Labour Friends of Israel held its biggest ever reception at Labour party conference in Liverpool this week. Over 400 delegates attended a packed event addressed by deputy leader Tom Watson, Israeli Labor MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, Ambassador Mark Regev, and LFI chair Joan Ryan.
In a stirring address, Mr Watson declared: “I am genuinely proud of each and every one of you for attending this event.
“You know what this means. We know what this means. I stand here as a proud and long standing supporter of LFI.”
He paid tribute to Ms Ryan, who has faced a concerted campaign against her by local hard-left activists for her vocal criticism of Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of the issue of antisemitism in the Labour party, calling her “courageous, dogged and determined [and] hounded out by people who’ve only just joined the Labour party”.
Mr Watson said: “We have a moral obligation to rid this party of antisemitism and I know it’s important to all of us in this room that all of those commitments are delivered.
“I recognise the hurt that’s been caused, I recognise the pain that’s been thrust upon our friends in the Jewish community.”
Name-checking LFI parliamentary supporters, he added that with Joan Ryan, Luciana Berger and Ian Austin, “I hope we can begin to rebuild trust and hope with the Jewish community”.
Mr Watson recalled his first visit to Israel 25 years ago with the Union of Jewish Students, said that a commitment to peace meant opposing the BDS movement, and attacked those who make “grotesque parallels between the Jewish state and the Nazis”.
He also called for Labour to work with the Israeli Labor party to advance a two-state solution. Earlier this year, Avi Gabbay, leader of Israeli Labor, broke ties with Mr Corbyn’s office over its failure to tackle antisemitism.
The reception gave a rousing welcome to Ms Nahmias-Verbin, a Labor MK who began her professional life as a legal adviser on the Oslo Accords to the murdered Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Ms Nahmias-Verbin said she and the Israeli Labor party had found “deeply disturbing” the rise of antisemitism in the Labour party and “the failure, the reluctance so it seems, to address it properly”.
She continued: “I ask you, Mr. Corbyn – what kind of leadership have you shown to root this out? By arguing over the internationally accepted definition of antisemitism, you are indicating that you know better than Jews what constitutes antisemitism. How can you make such a claim after all that has happened in your party?
“As a member of Knesset I won’t stay silent when antisemitism arises from the right – and we have seen that from certain governments in Europe. But I will be just as intolerant when we see manifestations of the world’s oldest hatred coming from the left.”
Ms Nahmias-Verbin argued that there was nothing antisemitic about criticising the actions of the Israeli government, but went on: “What we consider antisemitism is not mere criticism of Israel. But those who wish – 73 years after half of world Jewry were murdered in the Holocaust – to undermine or question the very existence of our country, are antisemitic, plain and simple.”
Ms Nahmias-Verbin outlined Israeli Labor’s objections to the new nation state law and pledged that her party will continue to seek to amend it to ensure it guarantees equality for all Israeli citizens, Jews and Israeli Arabs alike. She also called for Labour to be as vigorous in opposing Palestinian Authority actions which hinder the path to peace as it is in calling out failures on the part of the Israeli government.
Highlighting the payment of salaries by the PA to convicted terrorists and their families, Ms Nahmias-Verbin said: “I call upon Labour to send an uncompromising message to the PA: incentivising terror is totally wrong and totally unacceptable.”
In his speech, Israel’s ambassador to Britain criticised hard left claims that the circumstances surrounding Israel’s founding were racist – a position that Mr Corbyn is believed to have advanced when Labour’s NEC discussed adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism and its examples earlier this month.
“What an extraordinary allegation,” Mr Regev stated. “An allegation that flies against the values that have defined the British labour movement this past century.”
The ambassador detailed Labour’s long-standing support for Zionism and declared: “From Attlee to Wilson to Foot, from Kinnock to Blair to Brown, Labour leaders have supported Israel’s cause, precisely because it is an anti-racist cause.
“In the words of James Callaghan: To call Zionism racism would only ‘undermine efforts to combat racial discrimination’.”
Ms Ryan once again addressed the issue of antisemitism in the Labour party.
“I have spent much time in recent months meeting people in synagogues, at communal events and, indeed, on the doorsteps of north London,” she argued.
“The reaction I encounter is almost universal: it is one of anxiety, hurt and anger.
“An incomprehension that our party could have treated a minority community in this country with such disregard, arrogance and contempt.
“A bewilderment that our party – with its long and honourable history of fighting racism – should have decided to lecture Jews on what does and does not constitute antisemitism.
“And, yes, a real fear that our party under the current leadership might soon be in government. This is a collective failure and only remorse, humility and empathy can begin to redress it.
“As Labour party members, we all bear responsibility for what has been done in our name. When the history of our party is written, this dark chapter will be one of great shame.”
She concluded: “We must stand up for the Middle East’s only democracy and free society. We must stand up to those who deny the Jewish people’s right to self-determination and attempt to brand it a ‘racist endeavour’. And we must stand up against antisemitism whenever and wherever we see it.”
Ms Ryan also used her address to focus on the 25th anniversary this month of the signing of the Oslo Accords. She said “the hopes which Israelis, Palestinians and people around the world shared for it have subsequently been cruelly dashed” and “too many lives have been lost and too much blood spilled on both sides”.
But, she continued, “Oslo should also be a reminder to us that with good faith, compromise and brave leadership progress can be made.
“Too often those outside the region believe that peace can be imposed by outsiders: by unilateral action, whether it be by President Trump or by one-sided resolutions at the UN; by demonising and delegitimising the state of Israel through the BDS movement; or by politicians providing a platform and credibility to the very extremists whose wave of suicide bombings did so much to damage Oslo in its early years.
“Our role should be honest brokers – respected and trusted by all sides – and our purpose should be to encourage the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority to sit down and negotiate directly with one another again.”
During her two days in Liverpool, Ms Nahmias-Verbin met with members of the shadow cabinet, including shadow defence secretary Nia Griffith and Barry Gardiner, the shadow international trade secretary, and a host of Labour MPs, including Luciana Berger, Stephen Doughty, Ian Lucas, Chris Matheson, Stephen Morgan, Toby Perkins, Wes Streeting, and LFI vice-chair Louise Ellman.