UK Labour's Corbyn and Smith joust over antisemitism in debate

In a forum organized by the Jewish Labour movement on Sunday, both the British Labour leader and his opponent were put under the spotlight by Jewish members.

Britain's Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (L) gestures to Owen Smith during tonight's debate at a Labour Leadership Campaign event in Glasgow, Scotland, August 25, 2016. (photo credit: REUTERS/RUSSELL CHEYNE)
Britain's Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (L) gestures to Owen Smith during tonight's debate at a Labour Leadership Campaign event in Glasgow, Scotland, August 25, 2016.
British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and his challenger Owen Smith debated antisemitism in the party Sunday evening at a forum organized by the Jewish Labor Movement.
According to The Jewish Chronicle, both candidates in the Labour primary pledged to support a rule change that was proposed by the Jewish Labour Movement to make sure that antisemitism would be classified as a disciplinary offense within the party.
The debate comes at a time when the Labour party has fallen under suspicion of antisemitic tendencies that are currently being investigated.
A question regarding Israel supporters’ place in the movement was received by both candidates positively.
Corbyn mentioned that Jewish participation was and continues to be a part of the foundation of the Labour movement. Smith said that he would create a stance of “zero tolerance for” antisemitism within the movement, whether supportive of Israel or not.
The debate became heated with a question posed to both participants asking whether they consider themselves Zionists and believe that Israel has a right to exist.
Corbyn avoided referring to himself as a Zionist, but repeated that he believes Israel has a right to exist within the 1948 lines. Corbyn also said that there is a need to end the occupation. The Labour Party leader added that he had met with Israeli MKs in the past.
Following Corbyn’s remarks, Smith said he believes that Israel has the right to exist as a “nation-state” alongside the recognition of a Palestinian state and that he would be happy to meet with the Israeli government.
The question which put both participants on the spot was with regard to an Israel boycott.
Corbyn said he believes that such a boycott is a reasonable response to the “illegal” settlements and that products exported from the West Bank should not be sold on the European market. He also said that he has supported other boycotts in the past, mentioning Chile, Burma and South Africa.
Smith said that he did not believe that boycotting Israeli products would help to further the peace process. Rather, it would be a “slippery slope” into divestment and this would not help the situation, adding that a comparison to apartheid South Africa is “unhelpful.”
The Labour Party in Britain has faced several incidents of antisemitism since Corbyn gained leadership of the party. The participants were asked about the inquiry into antisemitism in the party and the lack of an accurate definition like the EU definition which includes a clause on the right to self-determination and double standards.
Corbyn responded by saying that “antisemitism is abuse of people because of their faith or their ethnic background,” ignoring the aspect of self-determination in the EU definition.
Smith did not respond, saying that he had not read the definition and thus could not give an educated answer.
Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, turned to Corbyn and asked: “What is your defense for associating with Paul Eisen, a self-proclaimed Holocaust denier, and Jackie Walker, who accused Jews of carrying out the slave trade,” to which Corbyn replied: “When it became apparent to me that Paul Eisen’s views had gone in a direction I absolutely did not agree with, I declined to attend any further events” with Eisen, according to The Jewish Chronicle.
Corbyn in June appeared to liken Israel to Islamic State stating: “Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel than our Muslim friends are for the self-styled Islamic State.”
Several high-profile suspensions have resulted in the past year revolving around questions of antisemitism in the Labour Party, which led to the Chakrabarti inquiry on antisemitism in the party.
Tamara Zieve and Reuters contributed to this article.