Jeremy Corbyn has refused to apologise over his party’s handling of antisemitism claims, insisting that cases of hate speech targeting Jews “didn’t rise after I became leader” of the Labour Party.
The storm that has engulfed the Labour party for three years burst into the election campaign yesterday after the Chief Rabbi called on the public to “vote with their conscience” over the party’s response to anti-Jewish hatred.
Writing in the Times, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said that “the way in which the [Labour] leadership has dealt with anti-Jewish racism is incompatible with the British values of which we are so proud – of dignity and respect for all people.”
Rabbi Mirvis warned that a “new poison – sanctioned from the very top – has taken root” in the Labour Party, and said “the overwhelming majority of British Jews are gripped by anxiety”.
Mr Corbyn insisted the anti-semitism “will not be tolerated in any form whatsoever” under a Labour government after the unprecedented intervention by the most senior Jewish faith leader in the UK.
But in an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil last night, the Labour leader accused the Chief Rabbi of being wrong and declined to apologise to the Jewish community four times.
Mr Corbyn said: “I’m looking forward to having a discussion with him because I want to hear why he would say such a thing.”
The Labour leader was challenged over Rabbi Mirvis’s allegation that Labour’s claims it is doing everything to tackle anti-Jewish racism was a “mendacious fiction”.
“No, he’s not right. Because he would have to produce the evidence to say that’s mendacious,” Mr Corbyn replied.
He insisted he has “developed a much stronger process” and had sanctioned and removed members who have been antisemitic.
Mr Corbyn also denied that cases increased after he took over the party, saying: “It didn’t rise after I became leader.
“Antisemitism is there in society, there are a very, very small number of people in the Labour Party that have been sanctioned as a result about their antisemitic behaviour.”
Earlier, Mr Corbyn insisted his party has a “rapid and effective system” for dealing with complaints of antisemitism among its members, despite claims that scores of allegations have yet to be dealt with.
The Labour leader said those found to have used antisemitic language were “brought to book and if necessary expelled from the party, or suspended or asked to be educated better about it”.
At the launch of Labour’s race and faith manifesto, Mr Corbyn said: “I have to say, I just want to make this very clear – antisemitism in any form is vile and wrong.
“It is an evil within our society, it is an evil that grew in Europe in the 1920s and onwards and ultimately led to the Holocaust.
“There is no place whatsoever for antisemitism 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.”
At the launch in Tottenham, Mr Corbyn was joined on the platform by a Labour candidate who shared a post online about “Zionist masters”, and another who defended Ken Livingstone following accusations he used antisemitic language.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby backed Rabbi Mirvis’ warning, saying in a statement: “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.”
The Muslim Council of Britain also supported Rabbi Mirvis’ comments, but used its statement to accuse the Conservative Party of “denial, dismissal and deceit” over allegations of Islamophobia among its members, claiming the Tories had a “blind spot for this type of racism”.
Mr Corbyn also went on the offensive, calling on the Conservatives to “address the issues of Islamophobia that appear to be a problem within their party”.
Labour peer Lord Dubs, who came to the UK in 1939 in the Kindertransport as a six-year-old refugee fleeing Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, said the Chief Rabbi had “gone too far”.
“I think Jeremy Corbyn himself is personally hurt at the accusations of antisemitism,” Lord Dubs said, defending the Labour leader.
“I don’t believe he is antisemitic, even though, under his leadership, things have happened which should have been dealt with much faster.”