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UK Labour leader defends anti-Semitism handling after chief rabbi criticism

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Opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn launches Labour’s Race and Faith Manifesto in north London on November 26, 2019. (Photo by Isabel Infantes / AFP)

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on Tuesday defended his handling of anti-Semitism allegations after Britain’s most senior rabbi suggested the issue was a “new poison” within the party that had been “sanctioned from the very top”.

In an unprecedented intervention ahead of next month’s election, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis suggested Corbyn was “unfit for high office” due to his perceived failure to clamp down on the problem within the party.

But in a speech to launch a package of race and faith policies, Corbyn hit back at the charges, branding anti-Semitism “vile and wrong” and insisted his party had a “rapid and effective system” to deal with complaints.

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“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 added.

“Where cases have been reported to us… we have a rapid and effective system of dealing with them and that process is constantly under review.”

The comments contrast starkly with the assessment of Mirvis, who described Corbyn’s previous claims to have dealt forcefully with all accusations as “mendacious fiction”.

In a scathing comment piece in The Times, he said the veteran socialist was responsible for “a failure of leadership” which was “incompatible with the British values of which we are so proud”.

“How complicit in prejudice would a leader of Her Majesty’s opposition have to be to be considered unfit for office?” he asked, adding British Jews were justifiably “gripped by anxiety” ahead of the December 12 poll.

The chief rabbi said it was not his place to tell anyone who to support next month but he advised: “every person to vote with their conscience”.

‘Sense of insecurity’
Labour has been dogged by allegations about widespread anti-Semitism among members since Corbyn — a lifelong supporter of Palestinian causes — took over as a leader in 2015.

A number of MPs have since quit the party, accusing the veteran socialist of allowing the problem to flourish in its ranks and doing little or nothing to tackle it.

Two former Labour lawmakers spoke out Tuesday in support of Mirvis’ condemnation.

“It is heartbreaking to see a party so many of us joined to fight racism and which had such a proud record of fighting for equality reduced to this,” said Ian Austin, who left Labour in February.

“Corbyn & co should be so ashamed,” he wrote on Twitter.

Meanwhile, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the highest-ranking Anglican cleric, said the intervention by Mirvis “ought to alert us to the deep sense of insecurity and fear felt by many British Jews.

“The chief rabbi’s statement provides all of us with the opportunity to ensure our words and actions properly reflect our commitments to mutual flourishing and inclusion, for the common good,” he added.

Last week, Welby and his deputy, Archbishop of York John Sentamu, warned candidates standing for election to reject hate speech during the campaign.

The Muslim Council of Britain said it also supported Mirvis speaking out but noted the ruling Conservatives had also failed to deal with allegations of Islamaphobia in its ranks.

“This an issue that is particularly acute in the Conservative Party who have approached Islamophobia with denial, dismissal and deceit,” it added.

Deep divisions
The anti-Semitism controversy came to a head within Labour in February this year, when nine MPs quit the party over the leadership’s handling of the issue.

A 2016 report by the former head of civil rights group Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, concluded the party was “not overrun by anti-Semitism”.

But others disagree and the Equality and Human Rights Commission has now launched a formal inquiry into whether Labour “unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they are Jewish”.

The row has exposed deep divisions between Labour members denouncing Corbyn’s complacency, and his hard-left supporters who defend him to the hilt.

At Tuesday’s unveiling of its “race and faith” manifesto, the party had hoped to move beyond the damaging topic with a set of wide-ranging proposals to improve social justice, human rights and promote racial equality.

They include teaching children about colonialism, injustice and the role of the British Empire as part of the national curriculum, and tackling discrimination by forcing businesses to report on the pay gap faced by staff from minority ethnic groups.

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