Tom Watson has said he is “proud” of the hundreds who attended Labour Friends of Israel’s conference event and insisted the party has a “moral obligation” to rid itself of antisemitism.
In an at-times emotional reception following a summer dominated by the scandal, LFI chair Joan Ryan received a rapturous reception, joking at one point: “I wish you were all in my local party.” It comes after she narrow lost a vote of confidence in Enfield North after speaking out on the issue.
Labour’s deputy leader, who also received prolonged applause, said Ryan had been “hounded by those who had just joined the party”. He also mentioned Luciana Berger and Ian Austin, suggesting their efforts offered some hope in difficult times.
“I recognise the hurt that’s been caused, the pain thrust upon our friends in the Jewish community. I know how failing to tackle a problem risks eternal shame…The Journey will be long but we’ll do everything we can to build trust.”
Watson went out of his way to embrace LFI and Israel during his speech, which is traditionally given by the party leader.
“I am genuinely proud of each and every one of you for attending this event. We know what this means. I stand here as a proud friend of LFI.” Its work, he said, was “crucial” to better understand the diversity, achievements and challenges” of the Jewish state. He also welcomed Mark Regev as “our very own ambassador from Israel. It’s great he’s here”.
He recalled visiting Israel with UJS after Oslo when hopes of peace were high and then, when hopes were at a nadir, visiting the spot where Yitzchak Rabin lost his life.
Hailing the efforts for peace of campaigners like Labor MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, who also addressed the gathering, Watson said: “Every one in this room stands with you on solidarity in that pursuit. We’re proud of you and we’re glad you came here.”
Watson set out a three-pronged action plan: supporting people in Israel and Palestine working for peace, opposing the BDS movement and “fiercely opposing those who draw grotesque parallels between the Jewish state and the Nazis. We have a moral obligation to rid this party of antisemitism”.
Also warmly welcomed was Nahmias-Verbin, who surprised her fellow speakers on the podium by pulling out a large Israeli flag, hours after scores of Palestinian flags were flown in the main conference hall.
She admitted that the constant negative headlines about UK Labour made her question whether it was right to attend the conference, where she has held a number of meetings with politicians. But at the same time she was aware of the “heroic struggle” being fought by many including those who have paid a “heavy price”. Her party would continue to show solidarity with “many friends” in the party fighting antisemitism and hatred of Israel, despite severing ties with Corbyn’s office.
She said: “I ask you, Mr. Corbyn – what kind of leadership have you shown to root this out? By arguing over the internationally accepted definition of anti-Semitism, you are indicating that you know better than Jews what constitutes anti-Semitism. How can you make such a claim after all that has happened in your party?” She accused him of “meeting more terrorists who have murdered Israelis than Israelis”.
Saying she criticised the Israeli government daily along with thousands of compatriots, the MK urged a balanced approach to the conflict from Labour including calling out the PA for paying salaries to terrorists – as she spoke emotionally of the recent killing of Ari Fuld. “We know that making peace requires compromises between moderates, but it also demands that the extremists are not strengthened,” said Nahmias-Verbin, who was embraced at the reception by Emily Thornberry.
In a less than subtle reference to Corbyn, Ryan said too often those outside the region believe peace can be imposed by “politicians providing a platform and credibility to the very extremists whose wave of suicide bombings did so much to damage Oslo in its early years. Our role should be honest brokers – respected and trusted by all sides”.
She described the antisemitism scandal as a “dark chapter”, saying she had encountered “incomprehension” that the party could have treated a minority “with such disregard, arrogance and contempt”. Only “remorse, humility and empathy” can begin to build bridges.
Regev also referred to comments made by Corbyn without mentioning his name. The envoy suggested it was “so-called anti-racists” who didn’t know history if they believed that of British Zionists.
He also said that successive Labour leaders have supported Israel “precisely because it is an anti-racism cause”. It comes after the Labour leader proposed a text to a recent NEC meeting suggesting it should not be considered antisemitic to describe the circumstances around Israel’s foundation as racist.
Regev took aim at the motion passed by conference calling for a freeze on arms sales to Israel, asking those who supported the text “who they are going to harm” given the bilateral ties that keep both countries safer.