Jeremy Corbyn has said he “learned a lot” at a Passover event hosted by a leftwing Jewish group highly critical of mainstream Jewish bodies, after he was rebuked by MPs for attending.
The Labour leader took part in the seder, the traditional meal of the Jewish festival, organised by Jewdas, which last week accused the Jewish Board of Deputies, Jewish Leadership Council and Jewish Labour Movement of “playing a dangerous game with people’s lives” by organising protests against Corbyn’s handling of anti-semitism in Labour.
The group – which runs alternative Jewish parties, events and a satirical website – said in a statement last week over the Enough Is Enough protests that much of the furore over antisemitism in Labour was “the work of cynical manipulations by people whose express loyalty is to the Conservative party and the right wing of the Labour party”.
Speaking during a visit to Swindon, Corbyn said the event was “a celebration of Passover, which I celebrate with young Jewish people from my own community and my own constituency”.
“It was very interesting talking to a lot of young people about their experiences of modern Britain and I learned a lot. Isn’t that a good thing?”
A spokesman for Corbyn earlier said he attended the event, in his Islington constituency, in a personal capacity and not in his official role as Labour leader, after his attendance was revealed by the Guido Fawkes blog. “He wrote to the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council last week to ask for an urgent formal meeting to discuss tackling antisemitism in the Labour party and in society,” the spokesman said.
Jewdas, a collective that describes itself as “radical voices for the alternative diaspora”, says its members are “synagogue-going Jews, most with either paid or voluntary positions within our communities”. The group has been highly critical of the Israeli government, but has also published pamphlets for pro-Palestinian demonstrations advising activists how to avoid antisemitism in campaigning.
Writing for the Guardian, the group said they were “deeply proud of being Jewish” and criticised Board of Deputies president Jonathan Arkush who told Sky News on Tuesday they were the source of “virulent anti-semitism.”
“The truth is that we love Judaism and Jewish culture, as every one of our events demonstrate,” they said. “To claim that we in Jewdas are somehow ‘not real Jews’ is offensive, and frankly antisemitic.”
Corbyn had been invited by a friend and constituent, the group said, bringing horseradish from his allotment which is one of the traditional items on Seder plate at the Passover meal.
“In a normal situation, you might think that the leader of the opposition attending a seder with a hundred young, committed Jews might be a simple good news story. If you’re determined to brand Jeremy Corbyn an antisemite, it seems that literally any story will do,” they said.
Jon Lansman, the Jewish founder of Momentum, the group that has been a key backer of Corbyn, said a distinction should be drawn between Jewdas and some other leftwing groups. “I think this group, unlike other groups you might describe as a far-left, fringe, Jewish group, are orthodox, they’re embedded in their synagogues and communities. They are part of the community,” he said.
Lansman said Corbyn had gone to the seder on his “night off, his office didn’t know he was there”.
Asked if it was helpful for Corbyn to meet a group whose Twitter account called Israel “a steaming pile of sewage which needs to be properly disposed of”, Lansman said the comment was “certainly not helpful to Jeremy or the cause of opposing antisemitism in the Labour party”.
On Monday, Momentum released a statement from its highest governing body calling for more action against antisemitism in the Labour party, saying it should not be dismissed as a rightwing smear or conspiracy, but was more widespread than many had thought.
Lansman said the crisis had been “something of a shock” for Corbyn who was proud of his anti-racism activism. “I think awareness has grown, it has for all of us,” he said.
Others were more critical of Corbyn’s judgment. Jonathan Goldstein, the chair of the Jewish Leadership Council, said the JLC had “no issue with Jewdas and Jewdas having its opinions that it does”. However, Goldstein said he was surprised the Labour leader had met the group so soon after the breakdown of relations with mainstream Jewish organisations.
“In his first act towards the Jewish community he has gone to sit with a group who describe the JLC and the Board of Deputies’ actions as being a cynical ploy,” he said.
The Labour MP John Woodcock said Corbyn’s attendance at the meeting was “irresponsible and dangerous” and said it was “deliberately baiting the mainstream Jewish community days after they pleaded with him to tackle antisemitism”.
Two Jewish comedians David Baddiel and David Schneider, who have regularly written on the issue of antisemitism and the Labour party, both tweeted that MPs and others should not immediately dismiss Jewdas.
“They are just Jews who disagree with other Jews. Which means: Jews … To make out that it’s somehow antisemitic for him to spend Seder with them just because they’re far left is balls,” Baddiel wrote on Twitter.
Schneider tweeted: “‘Boo! Corbyn needs to get out and meet some Jews!’ (Corbyn spends Passover with some Jews at Jewdas) ‘Boo! Not those Jews!’”
Speaking on Tuesday, Corbyn said he was determined to tackle antisemitism. “If it arises in my party then we have a process for dealing with it. We examine each case and if someone has committed any antisemitic act they are suspended and could be expelled as a result of it,” he said. “Communities working together achieve things together, communities divided don’t.”