LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks has called Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn an anti-Semite and said comments about Zionists he made five years ago were the most offensive by a senior UK politician in half a century.
Labour has been battling accusations of anti-Semitism for months, and Corbyn has previously apologised for what he has described as “pockets” of anti-Semitism in his party.
Sacks, who was Britain’s chief rabbi from 1991 to 2013, accused Corbyn of having “given support to racists, terrorists and dealers of hate who want to kill Jews and remove Israel from the map”.
He said Corbyn had depicted a group of British citizens as “essentially alien” when it was revealed last week he said in 2013 that British Zionists “don’t understand English irony” despite “having lived in this country for a very long time”.
“When he implies that, however long they have lived here, Jews are not fully British, he is using the language of classic pre-war European anti-Semitism,” Sacks told the New Statesman political magazine.
“Now, within living memory of the Holocaust, and while Jews are being murdered elsewhere in Europe for being Jews, we have an anti-Semite as the leader of the Labour party and Her Majesty’s opposition. That is why Jews feel so threatened by Mr Corbyn and those who support him.”
Labour said in a statement there is no place for anti-Semitism in their party and that they are committed to rebuilding trust with the Jewish community.
Some opinion polls put Labour ahead or level with Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives, meaning he is a potential British leader, although the next election is not due until 2022.
Sacks compared Corbyn’s comments to the infamous “Rivers of blood” speech by Enoch Powell in 1968 in which the then-Conservative shadow cabinet member warned of the dangers of immigration. His speech is widely regarded as one of the most divisive made by a modern British politician.
Labour dismissed the comparison with Powell as “absurd and offensive”.
Since unexpectedly becoming Labour leader in 2015 after decades spent on the left-wing fringes of the party, Corbyn has repeatedly faced accusations of turning a blind eye to anti-Semitic comments in the party and among groups he supports.
Corbyn has responded to protests by meeting Jewish community leaders, reassuring Jewish people they are welcome in the party.
In his 2013 speech to a meeting convened by the Palestinian Return Centre, Corbyn spoke about the importance of history and of how necessary it was for people to understand the origins of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
He said Zionists had “two problems” - firstly, that they do not study history and, secondly, they do not understand English irony.
After the emergence of footage, Labour asserted that Corbyn had been referring to a “group of pro-Israel activists” and had not been singling out Jewish people as a whole.
Reporting by Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Mark Heinrich