Jeremy Corbyn has moved to clarify – and defend – the controversial remarks he made about British Zionists in 2013, in which he claimed they had “two problems: one is they don’t 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.”
My colleague Stephen Bush wrote earlier on why the remarks have provoked the outcry that they have – 90 per cent of British Jews identify themselves as supporters of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. The reaction to the comments today underlines his point. In a crowded field of controversies, this is by far far the most inflammatory.
Unfortunately for Labour, Corbyn’s response will ensure this particular row rages on for some time yet. In a statement released, ironically, just as the Jewish sabbath was beginning on Friday night, the Labour leader says he was seeking to “defend the Palestinian ambassador in the face of what I thought were deliberate misrepresentations” from people “for whom English was a first language, when it isn’t for the ambassador”.
He adds: “I described those pro-Israel activists as Zionists, in the accurate political sense and not as a euphemism for Jewish people – and that is made clear in the rest of my speech that day.
“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.”
The response is significant in that Corbyn, for the first time, acknowledges in his own words, not those of a spokesman, that something he said was problematic. But that isn’t to say it will do anything but exacerbate his party’s woes. The issue with the response is that it is essentially a defence of his comments, rather than the apology many have demanded.
A spokesperson for Corbyn says that he “he had been speaking about Zionists and non-Zionist Jews” in another section of the speech, edited out of the footage posted on YouTube, in which he “very clearly does not go on to use Zionists as any kind of shorthand for Jews”.
Corbyn’s defenders will say that this reasoning is sound, the logic consistent, and that he has nothing to apologise for. For his detractors in the Jewish community and beyond, that is precisely the issue. They see the distinction Corbyn has drawn between his use of the word and its anti-Semitic misuse as an artificial one.
As with the row over the IHRA definition, they argue the party is dancing on the head of a pin in an attempt to avoid admitting culpability. That ultimately does yet more damage. At this point, it is probably irreparable, despite the fact that Labour will u-turn over its code of conduct on anti-Semitism next month.
To the frustration of his press team, Labour will talking about nothing but anti-Semitism for some time yet. And of issuing a mea culpa he does not want to, or feel he needs to make, there is probably nothing Jeremy Corbyn can do to make this issue go away.