Israeli ministers on Saturday welcomed the election of new UK Labour Party chairman Keir Starmer, saying they hope he will eliminate anti-Semitism in the party and strengthen ties between the countries.
“I hope he will live up to his promise to eradicate anti-Semitism that has emerged in the party in recent years and, like former Labour leaders, he will strengthen the friendship between Britain and Israel,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz said in a statement.
Starmer was announced as Labour’s elected leader Saturday morning, replacing Jeremy Corbyn who resigned after the Labour’s crushing December election defeat.
Labor leader Amir Peretz also congratulated his British counterpart, saying it brought hope for ties between the two countries.
“Your victory and commitment to ‘removing the stain of anti-Semitism’ creates hope for Israeli-British relations, and for building political-social partnerships for peace and social justice. Good luck!” said Peretz in a statement.
Accusations of anti-Semitism within party ranks plagued Labour under Corbyn’s leadership, and were seen as a significant factor in its election loss.
British Jews deserted the party in droves because they believed that Labour had become institutionally anti-Semitic under Corbyn, a pro-Palestinian politician who was elected to lead the party in 2015, with widespread accusations that Corbyn himself was an anti-Semite — something he denied.
Corbyn was accused of failing to deal with hundreds of incidents of anti-Semitism within his party. A number of former party officials accused him and his allies of interfering in efforts to address the issue, in a BBC program aired this summer.
Corbyn has come under prolonged attack — including from within the party — for allegedly allowing anti-Semitism to spread in the party and for initially refusing to adopt fully the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism in Labour’s new code of conduct.
Much of the fear of Corbyn was spurred by revelations about his past record that emerged after he became Labour leader. These included him describing Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”; defending an anti-Semitic mural in East London; and a seeming willingness to associate with alleged anti-Semites, terrorists and Holocaust-deniers.
In his victory speech, Starmer acknowledged the party had “a mountain to climb” after four straight general election defeats. But he vowed: “We will climb it.”
He called it “the honor and privilege” of his life to be elected and vowed to “engage constructively” with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, particularly in the fight-back against coronavirus.
The 57-year-old Starmer apologized to the Jewish community for anti-Semitism in Labour’s ranks, calling it a “stain” and pledging to stamp it out.
“We have to face the future with honesty,” he said. “On behalf of the Labour Party, I am sorry… I have seen the grief that [anti-Semitism] brought to so many Jewish communities.
“I will tear out this poison by its roots and judge success by the return of Jewish members and those who felt that they could no longer support us.”
Starmer has previously said he would take action to eliminate prejudice against Jews in his party “on day one” in order to demonstrate “the difference that new leadership will make on the issue.”
He has also said he would look to fully cooperate with the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s report into anti-Semitism in the party, which is currently in the works, but that he had no intention of waiting for its results in order to take action.
Starmer is a former director of state prosecutions and Labour’s Brexit spokesman.
His wife, Victoria Alexander, comes from a Jewish background and through her he has extended family living in Tel Aviv.
“My wife’s family is Jewish. Her dad is Jewish, their family came over from Poland. The extended family live in Israel,” he told Britain’s Jewish News in February.
He has never been to Israel but “we’re in regular contact with them and we’ve got various visits planned, basically to take our kids for the first time.”
He said he has attended Shabbat dinners with his wife’s relatives on numerous occasions and visited London synagogues to attend family bar mitzvahs and weddings.
During a campaign event organized by the Jewish Labour Movement, other party leadership candidates said they were “Zionists” while Starmer was hesitant.
“I do support Zionism,” he later told Jewish News. “I absolutely support the right of Israel to exist as a homeland. My only concern is that Zionism can mean slightly different things to different people, and… to some extent it has been weaponized. I wouldn’t read too much into that. I said it loud and clear — and meant it — that I support Zionism without qualification.”
He also told the Jewish Chronicle: “If the definition of ‘Zionist’ is someone who believes in the state of Israel, in that sense I’m a Zionist.”
Starmer is a member of Labour Friends of Palestine & the Middle East, a parliamentary group that promotes support for the Palestinians and campaigns for “peace and justice in the Middle East through the implementation of international law and respect for human rights.”
Still, it was particularly his personal ties to Judaism that brought Starmer under criticism by some for failing to do enough against anti-Semitism while serving in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet. Some even accused him of seeking to hide his connection to Judaism while the issue was contentious within Labour.
Starmer drew criticism in 2017 when he invited a controversial anti-Israel charity to speak to the House of Commons. The Camden Abu Dis Friendship Association has praised Palestinian suicide bombers who targeted Israeli civilians during the Second Intifada.
The Daily Mail on Saturday published comments reportedly made by the late London Rabbi Dr. David Goldberg, who died last year of cancer. A friend of Goldberg said the rabbi had told him he was “very disappointed with Keir Starmer.
“Particularly as his wife and children are members of my synagogue. It’s their community which is under threat and yet he’s done so little. It’s pathetic,” Goldberg’s friend quoted him as saying.
AFP contributed to this report.