JERUSALEM — British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn met with the leader-in-exile of a Palestinian terror group in 2014 weeks before its members carried out an attack on a Jerusalem synagogue in which six people were killed.
Last week, the Times of London published a picture of Corbyn standing next to that leader, Maher al Taher of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, at a 2014 commemoration ceremony for the Black September terrorists who took part in the 1972 massacre of 11 Israelis at the Munich Olympics.
Corbyn’s participation in the event, at which he was photographed laying a wreath near the terrorists’ grave, provoked fierce reactions from British Jews and Israeli politicians.
In November, 2014, two Palestinian assailants armed with a gun, axes and knives entered the Bnei Torah Kehillat Yaakov synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood and began killing indiscriminately.
Five worshippers — including three Americans and a British citizen — and a Druze police officer who responded to the incident were killed.
Police killed both assailants, who were identified as residents of the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber.
Corbyn has attempted to downplay his involvement in the wreath-laying ceremony, telling Sky News that “I was present when [the wreath] was laid. I don’t think I was actually involved in it.”
He has also gone on the offensive against critics, issuing a scathing critique of Israel after being publicly reprimanded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week.
Corbyn said that “what deserves unequivocal condemnation is the killing of over 160 Palestinian protesters in Gaza by Israeli forces since March, including dozens of children.”
The revelation of Corbyn’s participation in the ceremony wasn’t the only controversy to engulf the longtime socialist activist last week.
An old clip that surfaced several days earlier showed Corbyn saying in a 2011 interview with the Iranian Press TV station that the BBC has “a bias towards saying that Israel is a democracy in the Middle East, Israel has a right to exist, Israel has its security concerns.”
These revelations follow intense scrutiny of Corbyn’s past and present statements about Israel and his alleged failure to curb resurgent anti-Semitism within his party.
A politician who has called Hezbollah and Hamas officials “friends” whom he was “honored” in 2009 to host in the Parliament, Corbyn is widely accused of tolerating or ignoring anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Israel speech, among other forms of Jew hatred.
In an editorial, the Jewish Chronicle, Britain’s foremost Jewish newspaper, accused anyone defending Corbyn’s leadership of “demonstrably defending a man who allies with terrorists — and then lies if it becomes an embarrassment.”
“There are many fine Labour MPs who are horrified at being tarred with his brush. But the plain fact is that as long as they continue to take the Labour whip they will be — and will deserve to be. They must act or forever be damned.”
Speaking with the Chronicle, Michelle Hirschfield, the cousin of Har Nof massacre victim Rabbi Abraham Goldberg, said that Jews should be “wary” of Corbyn and expressed consternation that many British people seemed not to care about his association with people involved in violent activity.
“We live in a bubble. London, Golders Green and where we are is very different to going up north, to the rest of the country, it’s very frightening. People don’t care about the Jews,” she said.
“Every Shabbat we say a prayer supporting the royal family and praying for good government . . . I think it’s terrible that he is leader of the opposition at the moment.
“If he becomes Prime Minister I think it would be awful
“It’s absolutely terrible; here’s Corbyn supporting a terrorist group that has killed a British citizen. This is someone from his own country, how can he be like that?”
In a tweet posted before the news of al Taher’s presence at the ceremony broke, Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, wrote that Corbyn would be “judged by the company you keep.”
Despite the storm of criticism, as with other anti-establishment politicians, such scrutiny and rebukes are paradoxically helping to galvanize support for the embattled Labour leader.
Some of his advocates are rallying to his defense against what they describe as a “Zionist conspiracy” to falsely portray him as anti-Semitic over his hostility to Israel.
Ian Hilpus, a former BBC producer and Corbyn supporter from London, blamed Corbyn’s troubles on “the Zionists.”
They are “part of a conspiracy to undermine the most honest man in politics today,” he wrote Aug. 16 on the Facebook page of a group called We Support Jeremy Corbyn. It has 70,000 members.
Such sentiments show that the “rise in anti-Semitism is difficult to stop,” said David Collier, a Jewish blogger who has uncovered several scandals involving Corbyn.
“All our attempts are being used to show how much of a ‘fifth column’ we are, and some decent people are taking sides against us.”
Faulting the media for its critical interest in Corbyn’s actions is a page out of the playbook of Donald Trump, Collier also said.
Some Corbyn supporters traffic in conspiracy theories focused on why the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard ran the Tunisia photo on their front pages, and why virtually all mainstream television and radio news editions either led with the item or featured it prominently.
Such theories consider it a rare — and suspicious — degree of media consensus.
“Well . . . they are ‘G-d’s Chosen people,’ so they can do what the [deleted] they like,” Kif Wood, a guitar maker from Cornwall, offered in another discussion on the Facebook group about “Zionist crimes.”
On Aug. 15, the Morning Star, a far-left newspaper, reported that unnamed Labour members had co-signed a letter urging the party to launch an “urgent investigation into Israeli interference in the party.”
The trigger for the letter, the Morning Star wrote, was Netanyahu’s Aug. 13 tweet calling for “unequivocal condemnation” of Corbyn.
The signers also referred to a four-part Al Jazeera documentary, aired in January, 2017, alleging that Israeli diplomats had plotted to “take down” a Foreign Office official.
The “wreath-gate” scandal, as the Spectator and other media call it, is the latest in a long string of cases in which Corbyn is accused of tacitly tolerating or encouraging vitriol against Israel, Jews or both. He has denied the allegations.
In March, the media reported on Corbyn’s two-year membership in a Facebook group rife with Holocaust distortion and conspiracy theories about Jews, and a 2012 post in which he appeared to defend an anti-Semitic mural in London.
Corbyn deleted his Facebook account this year amid revelations of his online activity and record.
Holocaust denier Paul Eisen wrote that Corbyn donated money to his pro-Palestinian advocacy group, Deir Yassin Remembered, though Corbyn denies the claim.
The former leader of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jonathan Arkush, said Corbyn has “anti-Semitic views” and that his rising popularity is making Jews ask if they have a future in the country.
Corbyn, for his part, has denied having any anti-Jewish bias and has vowed to tackle anti-Semitism head on. He admitted last month for the first time that his party does have a problem but rejected allegations that he is responsible.
A strident critic of Israel, Corbyn said that he understands British Jews’ attachment to Israel and opposes any attack on them over Israel’s policies.
In a further bid to appease critics, Labour last month adopted a definition of anti-Semitism that recognizes Israel’s right to exist and cites several examples of how anti-Israel rhetoric crosses over to anti-Semitism.
The definition was based on the “working definition” of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which has been adopted by government of many countries, including Britain.
But the gesture backfired when the Jewish community learned that the definition omitted examples of what the IHRA considers anti-Semitic Israel bashing.
Corbyn, the critics said, was creating a loophole that would allow anti-Semites to hide behind the cover of anti-Israel rhetoric.
Many Corbyn supporters see each controversy as a new attempt by his enemies — they now include the mainstream representative organs of British Jewry — to besmirch him with fallacies.
Often their objections feature thinly veiled dog whistles about Jews.
Take, for example, last week’s editorial in the Morning Star. It assured readers that despite the intense scrutiny of Corbyn in the media over wreath-gate, his support for the “Palestinian cause will not be traduced into oblivion by wealthy and powerful circles.”
The Jewish Labour Movement, which has been critical of how Corbyn has handled anti-Semitism in the party, has been “part of the project” to discredit him, the Morning Star reported in another article about the fallout of the Tunisia trip.
The wreath-gate scandal prompted unprecedented criticism by mainstream politicians over Corbyn’s anti-Israel agenda.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid of the Conservative Party said Corbyn was “not fit to lead” and urged him to resign. Labour’s former prime minister, Gordon Brown, said that “Jeremy Corbyn has got to change.”
But if Corbyn’s popularity is suffering in the general population over such rebukes, it does not seem to be an insurmountable obstacle to his becoming prime minister.
A BMG Research poll for the Independent conducted among 1,481 adult voters just before the Tunisia story broke had Corbyn and Prime Minister Theresa May running neck and neck, with 26% of respondents supporting each candidate if elections were held now.
“The wagons are circling around him in ever tighter circles,” Jonathan Hoffman, a pro-Israel activist from London and critic of Corbyn, told JTA.
Much like Trump’s base, Collier said Corbyn’s staunch backers see each new negative revelation as a sign that “the media is against him.”
“The question is,” the pro-Israel blogger said, “can we do anything but play into their hands?”