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Corbyn’s “Zionist” remarks were “most offensive” since Enoch Powell, says ex-chief Rabbi

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks attends a press conference in London in 2016 after receiving the Templeton Prize.


Jonathan Sacks says recently reported remarks were “the most offensive made by a senior British politician since ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech”.

Jeremy Corbyn is “an anti-Semite” who has “given support to racists, terrorists and dealers of hate”, the former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said. In an exclusive interview with the New Statesman, the peer described Corbyn’s recently reported 2013 remarks on “Zionists” as “the most offensive statement made by a senior British politician since Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech”.

Sacks, who was chief rabbi from 1991 until 2013, added: “It was divisive, hateful and like Powell’s speech it undermines the existence of an entire group of British citizens by depicting them as essentially alien.”

At a speech made at the Palestinian Return Centre in London in 2013, Corbyn said of a group of British “Zionists”: “They clearly have two problems. One is they don’t want to study history and, secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony either.”

In his first comments since Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis reached new heights this summer, Sacks told the New Statesman: “The recently disclosed remarks by Jeremy Corbyn are the most offensive statement made by a senior British politician since Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. It was divisive, hateful and like Powell’s speech it undermines the existence of an entire group of British citizens by depicting them as essentially alien.

“We can only judge Jeremy Corbyn by his words and his actions. He has given support to racists, terrorists and dealers of hate who want to kill Jews and remove from Israel from the map. When he implies that, however long they have lived here, Jews are not fully British, he is using the language of classic pre-war European anti-Semitism. When challenged with such facts, the evidence for which is before our eyes, first he denies, then he equivocates, then he obfuscates. This is low, dishonest and dangerous. He has legitimised the public expression of hate, and where he leads, others will follow.

“Now, within living memory of the Holocaust, and while Jews are being murdered elsewhere in Europe for being Jews, we have an anti-Semite as the leader of the Labour Party and her majesty’s opposition. That is why Jews feel so threatened by Mr Corbyn and those who support him.

“For more than three and a half centuries, the Jews of Britain have contributed to every aspect of national life. We know our history better than Mr Corbyn, and we have learned that the hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews. Mr Corbyn’s embrace of hate defiles our politics and demeans the country we love.”

A Labour spokesman said in response: “This comparison with the race-baiting Enoch Powell is absurd and offensive. Jeremy Corbyn described a particular group of pro-Israel activists as Zionists, in the accurate political sense - not as a synonym or code for Jewish people.

“Jeremy Corbyn is determined to tackle anti-Semitism both within the Labour Party and in wider society, and the Labour Party is committed to rebuilding trust with the Jewish community.”

In a statement issued to the Guardian last Friday night, Corbyn said he had used the term Zionists “in the accurate political sense and not as a euphemism for Jewish people”. He added: “I am now more careful with how I might use the term ‘Zionist’ because a once self-identifying political term has been increasingly hijacked by anti-Semites as code for Jews.”

Sacks was interviewed by the New Statesman to coincide with his forthcoming Radio 4 series Morality in the 21st Century. In five episodes to be broadcast daily from 3 September, Sacks interviewed global thinkers, including the political philosopher Michael Sandel, the philanthropist Melinda Gates, the psychologist Steven Pinker, New York Times columnist David Brooks, AI entrepreneur Mustafa Suleyman and Jean Twenge, the author of iGen.

Sacks cited three components of what he regards as the West’s malaise: “the real hurt of the 2008 financial crash and the lack of remorse, or guilt, or shame by the people who were responsible for it”; “the loss of trust in institutions”; and the “epidemic of depression, anxiety and stress affecting teenagers today”.

Asked by the New Statesman to comment on Israel’s new nationality law, which states that the Jewish people have “an exclusive right to national self-determination” in the country and stripped the Arab language of its official status, Sacks said: “I’m not an expert on this. My brother is, I’m not, he’s a lawyer in Jerusalem, he tells me that there’s absolutely nothing apartheid about this, it’s just correcting a lacuna... As far as I understand, it’s a technical process that has none of the implications that have been levelled at it.”

Sacks said of the wider prospects for peace in the Middle East: “The majority of Israelis, even though they’ve given up on peace, if there were even a single sliver of light somewhere, they’d come back to it, because Jews did not wish to come back to their land to make any other people suffer, and that goes very deep in the Jewish heart. I don’t give up hope but I think it will need a new generation of leaders.”

The full interview appears in this week's New Statesman, out on Thursday 

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