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Questions Raised Over Anti-Semitism In U.K.'s Labour Party


The British Labour Party contends with a crisis on this Passover weekend. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, and several other party figures are accused of countenancing anti-Semitism. The controversy burst out when Mr. Corbyn retweeted a picture of a mural in East London that depicts caricatures of Jewish bankers playing a game of Monopoly on the backs of the world's poor. Mr. Corbyn has apologized and said he should have looked more closely at the mural. The controversy is not just about artwork and raises questions about anti-Semitism and Britain's left wing. Jonathan Arkush is president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and he joins us from London. Mr. Arkush, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: Jeremy Corbyn's apologized. Why not just move on?

ARKUSH: We've had a succession of anti-Semitic discourse and incidents inside the Labour Party, and all we've had is words, Jeremy Corbyn saying I abhor racism, but he's done nothing about it. And this week, the patience of the Jewish community in Britain finally ran out.

SIMON: Tell us what you consider to be a couple of the other instances of anti-Semitism on the left.

ARKUSH: Ken Livingstone, former mayor of London - he has come out in the past two years with the nonsensical but very, very provocative statement that Hitler supported Zionism. So he's tried to bracket support for Israel with Naziism. It took a year before they put him through a disciplinary process, and he was suspended from the party for a year. That was a slap on the wrist. He should have been thrown out. Then, Jeremy Corbyn himself was a member of three secret Facebook groups. The discourse in those Facebook groups included rank anti-Semitism, 9/11 truthism (ph), Holocaust denial. Our community has had enough.

SIMON: Now, Jeremy Corbyn and Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, and others have said, yes, they are pro-Palestinian, proudly and historically, but they don't consider their opposition to Israel's policies in the Middle East as anti-Semitic.

ARKUSH: Criticism of Israel, in a way that you might want to criticize any other country, is not anti-Semitic. We've never claimed it was. But the mural that you referred to in your opening depicted grotesquely anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews. Those caricatures came straight out of the Nazi playbook when Israel didn't exist. This has got nothing to do with the conflict in the Middle East. This has everything to do with hatred of Jewish people for being Jewish. That's anti-Semitism.

SIMON: Mr. Arkush, do you believe anti-Semitism is on the rise in the U.K.?

ARKUSH: I don't think it's on the rise in the sense that I don't think there's more anti-Semites. There have been more anti-Semitic incidents, but they're very, very, low level. Social media acts as an echo chamber. And the advent of a far-left leader of the Labour Party has given the message to some people that a space is opened up for them to say things that previously they knew they couldn't say in public. And now they think wrongly that they can.

SIMON: Mr. Arkush, what happens now?

ARKUSH: Well, Jeremy Corbyn is being forced to say that he wants an urgent meeting with the British Jewish community. So we've sent him a letter, which sets out the steps which the Labour Party must now undertake in order to demonstrate that it's serious about cracking down on anti-Semitism. That's what we're calling on Jeremy Corbyn to do. If he does, we'll support him. If he doesn't, the story is just going to carry on running.

SIMON: Jonathan Arkush is president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and thank you for speaking with us.

ARKUSH: Thank you very much indeed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.