New UK Labour chief sends condolences to Jewish community for high virus deaths
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New UK Labour chief sends condolences to Jewish community for high virus deaths

In one of his first acts as party leader, Keir Starmer offers assistance to community’s umbrella group amid COVID-19 toll, repeats vow to stamp out anti-Semitism

In this file photo taken on November 21, 2019 Britain's Labour Party shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU Keir Starmer attends the launch of the Labour party election manifesto in Birmingham, northwest England (Oli SCARFF / AFP)
In this file photo taken on November 21, 2019 Britain's Labour Party shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU Keir Starmer attends the launch of the Labour party election manifesto in Birmingham, northwest England (Oli SCARFF / AFP)

In one of his first acts as the British Labour Party’s new leader, Keir Starmer sent a letter to the Jewish community Saturday night expressing his condolences over the high death rate from the coronavirus, and repeating his vow to stamp out anti-Semitism from the party.

“I have been saddened to learn of the particularly high death rate in the Jewish community,” he said in a letter to the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

“Please be assured of my sympathy and solidarity at this time, and if there is anything the Labour Party can do, please let me know,” he wrote.

There have been 85 deaths in the UK Jewish community from COVID-19, the illness cause by the virus, according to the Board of Deputies, the umbrella organization for British Jewish communities.

Britain on Saturday reported a record 708 daily deaths from the coronavirus, including a five-year-old child who is thought to be the country’s youngest victim.

The health ministry said 4,313 people who tested positive for the virus in hospitals had died as of Friday afternoon, while there were 41,903 confirmed cases as of Saturday morning, up 3,735. The toll has been steadily increasing by more than 500 deaths a day this week and the country is bracing for an expected peak in the next week to 10 days.

A patients is helped from an ambulance as they arrive at St Thomas’ Hospital, one of many hospitals that are in the front line of the coronavirus outbreak, in London, March 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Starmer, in his letter to the Board of Deputies, also reiterated his commitment to stamping out anti-Semitism, and invited the representative body to meet with him to discuss the matter further.

Asking to set up a videoconference with the Board of Deputies leadership, Starmer said, “I realize there is a long way to go to rebuild trust and that words now need to be accompanied by decisive action. I will be speaking with the Jewish community in the coming days and setting out the steps we will take to root out anti-Semitism once and for all.”

Starmer on Saturday replaced Jeremy Corbyn as party leader and immediately apologized to the Jewish community for anti-Semitism in Labour’s ranks, calling it a “stain” and pledging to stamp it out.

Accusations of anti-Semitism plagued Labour under Corbyn’s leadership, and were seen as a significant factor in its 2019 election loss.

British Jews deserted the party in droves, many believing 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 last summer.

Corbyn also came under attack for initially refusing to adopt fully the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism in Labour’s new code of conduct.

Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, holds a copy of the manifesto next to Rebecca Long-Bailey on stage at the launch of Labour’s General Election manifesto, at Birmingham City University, England, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

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 against the coronavirus.

“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.”

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