LONDON — For many in the Jewish community, the apology came way too late.
The opposition Labour Party’s Treasury spokesman, John McDonnell, the right-hand man of leader Jeremy Corbyn, was grim-faced on the BBC as he admitted to instances of anti-Semitism in the party in recent years, doing serious damage to its chances of victory in Thursday’s election.
“I apologize to the Jewish community for the suffering we’ve inflicted on them,” McDonnell said Sunday.
But while McDonnell offered an apology, Corbyn drew fire for a primetime BBC interview in which he repeatedly refused to apologize to the country’s Jewish community ― likely to be remembered as one of the key moments in the campaign.
Elected Labour leader in 2015, Corbyn mobilized huge grassroots energy to shock the centrist party establishment. In 2017, he defied expectations, depriving Conservative leader Theresa May of a majority in Parliament.
Boris Johnson’s decision to go for another snap election this Christmas has given Corbyn a second and likely final chance at power. But if the polls are to be believed, the prospect has slipped away.
Win or lose, the 70-year-old self-styled “anti-racism campaigner” is likely to be remembered in part for accusations he, at best, turned a blind eye to anti-Semitism.
The Jewish community represents 0.5% of the 66.4 million people who live in the U.K. Three out of five Jews live in the London area. A recent poll showed just 7% of British Jews would vote for Labour at the election. But 42% said they would consider backing the party if Corbyn were replaced as leader. (It is worth noting, however, that an overwhelming majority of British Jews voted against Labour in 2015, when it was led by Corbyn’s predecessor Ed Miliband, who is of Jewish ancestry.)
The accusations of racism in British politics are not confined to one party. Three Conservative parliamentary candidates are being investigated for anti-Semitism. Johnson has also come under intense pressure to investigate Islamophobia in his party.
And the prime minister himself, a former journalist, has a long history of making incendiary comments in his newspaper columns, including describing black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles.” More recently he said Muslim women who wear burqas “look like letter boxes.”
But public attention has long been on Corbyn over his long history of supporting the Palestinian cause and criticizing the government of Israel for human rights abuses.
Corbyn has long denied that he has allowed anti-Semitism to take root in his party and has insisted there is “no place whatsoever” for anti-Jewish racism in Labour.
“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 during an election campaign stop.
But some of those who share his political sympathies have crossed the line from attacking the Israeli government to smears aimed at Jews ― including Holocaust denial.
At worst, Corbyn has been accused of engaging in anti-Semitism himself. In a 2012 Facebook post, Corbyn defended an anti-Semitic mural in east London that depicted “hook-nosed bankers” playing Monopoly. (He later apologized, saying, “I sincerely regret that I did not look more closely at the image I was commenting on, the contents of which are deeply disturbing and antisemitic.”)
Last year the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Jewish Leadership Council used an open letter to claim that Corbyn was “repeatedly found alongside people with blatantly anti-Semitic views.
“Rightly or wrongly, those who push this offensive material regard Jeremy Corbyn as their figurehead,” the Board said.
The Jewish Chronicle, the oldest continuously published Jewish newspaper in the world, splashed its front page with an appeal to “all our fellow British citizens” not to vote for Corbyn this week.
In an unprecedented intervention in party politics, Ephraim Mirvis, the chief rabbi for a union of more than 60 Orthodox congregations in the U.K., warned that “a new poison sanctioned from the top” had taken root in Labour, and questioned Corbyn’s fitness for office.
The Jewish Labour Movement, a founding affiliate of the party, has taken the extraordinary step of refusing to campaign. Mike Katz, its chairman, said JLM members had concluded Corbyn was “not fit to be prime minister” because the party is “failing its Jewish members and tolerating antisemitism.”
The problem has followed Corbyn ever since he took the helm of the party. A report he commissioned into the issue in 2016 found that “the Labour Party is not overrun by anti-Semitism.” But it was condemned as a “whitewash” by critics.
At the launch of the report, Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth left the event in tears after being subjected to heckling from a member of the Corbyn-supporting Momentum grassroots campaign group.
All of this is taking place as the U.K.’s Equality and Human Rights Commission conducts a formal inquiry into whether Labour discriminated against, victimized or harassed people because they are Jewish.
The only other party to ever face a similar probe was the far-right British National Party after it banned ethnic minorities from becoming members.
Labour, according to The Sunday Times, is still overwhelmed with complaints about racism that have been left unresolved for months or years.
The internal files leaked to the paper revealed Labour members describing Jewish people as “bent nose manipulative liars” and calling for the “extermination of every Jew on the planet.”
For some of Corbyn’s supporters, the accusations have been exaggerated or even invented by his internal critics in an attempt to oust him as leader. Jewish Labour Party activist Jon Lansman, who heads Momentum and is a close ally of Corbyn’s, has said singling out Labour “whitewashes the antisemitism and racism that infects the Conservative Party from top to bottom,” and that “other parties have taken no steps to confront this within their ranks.”
But others in the party, including MPs, have gone as far as to quit in protest.
Louise Ellman, a veteran Jewish MP, left the party after 55 years in October with an outspoken attack on the leader. “Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, anti-Semitism has become mainstream in the Labour party. Jewish members have been bullied, abused and driven out,” the parliamentarian said.
Luciana Berger, another Jewish former Labour MP, quit the party in February over anti-Semitism in its ranks and is now seeking reelection as a Liberal Democrat in the north-London seat of Finchley and Golders Green. A quarter of all voters in the constituency are Jewish.
Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for Barking in east London who famously delivered a humiliating defeat to the BNP at the 2010 election, decided to stay put. But her local members attempted to oust her as the parliamentary candidate. In July last year she confronted Corbyn in the House of Commons chamber, branding him “an anti-Semitic racist” to his face.