Corbyn on Israel and ISIS: Why he should know better

Labour party leader Jeremy CorbynReuters

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's detractors will find any excuse to bring him down – especially this week. But this morning's reports that Corbyn had compared Israel to ISIS looked like they weren't merely attacks from antagonistic MPs. Corbyn made his remarks at the launch on an inquiry into antisemitism in the Labour party – after a string of incidents where Labour members have made offensive comments about Jewish people.

However, to look closely at his statement, Corbyn didn't directly compare Islamic State to Israel. He said, "Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those various self-styled Islamic States or organisations."

Let's be clear, this is a pretty clumsy turn of phrase. As so often with Corbyn, communication is a big problem and we're left having to intuit his meaning from an ambiguous sentence. In the context of problems of antisemitism among some Labour members, he would have been well advised to say nothing of the sort. But the phrase is out there and it's being reported as fact that he compared Israel to ISIS.

The phrase could be read in one of two ways. To be generous to him, it may be that when he says "self-styled Islamic States", he is referring to Muslim countries such as Iran or Malaysia, in which Islam is the state religion.

To read the phrase in a less generous way, it looks like Corbyn might, although he didn't say it outright, have been insinuating an equivalence between Islamic State and Israel. This is clearly very problematic.

Israel is a legitimate state. It was founded in response to the worst calamity in human history – the Holocaust – and remains a safe haven for Jewish people who are still sadly victims of persecution on many countries around the world.

Israel has a democratic system, it has a functioning legal system, a free press, and Israel is a place where it is safe to be a woman, to be gay or to be disabled. I have Israeli friends who campaign against their government and for human rights alongside Palestinian activists – their society frowns upon them but allows them to do this.

Israel has problems – not least the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, the treatment of Arab Israelis and other minorities, the detention of children, and an increasingly right wing, nationalistic government. The disproportionate number of deaths on the Palestinian side in recent conflicts with Israel is utterly tragic.

Despite these problems, and they are not insignificant, it is clear to see why even the insinuation of equivalence between Israel and ISIS is utterly wrong. Women, gay people, disabled people, and other minorities are not just unsafe in ISIS controlled territory – they are actively persecuted.

ISIS is brutal almost beyond comprehension. Rape is used as a weapon of war, people are thrown from buildings and children are maimed simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. ISIS has not only confined its reign of terror to the Middle East but has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks and atrocities in Turkey and elsewhere.

There is far more that could be said about the depth of the depravity of ISIS. But the point is surely clear by now – any comparison or suggestion of equivalence with Israel is wrong.

In addition to Corbyn's comments he was rightly criticised for failing to intervene when a Jewish Labour MP was brought to tears by a protestor in the audience at the launch.

The Labour party has had a number of distasteful incidents of anti-semitism in recent months, so for Corbyn to be anything less than clear about what he meant was deeply unhelpful. The sin of antisemitism has been passed down the generations. It must be purged from British society and politicians should be leading from the front.