Jeremy Corbyn has said Labour does not tolerate anti-Semitism “in any form whatsoever” after the Chief Rabbi warned his failure to tackle the issue made him unfit to be prime minister.
The Labour leader insisted anti-Jewish racism was “vile and wrong” and that the party had a “rapid and effective system” for dealing with complaints.
But in a speech to launch Labour’s race and faith manifesto in north London, he made no direct mention of the comments by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.
Instead it was left to the Labour peer Lord Dubs – who came to Britain in the 1930s as a child refugee fleeing the Nazis – to say he believed the attack had been “unjustified and unfair”.
Writing in The Times, Rabbi Mirvis said Labour’s handling of the issue, which has dogged the party under Mr Corbyn’s leadership, was “incompatible” with British values.
He said the overwhelming majority of Britain’s Jews were “gripped with anxiety” ahead of the General Election on December 12, warning “the very soul of our nation is at stake”.
His comments were seized on by Boris Johnson who said Mr Corbyn’s inability to stamp out the “virus” of anti-Semitism in Labour represented a “failure of leadership”.
Mr Corbyn was greeted with shouts of “racist” by demonstrators as he arrived at the launch venue in Tottenham.
A series of posters on vans parked outside read “Keep anti-Semitism out of Downing Street” and “Labour a home for holocaust denial and terrorist supporters”.
In his speech, Mr Corbyn described anti-Semitism as “an evil within our society” which had led to the Holocaust.
“There is no place whatsoever for anti-Semitism in any shape or form or in any place whatsoever in modern Britain, and under a Labour government it will not be tolerated in any form whatsoever,” he said.
Later, in response to journalists’ questions, he said that as party leader he had introduced new disciplinary procedures which meant those who committed anti-Semitic acts were “brought to book” and, if necessary, expelled from the party or suspended.
He offered to meet with faith leaders, including the Chief Rabbi, to discuss their concerns.
“Be absolutely clear of this assurance from me – no community will be at risk because of their identity, their faith, their ethnicity or their language,” he said.
In an interview later with the BBC’s Andrew Neil, Mr Corbyn repeatedly refused to apologise to the Jewish community.
When pressed, he said: “I am determined that our society is safe for people of all faiths. I don’t want anyone to be feeling insecure in our society.”
His comments appeared unlikely to quell the political storm unleashed by Rabbi Mirvis’s intervention which threatened to knock Labour’s General Election campaigning off track.
In his article, Rabbi Mirvis dismissed Labour’s claims to be doing everything it could to deal with anti-Semitism as a “mendacious fiction”.
“A new poison – sanctioned from the top – has taken root in the Labour Party,” he said.
“How complicit in prejudice would a leader of Her Majesty’s opposition have to be to be considered unfit for office?”
He received high-profile backing from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, who said his “unprecedented intervention” reflected the “deep sense of insecurity and fear felt by many British Jews”.
“Voicing words that commit to a stand against anti-Semitism requires a corresponding effort in visible action,” he said.
That the Chief Rabbi should be compelled to make such an unprecedented statement at this time ought to alert us to the deep sense of insecurity and fear felt by many British Jews: pic.twitter.com/DNxr0Qxht5
— Archbishop of Canterbury (@JustinWelby) November 26, 2019
The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl, said most in the Jewish community would find it impossible to trust the assurances given by Mr Corbyn.
“Labour’s record under his leadership has shown that anti-Semites are indulged by Labour, while Jewish MPs are hounded out without a word of complaint from him,” she said.
“British Jews are acutely anxious about the proliferation of anti-Semitism in the official party of opposition. What starts with the Jews never ends with the Jews.”
Dame Louise Ellman, the Jewish former Labour MP who quit the party over the issue, said the Chief Rabbi was reflecting “widespread concern and anxiety” across the mainstream Jewish community.
“The reason I have left the Labour Party is because I cannot ask people to vote for Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister while we have a Labour Party that is institutionally anti-Semitic,” she told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One.
“It’s unprecedented for a major political party – a potential party of government – to be perpetuating anti-Semitism.”
Speaking at the launch of the Conservatives’ Scottish manifesto in Dunfermline, Mr Johnson has said it was a “very serious business” for the Chief Rabbi to speak out in the way that he had.
“I’ve never heard anything like it and clearly it is a failure of leadership on the part of the Labour leader that he has not been able to stamp out this virus in the Labour Party,” he said.
Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson said it was “hugely worrying” that the Chief Rabbi felt compelled to make such an intervention in an election.
“It speaks volumes about the genuine fear that people in the Jewish community feel about Jeremy Corbyn and his inability to tackle anti-Semitism in the Labour Party,” she said.