Israel’s divide threatens its future, says Jewish MP who left and rejoined UK Labour

Luciana Berger, who faced antisemitic abuse during the Jeremy Corbyn years, shares her worries over local judicial fight, but is encouraged by popular engagement during protests

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Former Labour party MP Luciana Berger speaks during a press conference in London on February 18, 2019, where she and colleagues announced their resignation from the Labour Party, and the formation of a new independent group of MPs. (Photo by Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)
Former Labour party MP Luciana Berger speaks during a press conference in London on February 18, 2019, where she and colleagues announced their resignation from the Labour Party, and the formation of a new independent group of MPs. (Photo by Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)

As tens of thousands of demonstrators took to Israel’s streets on Tuesday, a prominent Jewish former lawmaker who left the UK Labour party over antisemitism said that the fight over judicial reform has her concerned about the country’s future.

“This is the first time I’m in the country where I’m worried for the country internally in a way that I haven’t been before,” Luciana Berger told The Times of Israel in Jerusalem.

“It’s polarization,” the 42-year-old London resident continued. “I think it’s the fact that Israel feels more divided internally than it ever has done before, and what that means for the future of the country and the future of the Jewish state.”

Police clashed with demonstrators at rallies across the country, which blocked roads in protest of the judicial overhaul being advanced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

The demonstrations came hours after the Knesset approved the first reading of a bill to curtail the Supreme Court’s oversight powers.

However, Berger also saw a silver lining in the ongoing protests.

Israeli police use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators blocking a road during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, July 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

“I’m buoyed to see the strength of Israeli civil society and to see the response that has happened, as so many people have been outraged, people that haven’t been so politically involved or engaged before.”

In February, Berger said she would return to the opposition party at the invitation of its leader, Keir Starmer.

Berger tweeted that “the Labour Party has turned a significant corner under Keir’s leadership.”

“I’m pleased to be returning to my political home,” she wrote, and said she is “looking forwards to re-joining the party.”

Berger resigned from Labour in 2019 under former chief Jeremy Corbyn, whom she accused of not doing enough to stamp out institutional antisemitism in the party. She later campaigned unsuccessfully for a rival party.

Former Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a protest rally in central London on March 11, 2023. (Susannah Ireland/AFP)

Berger said that she had been a particular target of hate because she was
the parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour movement and an MP from Liverpool.

“Local members had been welcomed back into the fold under Corbyn’s leadership, people that previously been consigned to the history book, that had been senior members of the militant tendency, were allowed back into the Labour Party,” she recounted. “And those are the people that were at my meetings. The combination of that was pretty unpleasant experience.”

Berger said the party was “like a cult” to Corbyn during his leadership of the party. “There was no humanity. It was extraordinary.”

She said she had last spoken to Corbyn in 2017 about the antisemitism in the Labour Party, but he didn’t do anything about it.

“From 2013 onwards, I saw six people convicted of the death threats, the antisemitism that they had directed towards me,” Berger said. “Four of those went to prison.”

Prior to quitting Labour, Berger faced a no-confidence vote, later canceled, by local party members who said she was “continuously criticizing” leader Corbyn amid the ongoing row over antisemitism in the party. Someone called her a “disruptive Zionist.”

Keir Starmer, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party waves next to his wife Victoria after making his speech at the party’s annual conference in Liverpool, England, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

“It was a very dark time and ultimately I left the Labour Party because it no longer resembled the party, it no longer held the values which led me to join it in the first place.”

After leaving Labour she formed The Independent Group with six other resigning MPs from Labour 2019. The party later became Change UK, but Berger left in June 2019.

The UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2020 found Labour guilty of unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination against Jewish members.

Corbyn rejected some of the findings, leading to his suspension from the party. Starmer has said Corbyn will not be allowed to run as a Labour candidate in the next election.

Illustrative: In this December 9, 2019 file photo, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a rally outside Bristol City Council while on the election campaign trail, in Bristol, England. (Joe Giddens/PA via AP)

Berger said part of her decision to return to the party was the leadership shown by Starmer on rooting out antisemitism in the party.

“He hasn’t shied away from it,” she said. “He’s spoken about it consistently in many different public forums.”

Starmer took over as Labour leader in 2020 after Corbyn stepped down following the party’s defeat in elections.

“There’s been proper due process and investigations by the internal legal team that have led to them being expelled or they left voluntarily,” she said of Labour’s antisemitic members. “The makeup of the Labour Party today is very, very different because of its membership to what it was before.”

Berger is in Israel with six other Labour lawmakers and candidates as part of a Labour Friends of Israel delegation. They met with President Isaac Herzog, head of the Knesset UK friendship committee Hanoch Milwidsky of Likud, and a senior Palestinian Authority official in Tel Aviv.

They are also visiting the Magen David Adom emergency service to study new ways Israeli medical technology can contribute to the UK’s National Health Service.

“One in seven drugs provided by the NHS come from Israel,” she pointed out. “I am reminded of the difference that Israel makes to the health and well-being of our nation.”

Members of the Labour Friends of Israel meet President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem, July 10, 2023 (Labour Friends of Israel)

She said she is confident that the UK-Israel relationship would continue to improve under a Starmer premiership, and noted that the party has spoken on multiple occasions about designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization.

After the Corbyn years, Berger said she is optimistic about the future for British Jewry.

“Three years on, we’re in a very different place and we now have, in our two party system, two parties that I think are proactively, supportive and engaging with the British Jewish community.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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