Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been heckled by a prominent party donor for not mentioning the word “Israel” once during a speech to the Labour Friends of Israel at their party’s conference. A visiting member of the Knesset who was also present at the event slammed his speech as “shocking.”
Mr Corbyn came in for severe and widespread criticism during Labour’s leadership campaign this summer, thanks to his decades-long affiliation with pro-Palestinian causes and his concurrent criticism of Israel. The media focussed on his reference to “friends” in Hamas and Hezbollah.
His decision to address the Labour Friends of Israel’s reception at Labour party conference on Tuesday was greeted with mild surprise and produced a good turn out for the event, with around 250 delegates packing into the conference room to hear their leader speak.
But in his seven minute speech, Mr Corbyn failed to mention the word “Israel” even once, causing an angry heckler to shout from the back “Say the word ‘Israel’! Say the word ‘Israel’!” His intervention was met with gasps, hisses and cries of “sit down!” from the crowd, as the host, Joan Ryan MP tried to smooth over the event, saying: “Thank you very much Jeremy, as leader of our party we are delighted you were here tonight.”
The moment Jeremy Corbyn was heckled at the Labour Friends of Israel reception pic.twitter.com/1ggN8ChSQs
— Emily Ashton (@elashton) September 29, 2015
The heckler has been identified as Michael Foster, a former showbusiness agent and one of Labour’s leading donors. According to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, Mr Foster has given more than £433,000 to the party since 2010, making him the seventh highest donor between 2010 and March this year.
Explaining his intervention, Mr Foster told The Times: “I am the first Jew in my family on my father’s side in four generations that has the chance to live out my life in the country of my birth. Eight of my father’s cousins and close relations died in the Holocaust. My grandfather was in Dachau.
“I find it difficult to understand how the leader of the British Labour party, when he has spent conference talking about decency, respect for human values and human rights, kindness and a new way of conducting politics, can appear on a platform in front of 250 or 300 Jewish people . . . and cannot find in his lexicon of words at that meeting, the word ‘Jew’, ‘Jewish’, ‘the UK Jewish community’ or the word ‘Israel’. That is not leadership.
“I had hosted just an hour before Jeremy Corbyn at my table at the gala Labour dinner. I demanded of Jeremy from the floor, ‘Say the word Israel, say Israel before you leave this room’. And I was escorted out of the room swiftly, but very politely, by members of the Labour Friends of Israel. I’m simply saying — he is the leader of the Labour party. He needs to show leadership of all his community.”
Asked whether he would continue to support Labour, he replied: “I am not someone who runs from a fight.”
Mr Corbyn was already struggling to gain the trust of Britain’s Jewish community, and this won’t have helped. The Jewish News has splashed comparison figures across it’s front page, highlighting the fact that Prime Minister David Cameron made 20 references to Israel in his speech to the Conservative Friends of Israel last year, while the former Labour leader Ed Miliband made no less than 43 references to Israel in his address to the Labour Friends of Israel at last year’s conference.
The Jewish Chronicle has similarly given the event front page coverage, telling Mr Corbyn “It’s not all that hard to say – it’s I.S.R.A.E.L.”
Mr Corbyn used his speech to again defend his dealings with Palestinian groups on the basis of the need for dialogue, saying: “I have taken an enormous interest in the affairs of the Middle East. I’ve been nine times and met many people – some I agree with, some I don’t. I have neutral opinions on many things.
“But it’s also about dialogue and how you bring about that long-term dialogue. That’s what I want to see.”
However, witnesses say he “lost the crowd” when he referred to the “siege of Gaza,” despite quickly backtracking, as he expressed a hope that “we are able to ensure the siege of Gaza – or the restrictions – on Gaza are lifted”.
Also present at the event was the Labour Knesset member Michal Biran, who slammed Corbyn’s speech as “outrageous,” saying he could have made an effort to see things from Israel’s point of view without abandoning his principles. She told the Jewish News: “It was Labour Friends of Israel and people came to hear about that. The only interesting thing in the speech is what was missing. The fact Corbyn did not mention Israel once suggests what we suspected and feared is accurate.”