After three years of silence, last week Jeremy Corbyn finally agreed to be interviewed by the Jewish News.
He decided to talk directly to the Jewish community at the moment it needed to hear from him most.
Hours before, the Labour leader witnessed the unprecedented sight of around 1,500 British Jews outside Parliament, protesting against the handling of anti-Semitism in his party. So the timing was telling.
We anticipated something decisive. Something meaningful and overdue. Something, anything, to help put an end to this sorry mess.
With urgency and anticipation, my news editor Justin Cohen and I compiled questions, driven by anger and despair at how this man pays lip-service to his party’s disease. We had to deliver the goods for our readers, abused Jewish MPs and councillors and community members up and down the country who’ve quit the party in fear and disgust.
We prepared 30 questions, one for each minute we’d been granted in Corbyn’s Westminster office. Our opening salvo aimed straight for the jugular: “How does it feel to be accused of anti-Semitism?”… “Are you ashamed 1,500 people protested against you?”… “Why do you swap pleasantries with psychopaths?… “Why is the Palestinian cause more important than anti-Jewish racism in your own country?”
As Justin headed off for his Frost-Nixon duel, word spread. I took calls from anxious community leaders, asking for the interview to be postponed.
A few hours later Justin returned, concerned. In fact, he looked like he’d hit a brick wall fit for an anti-Semitic mural.
He’d asked our sharp questions, only to be blunted by Corbyn bingo: “I’ve fought anti-Semitism all my life.” Check. “I talk to those I disagree with.” Check. “Full implementation of the Chakrabarti report.” Check. “…And other forms of racism”… Full house!
There were morsels. He refused to apologise for marching alongside a Hezbollah flag, admitted anti-Semites latch onto the Palestinian cause and accepted accusations of Labour anti-Semitism were not smears. But everything else was just his greatest hits.
We’d been played. Corbyn had no intention of throwing the community a bone. He simply wanted to cynically divert attention from the Westminster protest by cosying up to a Jewish newspaper.
Our five-page scoop seemed to have all the clout of a Putin Pravda exposé.
Without a clear headline, our front page simply stated our despair: As British Jews said ‘Enough is enough’ on Labour anti-Semitism, we gave Jeremy Corbyn a chance to finally repair the damage. But his answers were simply… Not good enough.
I headed home underwhelmed, fearing we’d blown it.
Next morning, still irritated, I picked up a copy of the newspaper and read the interview with fresh eyes. As obtuse answer followed textbook fudge, I finally saw the forest for the trees.
We asked: Are you ashamed of anti-Semitism? He answered: Yes, but it makes me determined. We asked: Should Ken Livingstone be expelled? He answered: Processes are in place. We asked about attacks on Jewish Labour MP Luciana Berger for fighting anti-Semitism. He answered: The two women who receive the most abuse are Luciana and Diane Abbott. We asked: Do you support Hezbollah, with a gun on its flag? He answered: No. We asked: So should you have been at a Hezbollah march? He answered: I’d rather the flag hadn’t been there.
Nothing I’d read before so clearly illustrated this man’s default blindness to the Jewish community’s fears.
Listen to the recording. He’s ice cold. There’s no hint of human emotion. No moment when he engages in genuine conversation, breaks character or thinks things through. The man is the room, but far removed. It’s chilling.
British Jews should be in no doubt. There can be no common ground with this Labour leader.
So what next?
The Board Of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council, the community’s two main bodies, must decide whether to meet Corbyn in the wake of the Westminster protest.
They are apoplectic about his endorsement in our interview of Jewish Voice For Labour, who led a counter demonstration outside Parliament, claiming the anti-Semitism scandal is a lie to sway May’s local elections. Yes, that’s right. The Labour leader says he takes the concerns of the community seriously while backing a group that derides them. Classic Corbyn.
Should Jewish leaders meet with him? Our interview surely puts that question to bed once and for all.
• First published in The Times