Jeremy Corbyn has admitted “regret” after he made a “general comment” that appeared to defend an anti-Semitic mural, and drew criticism from his own MPs.
The Labour leader was facing a backlash on Friday afternoon after Liverpool Wavertree MP Lucia Berger posted a screengrab from a Facebook entry by artist MEAR ONE in 2012.
In it the artist complained that their painting, featuring caricatures of Jewish men playing monopoly, was being painted over.
The artist wrote: “Tomorrow they want to buff my mural. Freedom of expression. London calling. Public art.”
Corbyn commented on the post and appeared to condemn the removal of the painting.
His response suggested the artist was “in good company” because the Rockefeller family had covered over a mural featuring Lenin in their New York development.
The then backbench MP: “Why? You are in good company. Rockerfeller (sic) destroyed Diego Viera’s (sic) mural because it includes a picture of Lenin.”
As the Labour leader faced a backlash, a spokesperson said Corbyn was “responding to concerns about the removal of public art on grounds of freedom of speech”, adding: “However, the mural was offensive, used antisemitic imagery, which has no place in our society, and it is right that it was removed.”
Later, a fuller statement was published in Corbyn’s name:
“In 2012 I made a general comment about the removal of public art on grounds of freedom of speech. My comment referred to the destruction of the mural ‘Man at the Crossroads’ by Diego Rivera on the Rockefeller Center.
“That is in no way comparable with the mural in the original post. I sincerely regret that I did not look more closely at the image I was commenting on, the contents of which are deeply disturbing and anti-Semitic. I wholeheartedly support its removal.
“I am opposed to the production of anti-Semitic material of any kind, and the defence of free speech cannot be used as a justification for the promotion of anti-Semitism in any form. That is a view I’ve always held.
“The Tower Hamlets mural I celebrate is the one which commemorates the mobilization of East London’s Jewish community in the anti-fascist demonstrations against Mosley’s Blackshirts in Cable Street in 1936.”
Berger, the parliamentary chair of Jewish Labour, said on Twitter she had asked Corbyn’s office for an “explanation”.
Corbyn’s premiership has been dogged by accusations that he has allowed anti-semitism to flourish in the party rank and file.
After Corbyn sacked Owen Smith from his Shadow Cabinet the same day, Ilford North Labour MP Wes Streeting said: “If only anti-semites were dealt with as swiftly as remainers.”
Luton South MP Gavin Shuker said: “It’s impossible to confront anti-Semitism in our party if this is the response from the very top.”
The Jewish Labour Movement said: “Anti-Semitic art is anti-Semitism.
“History is littered with imagery that has reaffirmed the worst kinds of racial stereotypes and led to the worst kinds of racial discrimination.
“It cannot be defended under any circumstances. Not by anyone and least of all the leader of the Labour Party.”
The mural, in east London, was painted by Mear One – whose real name is Kalen Ockerman – and depicted a group of businessmen playing a Monopoly-style game on a board balanced on the backs of people.
The artist denied being anti-Semitic, saying the mural is about “class and privilege” and contains a group of bankers “made up of Jewish and white Anglos”.