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14 August 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 3:20pm

A Labour councillor has shown the right way to say sorry. It’s time Jeremy Corbyn took note

Unlike others in his party, Irfan Mohammed understood how to apologise for anti-Semitism in a meaningful way.

By Rosa Doherty

“Sorry seems to be the hardest word”. Elton John was not wrong when he wrote those words, although at the time he probably had no idea his lyrics would become quite so relevant to the Labour Party.

When it comes to a relationship with the Jewish community, it seems no one is finding it harder to say sorry, and say it right, than the party – or its leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

Delivered properly, sorry can be one of the most powerful words you can say. It has the ability to mend conflict, restore trust and be the springboard for understanding. We all know the difference between a sorry that means something and a sorry that doesn’t. It is a feeling as much as anything else; a good sorry speaks to your pain, and a bad one blames you for feeling it.

The Labour Party could learn a thing or two about the difference between the two from the actions of one its councillors. Last week it emerged Irfan Mohammed, a Labour councillor in the London borough of Lambeth, had shared an anti-Semitic post on Facebook. It is fair to say that I, like anyone who has spent the last three years covering anti-Semitism, am desensitised to news that certain professional people, many of whom hold responsible positions in society, think of Jews as money grabbing, Israel-loving lizards who control the world.

But Mohammed, who had shared an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory claiming Jews were warned about the 9/11 terror attacks, did do something surprising: he apologised.

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It wasn’t an apology like those released by the Labour Party on behalf of Jeremy Corbyn, which have failed miserably to speak to the pain and hurt felt by the Jewish community. And we didn’t have to wait weeks for it after the story broke.

Mohammed’s apology was different; it came quickly, it was personal, it was honest, and it wasn’t reheated and poured over by multiple aides.

But what was most striking was the apology’s key ingredient. The responsibility he took for his behaviour and how it made people feel.

“I completely accept that I have hurt the Jewish community through my action,” he said.

Echoing the go-to excuse of Jeremy Corbyn – who in the past has defended an anti-Semitic mural, shared platforms with people who espouse some of the most vile Jew hate, and been a member of a Facebook group rotten to its core with anti-Semitism – Mohammed claimed to have been unaware of the racism he shared.

And while it is quite remarkable that any devout and passionate anti-racist could fail to spot racism so blatant, this time I am willing to accept Mohammed’s word.

Because unlike the rewritten statements released by the Labour Party, Mohammed did not expect his audience to accept his ignorance.

He told them in no uncertain terms that his action was unacceptable. He didn’t try to excuse it by saying something about defending free speech, or apportion blame to the victim, or the person who wrote the original post that he shared.

Instead he wrote to the chief whip of his borough’s council, calling for his post to be looked into as a disciplinary matter.

“This was a stupid and thoughtless thing to do and I recognise that it was an anti-Semitic act. It was totally unacceptable and it was my mistake which I do not shy away from,” he wrote.

The councillor, who is a member of his council’s Equality Impact Assessment Panel and the Faiths Together in Lambeth group, then promised to contact all synagogues in his community to apologise personally.

And he promised to “listen and learn from them”. Those words that have also been used by Labour. But Mohammed matched his words with actions.

Just days after apologising he went to see a show about the conspiracy theories like the one he shared, having been invited by a member of the community he had offended.

Unlike Corbyn, Mohammed didn’t just attend a Seder night with people he knew, people who shared his views and would say things that he liked. He did what was uncomfortable, scary, and brave.

Despite being one of the first things we’re taught to say as children, for some reason saying sorry becomes harder as we get older, perhaps because to do so as an adult requires a degree of vulnerability.

No one likes the idea that their behaviour has had a negative impact on someone, which becomes even more uncomfortable to admit and understand if you are generally of the view that your behaviour is above reproach. You have to suspend your ego and pride – and for those in politics, this seems especially hard. But it is something all of us at some stage or another can relate to doing; and usually that vulnerability is shared with a loved one or someone we know. Perhaps those writing the apologies for Corbyn believe that this level of vulnerability cannot be afforded to the leader of the opposition.

I would argue the exact opposite, especially if you want to be the kind of government that represents the many and not just the few.

Rosa Doherty is a multi-media journalist, documentary maker and reporter. She works as a social affairs correspondent for the Jewish Chronical.

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