The Guardian columnist Owen Jones used the first Henry Smith Memorial Lecture to make a bitter condemnation of anti-Semitism on the Left — and to denounce Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
In conversation with Sarah Sackman, vice-chair of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) at Belsize Square Synagogue, Mr Jones described what had happened with Ken Livingstone as “a tragedy” for the Labour Party. His remarks about Hitler and Zionism were “totally unacceptable”, he said, adding that it was critical that non-Jews on the Left “stand in solidarity” against such attitudes and confront those such as the former London mayor who made such comments.
It was a real case of “Alias Smith and Jones” for the event — held to commemorate the long and distinguished contribution to Labour politics by the late Henry Smith. Owen Jones has had a close friendship for many years with Henry Smith’s son, Stef, and in his opening remarks he spoke of how the relationship had enabled him to learn about Jewish people and the Holocaust.
The major thread running through his comments was the condemnation of anti-Semitism and great regret that Jews should not feel comfortable within the Labour Party. “It’s vital that the Jewish contribution to Labour should always be recognised”, he said. “Without Jews, the Labour Party would not exist”.
Asked who should lead the Labour Party into the next election, Mr Jones repeated a call he has already made in print for Jeremy Corbyn to stand down, but ducked the question of a potential successor. “Labour is heading for a very bad defeat”, he acknowledged, later agreeing with a member of the packed audience who felt that one of the few Labour politicians who had established good relations with the Jewish community was London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan.
Mr Jones famously received so much abuse on social media for agreeing to take part in Sunday’s event that he temporarily left Twitter. He complained that its users were those “who read about Jews and their life experience [of anti-Semitism] and use it as an opportunity to condemn Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians”. Instead, he advised, those on the Left should listen, “take anti-Semitism seriously, and don’t treat it as part of a right-wing conspiracy”.
But Mr Jones — who has not yet visited Israel — did not pull his punches when it came to condemning the current Israeli government. Describing himself as a passionate supporter of Palestinian self-determination, he described Mr Netanyahu’s government as “hard-right, bigoted, violating international law and making peace impossible.”
He wanted a two-state solution in which both Jews and Palestinians could feel safe, he said, observing that this was only possible through dialogue and not a military solution. The current Israeli government had “the fanatical support of Donald Trump”, he said, adding that previous, similar support of Israel had come from disgraced President Richard Nixon. Both men, he said, had invoked “anti-Semitic tropes”, Trump through his supporters of the alt-right, and Nixon on tape.
He regretted that Israel was coming more and more “to treat dissent as treason.” Praising those in Israel “brave enough” to confront this attitude, Mr Jones said they were the people he wanted to stand and unite with — “not the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu and his associates who are riddled with bigotry.”