To say the least, it was always going to be an awkward meeting.
But despite his speech being only mildly critical of Israel, he was heckled by one audience member. The event took place at the annual Labour Party conference in Brighton.
Before the spectacular political upset that led to his leadership election victory earlier this month, Corbyn has for decades been one of the most stalwart parliamentary supporters of Palestine. His reception at the Labour Friends of Palestine event that took place on Monday was much warmer, being more akin to the return of a hero.
As noted in The Electronic Intifada’s exclusive interview with Corbyn on Palestine in August, he is a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and has for decades been active in the solidarity movement.
His positions have been ahead of most in the Labour Party, including supporting a two-way arms embargo on Israel, a boycott of Israeli universities involved in arms research and backing the Palestinian right to return as the “key” to a political solution.
In his brief address to the reception Corbyn emphasized “long term dialogue … peace through negotiation … [and] recognition of the rights and needs and traditions of all of the peoples of the region.”
He also expressed his hope that “we are able to ensure the siege of Gaza, or the restrictions on Gaza, are lifted.”
He said that his commitment to justice meant that “sometimes you have to be very critical of people for their abuses of human rights” – the implication seemed to be that he was talking about Israel, although that was not openly stated.
The heckler, heard in this video, complained that Corbyn did not use the word “Israel” in his address.
Update: The heckler was later named as Michael Foster, a former show business agent and wealthy Labour Party donor. In July 2016 he launched a legal action aimed at blocking Corbyn from the ballot for reelection as party leader.
Foster has form as a political thug. During his failed 2015 bid to become an MP he reportedly harassed a female rival as a “cunt” and threatened to “destroy” her after she had mentioned his £1.5 million home. Foster denied any harassment.
Despite Labour Friends of Israel putting on a brave face by trying to emphasize the historic connections between the Israeli Labor Party and the UK Labour Party, there was no escaping that things have changed.
This is by no means limited to the leadership. Corbyn’s election is only a sign of a wider grassroots uprising within the party against the right-wing, pro-war policies of the New Labour establishment under Tony Blair and his successors.
My colleague David Cronin has, however, warned that it is too soon to write the obituary of the UK’s pro-Israel “left.”
He is quite right. Groups such as Labour Friends of Israel are well funded and will not go away quietly.
But things have definitely changed, and affiliation with that wing of the party is no longer the guaranteed career boost it once was.
Liz Kendall was the Labour leadership candidate closest to Blair, and emphasized at one meeting that she “will always be a friend of Israel.”
She came last, with just 4.5 percent of the vote.
Corbyn’s mandate from every sector of the party (59.5 percent overall) was so overwhelming that all rumors in the press of a “coup” to oust him as leader have been silenced.
Corbyn’s conciliatory and inclusive leadership style, in which he has emphasized open debate, may help defuse tensions within the party. But it does leave open possible challenges to his authority in the future.
The New Labour era, with its instinctive support for Israeli war crimes, may well be over. But the right within the party will now lick its wounds, bide its time and wait for its moment to return.
Meanwhile, lean times loom for Labour Friends of Israel.
- Labour Party
- Jeremy Corbyn
- Labour Friends of Israel
- Labor Zionism
- Erel Margalit
- Labor Party (Israel)
- Tony Blair
- Liz Kendal
- Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland
- right of return
- Gaza siege
- Palestine Solidarity Campaign
- Labor Friends of Palestine
- Joan Ryan
- Michael Foster
- Labour witch hunt