Jeremy Corbyn has defended his statement – made in 2013 – that a group of Zionists had “no sense of irony” despite “having lived in this country for a very long time”, as he sought to quell the latest bitter row over alleged antisemitism in his party.
The Labour leader sought to clarify remarks he made at a conference in 2013, which had sparked criticism from more than a dozen MPs and led to growing pressure for an apology.
In a statement issued on Friday night, Corbyn said he had used the term Zionist “in the accurate political sense and not as a euphemism for Jewish people”.
He added: “I am now more careful with how I might use the term ‘Zionist’ because a once self-identifying political term has been increasingly hijacked by antisemites as code for Jews.”
Corbyn insisted he had “defended the Palestinian ambassador in the face of what I thought were deliberate misrepresentations by people for whom English was a first language, when it isn’t for the ambassador”.
In a speech to a meeting convened by the Palestinian Return Centre in 2013, 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 then praised a speech he had recently heard by Manuel Hassassian at a meeting in parliament in which the Palestinian ambassador to the UK gave an “incredibly powerful” account of the history of Palestine.
Corbyn then added: “This was dutifully recorded by the, thankfully silent, Zionists who were in the audience on that occasion, and then came up and berated him afterwards for what he had said.
“They clearly have two problems. One is that they don’t want to study history, and secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, don’t understand English irony either. Manuel does understand English irony, and uses it very effectively. So I think they needed two lessons, which we can perhaps help them with.”
Responding to Corbyn’s statement on Friday night, the Ilford North Labour MP Wes Streeting said: “His non-apology would be a tad more convincing if it was accompanied the ‘militant fight against antisemitism’ we were promised.
“Social media is full of people acting in his name perpetuating a torrent of abuse and antisemitic language. At some point, Jeremy Corbyn might conclude the problem is Jeremy Corbyn.”
After the video was posted on MailOnline on Thursday, Corbyn was condemned by several Labour MPs.
Luciana Berger, the parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, tweeted: “The video released today of the leader of @UKLabour making inexcusable comments – defended by a party spokesman – makes me as a proud British Jew feel unwelcome in my own party. I’ve lived in Britain all my life and I don’t need any lessons in history/irony.”
Labour MP Mike Gapes said he was in “total solidarity” with Berger and was “sickened by the racism and antisemitism at the top of our party”.
Another Labour MP said the video of Corbyn’s comments had sparked “explosive” discussions among backbenchers on private WhatsApp groups, with some wondering about their future in the party.
One of the activists Corbyn apparently referred to in his remarks, Richard Millett, told the Times his family had lived in England for more than a century. “I am English. I have been part of English irony, humour, culture, for the last 50 years. It just seems to be that I am not part of Jeremy Corbyn’s Britain,” he said.
The Chakrabarti report into antisemitism (pdf) in the Labour party, written by Corbyn’s close ally, Shami Chakrabarti, detailed “the way in which the word ‘Zionist’ has been used personally, abusively, or as a euphemism for ‘Jew’”.
Corbyn’s statement on Friday, directly addressing criticisms of his remarks, contrasted with Labour’s approach to a recent row over his attendance at a wreath-laying ceremony in Tunis in 2014, which resulted in the party complaining to the press regulator about a number of newspapers.
The video has reginited a row Labour hoped it had left behind, after Corbyn captured headlines earlier this week with a series of radical policies for reforming the media.
The Conservatives seized on the footage, with Helen Grant, the party’s vice-chair, writing to the parliamentary commissioner for standards to urge her to investigate.
In her letter, Grant suggested Corbyn’s remarks had breached clause 17 of the members’ code of conduct, which covers “action which would cause significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole or of its members generally”.
She wrote: “It is clear that Mr Corbyn has not reached the bar set by the code of conduct for members, and I therefore ask that you investigate.”
Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about the row, John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor and a close ally of Corbyn, said the leader’s words had been taken out of context.
“In certain contexts, certain phrases are appropriate. To take them out of context is unacceptable and I think is not helping the issue, it’s exacerbating the issue,” he said.
A Labour spokesperson added on Friday night: “This was a speech about the need to better teach the history of Israel-Palestine and about the brutality of colonialism, occupation and dispossession.
“A section of the speech that was edited out of the footage posted on YouTube sets his comments in context. He had been speaking about Zionists and non-Zionist Jews and very clearly does not go on to use Zionists as any kind of shorthand for Jews.”