TO SAY that Owen Jones’s decision to speak at a Jewish Labour Movement event has caused dissent doesn’t really come close.
The influential left-wing columnist has received death threats and been accused of operating as a “stooge” for the Israeli government since he agreed to give the inaugural memorial lecture in honour of his friend and JLM stalwart, Henry Smith.
But Mr Jones, who backed Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign to be Labour leader two years ago, says he will not be bullied by elements on the left who are determined to put him off speaking at Sunday’s event.
An open critic of Israel, the Guardian writer is billed to talk about antisemitism and the Middle East. He says he “faced a huge amount of aggressive resistance, some of it quite intimidating” when it was announced he would give the lecture.
He tells the JC: “My view is the left has to battle to rid itself of anything that is fatal to what it exists to do — and that is to build an inclusive society for all.”
Mr Jones — best friend of former JLM chair Mr Smith’s son Stefan for more than 15 years — says it “horrified” him to learn that Jews no longer feel the Labour movement is a place for them.
It was hearing about Mr Smith’s family experience under the Nazis that helped Mr Jones develop his understanding of contemporary antisemitism and the experience of British Jews today. He explains: “Without sounding like a cliché, a lot my friends are grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and Stef’s family were killed in their dozens in the Holocaust. “Once, we spent a weekend in Berlin and we went to a track where many of his family were transported to be killed. That sort of experience has undoubtedly informed my knowledge.” Mr Jones, who has attended Friday night Shabbat dinners with his Jewish friends, says he wants to “speak out about antisemitism” because of their experiences.
“They have educated me,” he says.
The left must act in solidarity with Britain’s Jews, he believes, after a “collective failure of the leadership of the Labour party to deal with antisemitism.
“I am not Jewish and it is not my experience, but the test for me is to ask, ‘do they feel the left it is a welcoming place for them?’ And until the answer is yes, it is a failure.”
Mr Jones acknowledges Labour’s decision to commission an inquiry into antisemitism last summer, but adds: “A lot of the damage had been done already.”
If the party is to avoid a “calamitous defeat”, Jeremy Corbyn should stand down in exchange for someone else, “who supports tax justice, public ownership and a just foreign policy.
“The polling speaks for itself. If he doesn’t [step down], right-wing populism which is sweeping the nation will be emboldened, and that can’t be allowed to happen.”
The 32-year-old, who lives in Islington, north London, says those on the left who respond to antisemitism by questioning the policies of the Israeli government, are part of the problem.
“You get this classic blaming thing when you talk about antisemitism, and people go ‘well what about Israel?’. It is just wrong.”
Mr Jones — whose own condemnation of Israel during the Gaza conflict of 2014 made headlines — says it was ridiculous for his critics to suggest he should not talk to supporters of Israel. “Lots of my friends who are Jewish describe themselves as Zionists. They are supporters of Israel but that does not mean they don’t criticise the government.
“What do people want? For me not to stand with any Jews in Britain? Or have a dialogue, unless they are part of the one per cent of the Jewish community who don’t describe themselves as Zionists?
“It is ridiculous.”
Mr Jones, who has never been to Israel, has been invited to visit a friend in the country and says he looks forward to exploring both Israel and the Palestinian territories.
He does not support academic or cultural boycotts, because there was a danger “you end up indiscriminately targeting Jewish people”.
“I’ve never been involved in BDS, but I do support boycotts of products from illegal settlements. I think those settlements shouldn’t be there and they are a disgrace.”
He adds that pro-Palestinian movements have a responsibility to confront the “small minority” within them who “are susceptible to indulging in antisemitic tropes,” particularly at demonstrations.
“My Jewish friends often feel uncomfortable and it is not because they uncritically support the Israeli government or don’t support Palestinians.”