By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) - Almost half a century ago, when he first became an active supporter of Britain's Labour Party, Rabbi Abraham Pinter said it had far less of a problem with anti-Semitism than the country as a whole.
But while other political groups have recognized the need to address prejudice against Jews, Pinter said the country's main opposition party was stuck in the past.
Labour now faces accusations of anti-Semitism in its ranks - from its high-profile former London mayor Ken Livingstone, who said Adolf Hitler had supported Zionism, to students at Oxford University. This has fanned concern among Jewish communities already alarmed at increasing levels of hate crimes.
"The Labour Party never recognized it had a problem. It's really where it was 50 years ago," said Pinter, a former Labour councillor who speaks for the orthodox Haredi Jewish community in the Stamford Hill area of north London.
"It's been there and it's still there," he told Reuters.
Some within Labour say they are being accused of anti-Semitism simply for expressing legitimate criticisms of Israel. Senior figures have said prejudice is limited to a small fringe and was being used to smear party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
But the row could play a role in Thursday's London mayoral election. Labour candidate Sadiq Khan, widely tipped to become the capital's first Muslim mayor, said he was appalled by Livingstone's comments and that they could harm his chances in a city home to an estimated 170,000 Jews.
Moshe Menezira, manager of the Kosher Deli in Golders Green in north London, which has a large Jewish community, said there seemed to be a problem within Labour and that it was leading to many Jewish voters reconsidering whether to back Khan.
"I know a lot of Labour supporters but they're in two minds because of what is going on," the 65-year-old said.
Last week, Labour's leadership suspended Livingstone and ordered an inquiry into anti-Semitism in the party following comments the ex-mayor made in a radio interview that Hitler had supported Zionism in the 1930s before "he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews".
Livingstone had been defending a Labour Muslim lawmaker after she apologized for posting online messages which included a suggestion that Israel should be relocated to the United States to solve the problems in the Middle East.
The incidents sparked accusations from Jewish leaders that Labour leaders and those on the British political left were doing too little to combat anti-Semitism in their ranks.
"There is now a cancer in their party and it is getting worse by the day," the Jewish Chronicle newspaper said in an editorial in March. "If Labour is not to lose the last residue of trust from our community, it must recognize and deal with that cancer."
Opponents of Labour have previously leveled accusations of anti-Semitism against socialist Corbyn, who was elected party leader last September. They pointed to a speech he made about the Middle East in 2009, in which he described Hamas and Hezbollah - groups designated as terrorist organizations by Britain and the United States - as "friends".
Conservative Prime Minister raised those comments during heated exchanges with Corbyn in parliament on Wednesday.
"Are they your friends or are they not? Because those organizations in their constitutions believe in persecuting and killing Jews," Cameron said. "They're anti-Semitic organizations, they're racist organizations, he must stand up and say they are not his friends."
Corbyn replied: "Obviously anyone that commits racist acts or is anti-Semitic is not a friend of mine."
The Labour leader has previously said he had used the term friends in "a collective way".
The parliament exchange and the row surrounding Livingstone followed damaging headlines for Labour in February, when the co-chairman of the Oxford University Labour Club quit, saying "a large proportion of both OULC and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews".
On Tuesday, Labour said it had suspended three councillors in northern and central England because of anti-Semitic remarks.
Independent Jewish Voices, a human rights group set up in 2007 which criticizes some of Israel's policies, said it was concerned at sweeping suggestions that anti-Semitism was pervasive in the party.
"We also reiterate our view that the battle against anti-Semitism is undermined whenever opposition to Israeli government policies is automatically branded as anti-Semitic," it said.
But some Jewish leaders say Labour has more than a fringe problem, with anti-Zionism often used as a cover for being anti-Jewish.
"In recent days, we have heard anti-Semitism in the Labour Party described variously as 'a smear' and as 'mood music' being manipulated by political opponents of Jeremy Corbyn," Britain's Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis wrote in Wednesday's Daily Telegraph newspaper.
"There has been nothing more disheartening in this story than the suggestion that this is more about politics than about substance."
The anti-Semitism row is casting a shadow over Khan's push to become mayor of London, a city of about 8.5 million people.
Most Jewish voters say they have no problem with Khan himself, who said he was disgusted by Livingstone's remarks.
"I think the Labour leadership generally needs to act far more decisive and swiftly when these sorts of comments are made," he said on Tuesday. "It can't be right that there are Londoners of Jewish faith who feel the Labour party is not a place for them."
In Golders Green, where Jewish men wearing skull caps push prams along the street past Kosher shops and restaurants that line the main highway, there is real concern that the row engulfing Labour could fuel prejudice in Britain.
Police figures showed an increase of more than 60 percent in anti-Semitic incidents in London last year, while the Community Security Trust, which advises Britain's estimated 280,000 Jews on security matters, said 924 incidents were recorded across the country during 2015, including 86 violent assaults.
Earlier this month, parliament's Home Affairs Committee said it would hold a short inquiry into anti-Semitism over concerns prejudice was on the rise.
In the London Jewish Family Centre in Golders Green, Denise, 61, who declined to give her surname, said anti-Semitism in Britain had got "way worse" since she moved from South Africa four years ago.
"Six to eight weeks ago I was walking across a bridge and a car stopped and the people inside called me a bloody Jew. The first time ever it's happened to me in four years," she said.
The row has been disheartening for Jews involved in Labour politics who support Khan's stance.
Mike Katz, the National Vice-Chairman of the Jewish Labour Movement and a Labour candidate for the London Assembly, said the expansion from about 200,000 to about 380,000 party members since Corbyn became leader had led to the number of people with anti-Semitic views also increasing.
"People over recent years have found it easier to pursue a discourse where it is acceptable to say these things and blur the lines between legitimate criticism of Israel and something which goes far further," he told Reuters.
Rabbi Pinter, who said he was embarrassed that he used to count Livingstone as a friend, said those in Labour who denied there was an issue were part of the problem.
"People are getting concerned that this is causing anti-Semitism to become mainstream. My concern is it's becoming acceptable," he said.
(Editing by Pravin Char)