New UK Labour head is flushing out anti-Semitism. Where will he stand on Israel?
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Analysis'The days of hand-wringing and hash tagging are behind us'

New UK Labour head is flushing out anti-Semitism. Where will he stand on Israel?

Looking to rehabilitate the party’s reputation for ignoring Jew-hatred under Jeremy Corbyn, Keir Starmer faces big test this month with publication of anti-racism watchdog report

Robert Philpot

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

Keir Starmer of the UK Labour party delivers a speech at an election campaign event in Harlow, England, November 5, 2019. (AP/Matt Dunham)
Keir Starmer of the UK Labour party delivers a speech at an election campaign event in Harlow, England, November 5, 2019. (AP/Matt Dunham)

LONDON — Few politicians have inherited such an unenviable legacy as Sir Keir Starmer did when he became leader of Britain’s Labour Party three months ago.

The party, which suffered a crushing defeat in last December’s general election, was trailing by double-digits in the opinion polls and riven by internal divisions.

After being rocked by multiple allegations of anti-Semitism under outgoing leader Jeremy Corbyn, Labour was also viewed with deep distrust in the Jewish community, with much of the general population in agreement that bigotry was a systemic problem for the party.

Starmer’s apparent determination to turn the page on this, the darkest aspect of the Corbyn era, was evident in his first act on taking the helm: issuing an apology to Britain’s Jews and a pledge to rebuild the community’s shattered trust. The apology, he told the BBC, wasn’t about winning votes but was a “value statement, a matter of principle.”

Three days after his election, Starmer and his deputy, Angela Rayner, held a video meeting with Jewish communal organizations. The organizations’ response indicated both goodwill towards the new Labour leadership and continuing anger at Corbyn.

Keir Starmer, left, with Jeremy Corbyn at the European Union headquarters in Brussels after a bilateral Brexit meeting, September 27, 2018. (Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)

“Keir Starmer has already achieved in four days more than his predecessor in four years in addressing anti-Semitism within the Labour Party,” noted a statement jointly issued by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Community Security Trust and the Jewish Labour Movement.

For Starmer, the issue is personal as well as political: His wife is from a Jewish background and the couple has extended family living in Tel Aviv.

Three months on, as Labour rises in the polls and Starmer enjoys the highest approval ratings of any British opposition leader in over 25 years, observers say he is showing a willingness to match warm words on eradicating anti-Semitism with tough action.

Dave Rich, head of policy at Britain’s Community Security Trust. (Courtesy CST)

“Keir Starmer has said all the right things about tackling anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, and crucially — unlike his predecessor — he has followed it up with solid and swift action,” says Dave Rich, director of policy at the Community Security Trust, which monitors anti-Semitism and protects Jewish venues and events.

Joan Ryan, a former Labour MP who quit the party over anti-Semitism, agrees. Starmer’s election, she says, was “a big step forward and he has backed his words with action.”

“He was right to make a profound and, I believe, sincere apology to the Jewish community and to declare his intention to tear out anti-Semitism by its roots,” Ryan says.

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

Ryan also praises Starmer’s most dramatic move so far — firing Rebecca Long-Bailey from the party’s Shadow Cabinet on June 25 for sharing an article on social media which contained an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.

Long-Bailey was the most senior left-winger in Labour’s frontbench team and had received the backing of many of Corbyn’s allies when she fought Starmer for the party leadership earlier this year. While hard-left MPs fumed at her dismissal, the Labour leader’s swift action was welcomed by Jewish groups and party moderates. (Long-Bailey later wrote an article explaining her position, saying that she “would never have intended to retweet or endorse anything that could cause hurt to anyone.”)

The “no-nonsense decision,” suggests Nathan Yeowell, director of the center-left Progress group, may have shocked many but showed that “the Labour Party is finally prepared to take decisive action over anti-Semitism.”

Jeremy Corbyn, second from left, sits with his then-advisers, former Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey, and Shadow International Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner, as he leads a meeting of the Shadow Cabinet in Salford, northwest England, on September 2, 2019. (Danny Lawson / POOL / AFP)

Commentators believe Labour may also reap some reward from the voters. “By his action, Starmer has shown he grasps that politics is painted in primary colours,” wrote Jonathan Freedland, a left-leaning Jewish columnist at The Guardian newspaper. “Most voters will barely be aware of this episode, let alone follow the nuances. If anything cuts through, it will be that the new Labour leader promised zero tolerance of anti-Semitism and he meant it.”

But even before Long-Bailey’s sacking, Starmer’s efforts had begun to bear fruit. Last month, three Jewish members of the House of Lords who had resigned from Labour under Corbyn’s leadership announced they were rejoining the party. David Triesman, a general secretary of the party under former prime minister Tony Blair, said that, under Starmer, “being Jewish and Labour have been truly reconciled.”

Labour insiders argue that some of Starmer’s behind-the-scenes moves are also likely to be crucial to the fight against anti-Semitism in the party. The Labour leader won an important early victory over the hard left by securing the appointment of David Evans as the party’s new general secretary. Evans, a moderate who served as assistant general secretary under Blair, took up his post last week and replaces Corbyn ally Jennie Formby. Elections to the party’s governing National Executive Committee later this year may also strengthen Starmer’s hand and see losses for the hard left.

Jennie Formby at the 2016 Labour Party conference. (Wikimedia commons/Rwendland)

In a further sign of his attempts to exert control over the Labour Party machine, Starmer has reportedly placed a trusted adviser into a key role overseeing the unit which handles complaints involving anti-Semitism. Amid reports of suspensions and investigations into local parties, supporters of Corbyn have accused Starmer of carrying out a “purge.”

Big test this month

However, Jewish groups and their moderate allies in the party believe the battle against anti-Semitism is not yet complete.

Much more needs to be done and in particular there is a need for broader cultural change in the party

“Much more needs to be done and in particular there is a need for broader cultural change in the party to underpin these disciplinary steps,” says Rich. “But the early signs are definitely encouraging.”

Many believe that a key moment for Starmer will come this month when the UK’s anti-racism watchdog, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), delivers the findings of its probe into the party.

Members of the Jewish community hold a protest against Britain’s opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn and anti-Semitism in the Labour party, outside the British Houses of Parliament in central London on March 26, 2018. (AFP Photo/Tolga Akmen)

“Keir Starmer has committed himself to repairing the historic relationship with the Jewish community — a relationship destroyed by the toxicity of his predecessor,” says Claudia Mendoza, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council. “He has already taken decisive action against anti-Jewish racism in the Labour Party, but the real test will be how he implements the findings of the EHRC report and whether he is able to take the grassroots of the party with him.”

The EHRC’s decision to launch a full-scale investigation into anti-Semitism in the party last summer was doubly embarrassing for Labour. The establishment of the EHRC was one of Labour’s proudest achievements when it was last in government, and the party vested it with sweeping powers. Moreover, the body has only ever launched such an investigation into one other UK political party: the far-right British National Party.

Starmer has long committed to fully implement the EHRC’s recommendations and he reportedly plans to use the outcome of the investigation to introduce broad changes. Among them are likely to be an independent complaints process — long demanded by Jewish groups — so that allegations of anti-Semitism aren’t adjudicated upon by the party itself.

There can be no hiding place for anti-Semites or their enabler in the Labour Party

Referring to the somewhat formulaic condemnations of anti-Semitism in the party on social media during the Corbyn era, Yeowell adds: “The days of hand-wringing and hash tagging are far behind us. I hope, and expect, that the party will pursue a policy of zero tolerance. There can be no hiding place for anti-Semites or their enabler in the Labour Party, whoever they are.”

Keir Starmer, left, and Rebecca Long-Bailey of the UK Labour Party arrive at the cabinet office for Brexit talks in London, April 9, 2019. (Niklas Halle’n/AFP)

But, as their reaction to Long-Bailey’s dismissal showed, hard left MPs and activists are likely to put up a fight. Corbyn himself appeared to cast doubt on the EHRC’s impartiality last month when he suggested that the independent body was “part of the government machine.” Corbyn’s accusation was dismissed by the Labour Party, which reiterated Starmer’s pledge to abide by the watchdog’s findings.

Starmer’s lopsided victory in the leadership contest — he defeated his nearest rival, Long-Bailey, by 56 to 27 percent — and his high public approval ratings give him room to maneuver. However, the hard left remain a presence at the party’s grassroots; indeed, polls suggest that more than one-third of Labour members who voted for Starmer earlier this year also approved of Corbyn’s performance as leader.

Toughening line on Israel

Notably, supporters of Israel worry that as Labour under Starmer moves against anti-Semitism, it is also toughening its stance on the Jewish state.

The party has long been steadfastly opposed to the BDS movement and, even under Corbyn, its election manifestos avoided any suggestion of such a position.

Last month, however, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Lisa Nandy, called for a ban on goods entering Britain from West Bank settlements if Israel goes ahead with its planned annexation of parts of the territory.

Then-Labour leadership candidate Lisa Nandy in January 2019. (YouTube screenshot)

Nandy, a former chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East (LFPME), won the backing of the Jewish Labour Movement when she stood against Starmer and Long-Bailey in the leadership contest, and, at a campaign event, she described herself as a Zionist.

Nandy’s call for a settlement boycott was “very disappointing” says Ryan, who opposes annexation.

Anti-Semitism inside the Parliamentary Labour Party is largely driven by a visceral hatred of Israel

Michael McCann, the director of the Israel-Britain Alliance campaign group and a former Labour MP, believes “Starmer has said all the right things, but anti-Semitism inside the Parliamentary Labour Party is largely driven by a visceral hatred of Israel.”

He argues that Nandy’s appointment was a “mistake” and that, in her first major intervention, she “reacted as the head of LFPME, rather than the shadow Foreign Secretary.”

Illustrative: Anti-Israel activists react outside a meeting of the Labour National Executive Committee in London, September 4, 2018. (Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP)

“She will have been quietly cheered by all those in the PLP who frankly don’t believe that Israel has a right to exist, and whose contempt for the Jewish state spills over to become something even more repugnant,” he charges.

“I fear that the world’s oldest hatred inside the PLP will merely travel underground,” says McCann.

The campaign group We Believe In Israel immediately launched an online petition opposing Nandy’s new proposal and suggesting that “sanctions would be acceding to one of the demands of the anti-Israel BDS campaign, which is dedicated to destroying Israel through economic pressure.”

The unease at Nandy’s demand was shared by the Board of Deputies, whose president, Marie van der Zyl, issued a statement urging Labour “not to go down this route.”

Illustrative: Marie van der Zyl joins demonstrators at a protest against anti-Semitism within the Labour party at the UK Parliament. (Courtesy)

“The tactic of BDS is divisive and seeks to strike at the very legitimacy of the State of Israel, the Middle East’s only democracy and the world’s only Jewish state,” van der Zyl wrote.

But some left-wing, pro-Israel organizations in the UK have come to Nandy’s defense. Hannah Weisfeld, director of Yachad (a British version of the US lobby group J-Street), argued in a piece for the Jewish Chronicle that Labour was “well within its right to call for a ban on settlement produce.”

“Far from undermining Israel, a ban that specifically targets settlements beyond the Green Line reaffirms the legitimacy of Israel inside the Green Line,” she wrote.

Questioned on the Board of Deputies’ criticism, Nandy on July 2 echoed Yachad’s defense of her proposal and said she had “never supported” BDS. She also pointed to a letter sent by former Israeli Labor and Meretz MKs to Starmer backing a ban on settlement products coming into Britain.

Starmer’s current focus, however, will be on events closer to home. The EHRC is believed to have delivered its findings to the party last week, triggering a 28-day period for Labour to prepare its response.

Last month, Starmer told Labour members on a Zoom call: “I never want to hear the Labour Party and anti-Semitism in the same sentence ever again.”

Jeremy Corbyn’s legacy as leader will ensure that, at least in the short-term, Starmer is unlikely to be granted that wish.

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