UK Labor Chair Rejects anti-Semitism Charge

Sharon Sadeh, Haaretz Correspondent
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Sharon Sadeh, Haaretz Correspondent

British Labor Party chairman Ian McCartney, on Sunday rejected Jewish community charges that he used an anti-Semitic stereotype in criticizing the policies of Oliver Letwin, the shadow chancellor of the exchequer, who is Jewish.

In a recent speech to Labor Party activists in Scotland critical of the Conservative Party's economic plan, he called Letwin "a 21st century Fagin" - a reference to the Jewish character infamous for his moral corruption in Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist."

McCartney said "this 21st century Fagin will pick the pockets of Scotland's pensioners by abolishing the pension credit and then plan for a new generation of poor pensioners by abolishing the second state pension."

Rabbis and other Jewish leaders spoke out against the comment. Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Romain of the Reform movement said, "I find the remark highly offensive. It is a throwback to the worst kind of stereotype from a bygone age. It is totally gratuitous to compare someone to a fictitious Jewish villain from 1837. Consciously or otherwise it is a reference to Mr Letwin's face rather than his politics."

Fagin's character was played by Ron Moody in the 1968 Oscar-winning musical "Oliver." Moody called on him to apologize. "I think it is disgraceful and irresponsible," the actor told the London Daily Telegraph. "Someone in Mr. McCartney's position should choose his words more carefully. I do not think any Jewish person should be compared to Fagin. Such a description is anti-Semitic."

Labor peer Lord Greville Janner, said he was "amazed" by McCartney's comments. "I know Ian is not an anti-Semite but comments like this do sound anti-Semitic. I know him very well and I like him very much. I am, however, astonished by the fact that he should make a comment like this."

Letwin, whose family fled persecution in the Ukraine told friends that McCartney had shown insensitivity by using the Fagin stereotype with reference to him.

In a statement released Sunday, McCartney said it was "absolute nonsense" to call his remarks racist. "I have spent all my life campaigning against racism and anti-Semitism. No one who reads the remarks in context could interpret them in that way. It is simply a reference to the Tory policy on scrapping the pension credit. This was a comment about Oliver Letwin's politics and the Tory Party's policies."