'I'm distressed on behalf of the Jewish community'

Tony Blair: UK Labour leadership must root out anti-Semitism completely

Ex-PM says situation would have been unthinkable when he led Labour; ‘Progressive part of British politics must get out of this notion when you criticize whole concept of Zionism’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Former British prime minister Tony Blair. (AP/Matt Rourke)
Former British prime minister Tony Blair. (AP/Matt Rourke)

Tony Blair, Labour prime minister of Britain from 1997-2007, on Monday urged his party, embroiled in crisis over its failure to tackle anti-Semitism within its ranks, to “root out anti-Semitism completely, totally.”

Interviewed on Israeli television while on a visit to Israel for various diplomatic meetings, Blair, who led Labour for 13 years, said the crisis in the party was something that would have unthinkable in his time.

When asked how to interpret current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s relative popularity among Labour voters, despite Corbyn being cited by many in Labour as responsible for failing to tackle the issue, Blair said he was certain that the broader British public is not at all anti-Semitic, and that Labour had to make plain that anti-Semitism was anathema to it as well.

“I’m extremely sad about it, and anxious about it, and also very determined that the Labour Party should take the action necessary to root out anti-Semitism completely, totally. There should be zero tolerance towards it,” Blair told Channel 10 news.

Britain’s Leader of the Opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn, center, sings the National Anthem ‘God Save the Queen,’ along with former prime ministers Tony Blair, left, and John Major, right, during the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph in London, November 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

“It’s one of these things that if you allow it to take root at all within a political party, it’s hard then to uproot it,” he warned. “This is a situation, frankly, I could not even have imagined when I was leader of the Labour Party.”

Blair said: “I’m distressed on behalf of the Jewish community.”

“I’m afraid it is a problem,” he said. “The leadership has now said that they’re going to take the necessary action. But they really need to do that.”

Elaborating, Blair said that “the progressive part of British politics has got to get out of this notion when you criticize the whole concept of Zionism. This is a danger because it so easily trends into anti-Semitism.”

The former prime minister, who is also a former envoy of the Middle East peace quartet, stressed that “I don’t believe the broader British public is anti-Semitic at all. The strength of the reaction to what has happened in the Labour Party shows that.”

“The difficulty is that there is a lot of popular anger at the state of things all over Western politics today,” he said. People “look for things or causes or issues upon which they can attach blame. It’s important that the Labour Party makes it clear that these sentiments are completely against everything that we stand for as a country and everything that we pride ourselves on as a community.”

As the issue of anti-Semitism within Labour returned to the headlines on Sunday, a former speaker of the House of Commons called for a special party conference to discuss the issue, warning that it could cost the party the next election.

Michael Martin told The Guardian newspaper that he was “appalled” by the state of affairs, that he believed the party had a genuine problem with anti-Semitism, and that he disagreed with those who said it was only being used as a tool to dislodge the party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn.

“If you ran a restaurant, and it was dirty and there were cockroaches, you wouldn’t get away with saying ‘The restaurant down the road is dirty and has cockroaches too.’ You would be expected to sort out the problem,” Martin said.

His decision to speak out publicly stemmed from his inability to attend last Monday’s 1,500-strong Jewish community protest outside Parliament because of health issues, he said.

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)

“You recall the saying, ‘Evil happens when good men do nothing.’ I have not been attending parliament because I’m on sick leave, but if I had been there on Monday last week, I would have joined the protest,” he said.

“I don’t want anyone ever coming back to me and saying, ‘Michael, you said nothing about anti-Semitism.’”

He went on: “I think the time has come when we’ve got to get a one-day conference — that conference can be done in a regional basis, or in a national basis — but we need the membership to come together and say, ‘In no circumstances are we anti-Semitic. We are a democratic party and we thrive on decency.'”

He added, “The only way that the Labour Party can improve the quality of life for men and women, and children is if they are elected to public office and they have a parliamentary majority,” he said. “And if Labour is seen as anti-Semitic, then that is going to be at risk.”

Britain’s opposition Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves a Commonwealth Day Service at Westminster Abbey in central London, on March 12, 2018. (AFP/Daniel Leal-Olivas)

Having lost his uncle and almost losing his father during World War II, he also wanted to ensure that people remembered the sacrifices that generation had made against anti-Semitism and fascism, he added.

Martin is the latest in a string of senior current and former Labour Party members to speak out against what they see as the failure to act against anti-Semitism within the party’s ranks.

Over the weekend, Sir David Garrard, a prominent Jewish donor to Labour, announced he would no longer have anything to do with the party because of the anti-Semitism scandals. The political party he once supported “no longer exists,” said Garrard, according to The Guardian. Garrard, a retired property developer, had given Labour around £1.5m ($2.1 million) under three different leaders since 2003.

Garrard said “As one of the former leading political and financial supporters of the Labour party, of which I was a member for so many decades, I no longer feel any affinity with, or connection to, what it seems to have become. I have watched with dismay and foreboding the manner in which the leadership has, in my view, over the last two years, conducted itself. I consider that it has supported and endorsed the most blatant acts of anti-Semitism. And yet it has failed to expel many of those who have engaged in the grossest derogatory fantasies about Jewish/Zionist conspiracies — and Jewish characterizations and accusations which conjure up the very kind of anti-Semitic attacks that led to such unbearable consequences for innocent millions in the past.”

Sir Alan Sugar at the Arqiva British Academy Television Awards BAFTA in London, May 12, 2013. (Jon Furniss/ Invision/AP/File)

Sir Alan Sugar, who left the party in 2015 over its business policy, on Sunday, responded to a request from Labour shadow chancellor John MacDonnell by deleting a tweet he had shared that he said had been “doing the rounds,” showing Corbyn seated next to Adolf Hitler.

The Observer newspaper, meanwhile, said Sunday that the Labour Party had a backlog of more than 70 cases of alleged anti-Semitism to deal with, and that new allegations were still surfacing.

The Sunday Times reported Sunday that 12 senior staff members working for UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John Mcdonnell are members of Facebook groups containing anti-Semitic comments.

A statement from the Labour Party said no one in Corbyn’s or McDonnell’s offices had seen, posted or endorsed anti-Semitic or abusive messages and stressed that the Facebook groups were not officially connected to the party in any way.

Hours later, Corbyn deleted his personal Facebook account.

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