InterviewCorbyn's antipathy to Jews 'nonnegotiable, a moral absolute'

Ex-Labour MP who got rats on doorstep says now’s time to tackle anti-Semitism

Joan Ryan quit parliament after receiving death threats for defending Israel. Now, following Corbyn’s defeat, the party must reassert its character and its values, she urges

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Ex-Labour MP Joan Ryan in Jerusalem, December 15, 2019. (courtesy Sivan Farage)
Ex-Labour MP Joan Ryan in Jerusalem, December 15, 2019. (courtesy Sivan Farage)

Before last week’s general election, former UK lawmaker Joan Ryan chose not to reveal the massive abuse she suffered for what she believes was her role as the Labour Party’s leading pro-Israel advocate.

But now that the die has been cast — with her former political home and its prime ministerial hopeful, Jeremy Corbyn, having been handed a massive defeat by the Conservatives and its triumphant leader, Boris Johnson — Ryan no longer wants to be silent about the personal price she had to pay for her stance on Israel.

She received several death threats. Dead rats were placed in front of her doorstep twice. And a letter slipped under the door of her House of Commons office, likely by someone who had regular access to the corridors where parliamentarians’ private offices are located, called her a “Jew whore” who should be “shoved back in the oven.”

“These are attempts to frighten you and intimidate you and bully you. It’s toxic. It’s the kind of atmosphere and behavior that’s been brought into the party over the last few years,” she told The Times of Israel in an interview in Jerusalem on Sunday.

There are now more anti-Semites in the Labour Party than we’ve ever known before

Ryan, who is not Jewish, said she does not know who was responsible for those acts, but presumed that they were perpetrated by anti-Semites. It wouldn’t be surprising if it had been fellow Labourites, she added.

“Because the infiltration and mass entries into the Labour Party of every hard-left extremist you’ve almost ever heard of means that there are now more anti-Semites in the Labour Party than we’ve ever known before,” she said.

“That has to be dealt with. You have to stand up to that kind of thing, because it gets worse if you don’t,” she said.

Ryan herself has suffered the consequences of what she called the “Corbynization” of Labour. She quit the party after 40 years, during which she held various positions both in government and in the opposition, including, for the last four years, chair of Labour Friends of Israel.

Former Labour Party and now members of The Independent Group of MPs (L-R front row) Gavin Shuker, Joan Ryan, Mike Gapes and Angela Smith listen as they attend a press conference being given by their new colleagues, former Conservative Party and now Independent MPs, Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston, in central London on February 20, 2019, following their resignation from the Conservative Party in a joint letter. (Niklas HALLE’N / AFP)

Happy about Corbyn’s decisive loss, she is now urging her former colleagues to actively root out the anti-Semitism that she says has infested the party.

“They’ve got to stand up and speak up and take action, as Labour MPs, as leaders, and do all that they can to drive this out,” she said. “The last thing we need now is Jeremy Corbyn replaced with another [leader] with his views. That won’t help matters.”

After his drubbing at the ballot, Corbyn publicly vowed that “Our time will come,” and called for a “resistance” to Boris Johnson. But he has said he will step down next year, and the party he heads has started the process of replacing him.

Ryan, who formally left Labour in February and in September announced she would not run in the December 12 general election, said she noticed a handful of “moderate, decent, center-left Labour Party members” beginning to speak out against Corbyn.

“The Labour Party needs now to reassert its character, its values and its principles — the ones it’s founded on, the ones it adhered to and practiced over many years,” she said.

“It might be a very hard struggle. They might not be able to do it all in one fell swoop. But they’ve got to start that effort to find the way back for the Labour Party — and not just for themselves, because the people of the UK need a decent center-left party to be able to look to and to be able to vote for. So that when we come to the next general election they’re not faced with a poor choice or no choice.”

Ryan, who was MP for Enfield North, a London suburb, from 1997 to 2010 and from 2015 to November of 2019, spoke to The Times of Israel on the sidelines of a convention of the International Institute for Strategic Leadership Dialogue in Jerusalem this week.

The forum, founded by French-Israeli businessman Albert Dadon, is bringing together lawmakers and professionals from Israel, the UK Australia.

If we woke up on Friday the 13th to find that [Corbyn] had won and that he’d be in Number 10, that would have been a disaster of untold proportions. He is palpably not fit for public office. He’s not fit to be prime minister

As a Labour veteran, Ryan, 64, was “obviously very sad” about what happened to her former party, she said. “But I am also very relieved.”

“We simply could not countenance the idea of having an anti-Semite as our prime minister,” she said. “If we woke up on Friday the 13th to find that he had won and that he’d be in Number 10, that would have been a disaster of untold proportions. He is palpably not fit for public office. He’s not fit to be prime minister.”

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson waves outside 10 Downing Street in London, December 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

The British public is not anti-Semitic, Ryan insisted. “They’re decent, democratic people and they want stability and a decent government and a prime minister they can respect. And Labour gave them no choice. That’s a tragedy.”

Given the ongoing political tussle over Brexit, many people in the UK felt last week’s election was the most important of their lifetime, she said. “Like me, I think millions of people feel politically homeless. They didn’t want to vote for Boris Johnson — some did, many didn’t. But they wanted Jeremy Corbyn even less.”

A hatred of Israel and the Jewish people would have been enough to disqualify him, Ryan said. But Corbyn was problematic for various other reasons, she added.

“His anti-Semitism comes from his world view, his political ideology, which is a very hard-left, extremist ideology that is based on wanting to tear down and defeat capitalism. All his political life he’s been engaging in what he understands to be a class war.

“And because he sees America, Israel and even his country, the UK, as flag bearers for capitalism, as perpetrators of capitalism, he doesn’t just want to reform it to make life fairer and better for most people,” Ryan said. “He wants to tear it down. And because he views Israel as a colonial, occupying power, because he sees Israel as part of this imperialism of the West, they then are his enemy.”

‘Anti-Semitism won’t just disappear from Labour’

Ryan, who was born in Warrington, a town 20 miles east of Liverpool, also assailed Corbyn’s economic platform and his “misleading policies” on Brexit. “His economic policies just didn’t add up, just didn’t make sense. He was promising everything to everybody, no matter how many billions it was going to cost. People know this was not going to be coherent, and couldn’t be trusted.”

And yet, many Labourites could have swallowed these policies and remained in the party — if it weren’t for his dislike of Jews, she said.

“His anti-Semitism is not about arguing a policy. It’s nonnegotiable. It’s a moral absolute.”

Labour should be the very first party to combat anti-Semitism, but under Corbyn it has become the perpetrator, she charged. “He allowed it to be normalized in the Labour Party. It became mainstream. That’s not what Labour is about.”

To be sure, anti-Semitism won’t just disappear from Labour because of the election result, she warned. “You have to take action. If left to its own devices, and to those who either don’t recognize it or are willing to perpetuate it, it will spread like a poison,” she said.

“We do now stand at a crossroads. And that’s a heck of a more positive place we were at this time last week,” she said. It’s still unclear whether Corbyn’s defeat will take Labour back to where it needs to be. “But at least now there is a chance for that to happen.”

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed