDonnell was referring to the Jewish French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus, 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.
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.”