New Democratic Party MP Niki Ashton is defending her coming appearance alongside the “disgraced” former leader of the U.K.’s Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, as being about “current events” and “how to build international solidarity.”
Jewish groups in both Canada and Britain have denounced the virtual event, saying the “toxic” Corbyn was disgraced and suspended as Labour leader for failing to stamp out anti-Semitism in party ranks, and was even seen as fanning its flames.
The online program, “Building Solidarity,” is slated for March 20 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. It will feature a conversation between Ashton and Corbyn, in support of Progressive International, a global network of progressive thinkers and politicians founded in 2018, and in which Ashton is a Canadian member.
The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews said her group was “astonished” to learn of the event.
“The absurdity of this is hard to fathom,” said Marie van der Zyl in a statement.
She said Corbyn presided over the creation of a “toxic” environment in Labour that was condemned by the U.K.’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
Van der Zyl noted that in its report issued last October, the EHRC stated “flatly that under Corbyn’s brand of toxic and incompetent leadership,” the party was responsible for three breaches: political interference in complaints of anti-Semitism; failure to provide adequate training to those handling anti-Semitism complaints; and harassment, including the use of anti-Semitic tropes and suggesting that complaints of anti-Semitism were fake or smears.
She said the report pointed to a culture within the party “which, at best, did not do enough to prevent anti-Semitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it.”
Because “fringe activism infused with Jew hatred was allowed to take root,” Britain’s Jewish community was “targeted and forced out of the party, anti-Semites in broader society were emboldened, and Labour fell to its worst electoral result since 1935,” said van der Zyl. Corbyn “profoundly failed progressives and the issues they seek to advance.”
The NDP should view what happened in the U.K. as “a cautionary tale,” she added.
Corbyn replied to the report by saying the scale of anti-Semitism in the party had been “dramatically overstated” by his opponents, a comment that prompted the party to suspend him – a decision that was defended by new Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. Corbyn later withdrew his statement and was allowed to reapply for party membership.
“Jeremy Corbyn is toxic,” echoed Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). “Corbyn’s brand of politics creates space for anti-Semitism and hate to take root. That devastated the Labour party in the U.K.”
The description of the virtual program at Eventbrite offers a starkly different take: “Jeremy Corbyn knows what it’s like to offer a principled vision that makes a difference in people’s lives. He knows what it’s like to take on regressive voices that want to stand in the way of real change.
“We have right-wing parties that engage and promote racist policies that do harm to so many of our communities, or centre- right parties that do the same, but with a smile,” it said.
In a written statement to The CJN, Ashton said Corbyn “has fought for peace and justice and against racism of all forms, throughout his life.”
The two will discuss “current events and how to build international solidarity.”
“As I have focused on the huge challenges in our region during COVID-19, it is clear that there must be fundamental change,” Ashton wrote. “I look forward to connecting with progressive activists through this event and other upcoming events and focus on how we can bring about that fundamental change here in Canada and around the world. I am proud to stand with Progressive International in pursuit of peace and justice,” Ashton wrote.
Her assistant prefaced the MP’s remarks by telling The CJN that after initial reports of the event, “we have received many messages of support, including from the Jewish community.”
Fogel found it “staggering that given the litany of catastrophic, consequential issues before us, including the pandemic, that this is where some in the NDP want to spend the party’s capital. What is at stake here is the soul of NDP, nothing less.”
A spokesperson for NDP leader Jagmeet Singh told Postmedia that Ashton never asked the party for permission before agreeing to participate in the virtual conversation, and that the party found out about it shortly before it was posted on social media.“Jagmeet Singh and New Democrats are committed to fighting anti-Semitism and will continue to push the Liberals to take more concrete actions, like tackling online hate, to combat it,” press secretary Nina Amrov told Postmedia in a statement.
In a tweet, Rick Smith, head of the Broadbent Institute, a think-tank named for former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, called the event with Ashton and Corbyn “very unfortunate.”
The EHRC report on Corbyn, Smith noted, “makes for sobering and distressing reading. This is not the sort of person that should headline a progressive fundraiser or occupy the time of Canadian progressive leaders.”
Former Liberal MP Michael Levitt, now CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, said it was “deeply disappointing to see a sitting NDP MP promoting Jeremy Corbyn.”
His organization is asking Singh “to stand with our community in roundly rejecting the discriminatory and divisive brand of politics associated with Corbyn.”
In a statement on March 4, Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV), known for its vocal support for Palestinian rights, denounced CIJA’s “brazen attempt” to “smear” Ashton.
CIJA attempts to “delegitimize progressives such as Ashton and Corbyn simply because of their support for Palestinian human rights,” the group said.
Corbyn, said Corey Balsam, IJV’s national coordinator, “is no anti-Semite,” and actually has “a long history of standing with Jewish communities in the UK against racism, fascism, and the far right.” He also “unapologetically” stood for Palestinian human rights.
Balsam said there’s no evidence that anti-Semitism was any worse in the Labour party under Corbyn’s leadership than in any other British political party.