Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry has become the most senior member of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s team to endorse an internationally accepted definition of anti-Semitism, answering a key demand of moderate MPs and Jewish leaders.
Mr Corbyn has been mired in controversy over anti-Semitism, partly focused on how Labour handles alleged abuse of Jews by party members.
Frank Field, one of Labour’s longest-serving MPs, last week resigned the whip at Westminster after saying the party had become “a force for anti-Semitism”.
Advisers to Mr Corbyn have opposed adopting some of the examples associated with the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of anti-Semitism in Labour’s rule book, arguing that they would constrain criticism of Israel.
But Ms Thornberry told the Financial Times: “My view is that we should adopt the full definition with the examples . . . I understand why people looked at some of the examples and thought, ‘Hang on a minute, how can we implement this? Might it mean that people can’t criticise the state of Israel?’ My interpretation is that clearly, we can. I’ve read a number of legal advices that say that we can.
“It’s our duty, in my view, as the Labour party, to criticise the Netanyahu government and what the Netanyahu government is doing to Israel — let alone what it’s doing to the Palestinians,” said Ms Thornberry, adding that there was “very little difference” between her criticism of Israel and the UK government’s.
Former prime minister Gordon Brown said on Sunday that Labour should adopt the IHRA definition “unanimously, unequivocally and immediately”, adding this was “about the soul of the Labour party”.
Labour’s ruling national executive committee meets on Tuesday to decide on the issue, with one proposal on the table being for the party to adopt the IHRA definition and examples, but to add a further proviso protecting free speech.
However, the proposal risks further antagonising the Jewish community because of the proviso.
The anti-Semitism row escalated over the summer after images emerged of Mr Corbyn laying a wreath near a memorial to Palestinian terrorists and a video in which the Labour leader said Zionists did not understand English irony.
This prompted the former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks to last month accuse Mr Corbyn of making the “most offensive” remarks by a senior British politician since Enoch Powell’s notorious 1968 “rivers of blood” speech.
Lord Sacks told the BBC he was not prepared to meet Mr Corbyn until the Labour leader performed “a clear recanting” of his past positions and stopped “the persecution” of his critics within Labour.
Mr Corbyn has insisted he is not anti-Semitic, and said he has fought racism throughout his life.
His handling of anti-Semitism and Brexit has led to speculation that several MPs may leave the party.
David Lammy, the pro-EU MP for Tottenham, said Labour could “stop a split with a single press release” — by backing a referendum on the terms of Brexit.
Labour’s current position is to keep all options on the table, although shadow chancellor John McDonnell said his preference would be a general election if parliament rejected Theresa May’s Brexit deal with Brussels.
One MP said Mr Corbyn’s critics have discussed a vote of no-confidence in the Labour leader, although it was “unlikely to be feasible” before the party’s conference this month.