LONDON — A protest against anti-Semitism in the U.K.'s Labour party got heated before it even began on Monday evening as protesters shouted "shame on you" and "you are the anti-Semites" at supporters of party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Hundreds filled London's Parliament Square on an unusually sunny Monday evening. Just ahead of the 5:30 P.M. start of the protest, Jewish Voice for Labour, a pro-Corbyn group, slammed protesters, saying "we can oppose anti-Semitism and support Corbyn." They said that the Labour leader was committed to fighting racism.
They were met with cries of "shame on you" and "you are anti-Semites." They were soon moved a little away from the square and tensions died down.
Members of the Jewish community, members of Parliament and other supporters who gathered at the square were responding to "a call to action" issued Sunday by the Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. "#EnoughIsEnough," tweeted the Jewish Leadership Council. "We call on members of our community and all those who oppose antisemitism to join us in Parliament Square at 5:30pm to show solidarity." U.K. Communities Secretary Sajid Javid also attended the event.
Corbyn issued an open letter ahead of the protest on Monday. "I recognise that anti-Semitism has surfaced within the Labour Party, and has too often been dismissed as simply a matter of a few bad apples," he said.
"This has caused pain and hurt to Jewish members of our party and to the wider Jewish community in Britain. I am sincerely sorry for the pain which has been caused, and pledge to redouble my efforts to bring this anxiety to an end."
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Jonathan Goldstein, the chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council, confirmed to Haaretz Monday that Jewish groups would be meeting with the Labour leader after receiving an invitation from him, “but not before Passover.”
He said he was proud that some 1,200 people had turned up with less with less than 36 hours notice. "The distress has been coming for a long, long time," he said, adding that "hopefully today would be a watershed." Corbyn needs to show zero tolerance and end demonization of Israel, among a number of other steps, he said.
Protesters expressed real fear and anger at what they say is lack of action by the Labour leader on anti-Semitism on the left. Raymond Randall from London said he was “mortified and disgusted by the amount of anti-Semitism in society and in the Labour Party. It has been slowly festering since Corbyn became leader.” He added, “In my 82 years, I don’t remember such overt anti-Semitism in this country.”
Rina Wolfson, a writer whose Facebook post on the issue went viral this week, said the unhappiness of the Jewish community “has been building.”
“I was a member of the of party, I always voted Labour. Now I feel disenfranchised as a supporter and deflated and concerned as a Jewish person in the U.K.” Wolfson said that for those like her in their late 30s and 40s, there was “a mood in the air they have never experienced."
While most of those attending were Jewish, some solidarity was shown by those people the community as well. Satnam Singh, a representative of the Sikh Council of Great Britain, said he had come to "support the Jews." Jeremy Corbyn “is an anti-Semite and he needs to apologize,” he said.
At the protest, Goldstein told the crowd that "Anti-Semitism has no place whatsoever in a mainstream political party. The time for words is over ... the time for action has begun. Enough is enough."
"This is Corbyn's chance, if he can take it," said Jonathan Arkush, president of the Jewish Board of Deputies. "We are asking him to lead a cultural shift in the Labour Party." He added: "Our community is not seeking special treatment [but] respect and firm action when there is prejudice. ... Finally, finally, Jeremy, take some responsibility."
A number of Labour MPs, including Wes Streeting, John Mann and Luciana Berger, attended the protest. Streeting pledged that the gathered Parliamentarians would bring up the issues angering the Jewish community at the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting taking place immediately after the protest. Berger, who is Jewish, told the crowd: "Let me tell you, the anti-Semitism issue is real. ... I want to be able to address Jewish audiences with my head held high. The time for action is now." She urged people to join the Labour movement to push change.
U.K. Jewish groups say Corbyn has shown a "repeated institutional failure" to address anti-Jewish prejudice. They say that "again and again, Jeremy Corbyn has sided with anti-Semites rather than Jews."
Some Labour supporters say Corbyn, a longtime critic of Israeli actions against the Palestinians, has allowed abuse to go unchecked.
The latest furor erupted last week over a six-year-old Facebook post by Corbyn supporting the artist behind a street mural that included anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Jewish leadership groups published an open letter in response to the post on Sunday night. The groups planned to hand the letter to MPs ahead of the Parliamentary Labour Party's weekly meeting. It was not confirmed whether Jeremy Corbyn would be in attendance.
Corbyn apologized Friday for supporting the mural, saying he sincerely regretted "that I did not look more closely at the image I was commenting on" and claimed he was focused on defending the artist's creative freedom in 2012. The statement also acknowledged the contents of the mural are deeply disturbing and anti-Semitic, and said Corbin "wholeheartedly" supports its removal.
Corbyn said in another statement Sunday that Labour must show "total commitment to excising pockets of anti-Semitism that exist in and around our party," adding he would seek a meeting with Jewish leaders in the coming days.
Corbyn has described himself in 2009 as a "friend" of Hamas and Hezbollah. He later regretted the statement amid scrutiny in the media, when claims arose that his election as party leader in 2015 encouraged a proliferation of anti-Semitism in the party’s ranks.