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Can Keir Starmer Make the Labour Party Safe for Jews?

Cautious hope among British Jews as they wait to see how the left’s new leader handles Corbyn’s legacy of anti-Semitism

Aaron Drapkin
July 08, 2020
Peter Summers/Getty Images
I'll take it from here, mate. Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn, London, Dec. 6, 2019Peter Summers/Getty Images
Peter Summers/Getty Images
I'll take it from here, mate. Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn, London, Dec. 6, 2019Peter Summers/Getty Images

It began in the way that so many Labour scandals have begun in recent years, with a lurid accusation about Israel’s guilt for a crime that occurred far outside the borders of the small country. In an interview last week, the British actress Maxine Peake falsely claimed that the Minneapolis police who killed George Floyd had learned their lethal technique “from seminars with Israeli secret services.” Peake’s conspiratorial assertion was then shared on Twitter by Labour’s shadow secretary of state for education, Rebecca Long-Bailey.

So far, so much according to the standard script of recent years. Only now, with Jeremy Corbyn no longer heading the party and power having passed to Labour’s new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, the story began to take a new turn. Instead of the standard drawn-out process of excuse-making and counter-accusations from the party’s leadership, something different happened: Starmer quickly sacked Long-Bailey for sharing what he described, in no uncertain terms, as “an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.”

Whether or not this truly marks the dawn of a new era for Labour and its relationship with British Jews still remains to be seen, but clearly something has changed.

Three years ago, on Oct. 17, 2017, Susan Palmer attended an event at JW3, a Jewish community center on the Finchley Road in north London. She was there to see Starmer speak, who at the time was the shadow Brexit secretary of a Labour Party already marred by allegations of anti-Semitism. The room was packed and Starmer’s words earned generous applause. Once he was finished, she pulled him to one side. “No one in this room will vote for Labour whilst Corbyn is still leader,” she told him.

“Hang in there with us, and things will change,” he replied.

Almost three years and one resounding electoral defeat for Corbyn later, Starmer now helms the Labour Party off the back of a successful leadership campaign marked by promises of unity, strong leadership, and an unwavering commitment to rid the party of anti-Semitism once and for all. His first months in charge have been turbulent and full of pressing, coronavirus-related agenda items. Given the circumstances, Starmer has been afforded some patience and granted a cautious blessing so far, but many British Jews still have more questions than answers.

What lies ahead for him is no small task. The years preceding the December 2019 general election saw an upsurge in anti-Semitism in the party, several Members of Parliament resign, and many Jewish activists quit. In a poll conducted just before the election, 93% of Jewish voters said they wouldn’t vote for Labour; almost half said they would consider leaving the country if Corbyn was elected.

The increase in anti-Semitism in Labour politics both off and online was sometimes couched in anti-capitalist sentiment and at other times masqueraded as anti-Zionism—both of which, for a number of reasons, found popularity and legitimacy in the party after Corbyn came to power. As it festered, the party leadership seemed unable and unwilling to deal with it. Instead, it adopted a defensive, denialist posture that came under increasing fire as hostilities between Corbyn and mainstream Jewish community bodies reached boiling point.

Out of all of the political parties in Great Britain, none have been more historically associated with Jewish community than Labour. Poale Zion (Workers of Zion), which was renamed the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) in 2004, was one of a number of socialist organizations that gained traction in the United Kingdom around the turn of the 20th century. It arose from the need to improve the appalling conditions the working class lived in, and by 1920 it was an affiliate of the Labour Party, which shared similar goals.

For the best part of the 20th century, Labour preserved close ties with the Jewish community. Although there was significant support for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in the 1980s, by the late 2000s, the two largest parties in British politics were polling almost evenly with British Jews. But 2019 was the first time the Jewish Labour Movement, a 100-year-old affiliate, refused to back a Labour leader going into an election, leaving all but a small fraction of left-leaning Jews politically homeless.

With the relationship currently in tatters, the question everyone answered is whether Starmer, who took the reins three months ago, can turn things around.

“Keir made it clear, even in his acceptance speech after the result was announced, that fighting anti-Semitism would be one of his priorities,” said Miriam Mirwitch, a Jewish party member and chair of Young Labour. “He isn’t afraid to admit things have gone wrong.”

“I think he’s a very competent leader,” agreed Lord Jeremy Beecham, a Jewish Labour life peer who has sat in the House of Lords since 2010 and was chair of the party’s National Executive Committee between 2005 and 2006. “He’s been very clear about anti-Semitism and made great efforts to reach out to the Jewish community as soon as he was elected.”

Others, however, detect opportunism in the recent embrace of “reaching out.”

“Keir Starmer was happy to sit in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet and would go on TV saying there are issues of anti-Semitism and then go back to trying to elect him as prime minister,” said Euan Philipps, spokesperson for Labour Against Anti-Semitism—a voluntary, grassroots watchdog formed by members of the Labour Party. “He conferred legitimacy onto Jeremy Corbyn and that whole sort of type of politics which was enmeshed with anti-Semitism.”

How a politician expends their political capital can come back to bite them, and Starmer is no different—but there’s some proof he used it well.

“In the leadership elections, even Emily Thornberry [a rival candidate] said Keir did stand up and push back in meetings,” said Ella Taylor, who quit the party during the Corbyn era after eight years as a member but rejoined after Starmer became leader. “If he had resigned it would have just emboldened the Corbynite factions,” she said, adding “I have real faith in him, I know his credentials.”

Strangely enough, Starmer’s inefficacy as Brexit secretary in Corbyn’s cabinet, which saw him sidelined for much of the election cycle, may well mean he’s given an easier ride. “He wasn’t perceived as a key Corbyn ally,” explained Rivkah Brown, editor of Vashti Media. “On the contrary, he was always seen as someone who Corbyn kept in to keep some semblance of breadth in his cabinet.”

There is already evidence that the perceived political distance between the two men will mean Starmer is afforded more leeway than his predecessor; his hesitancy to label himself as a Zionist in the leadership contest earned little backlash, and the appointment of Afzal Khan to his front-bench team—an MP who has previously faced criticism for sharing anti-Semitic content online—was barely picked up on.

“I think in many ways the existence of Keir Starmer is enough for a lot of people,” said Amos Schonfield, an activist for the pro-two-state-solution movement Yachad. The issue of anti-Semitism in the party was heavily personalized toward Corbyn, which is a helping Starmer for now. But to attribute his strong start to a low bar of expectation and collective relief would be to ignore his genuine, human approach to the issue of anti-Semitism, which was sorely missed in the last few years.

“Keir is much more engaging, much more sympathetic and much more empathetic, too,” Ella Taylor explained. “I feel like his immediate presence is one that’s more engaging and listens better. He exudes confidence, which is really important to someone on this level.”

Mixing this human level with his pragmatic approach to political policymaking appears to have allowed a genuine thawing of hostilities between Labour’s leadership and organizations that represent mainstream Jewish interests both inside and outside of the party.

“Unlike certainly the last two years, there is a great willingness on behalf of the leader’s office and the senior people in Labour Party HQ to engage with the Jewish community where they find the Jewish community and not where they wish them to be,” explained Peter Mason, national secretary of the Jewish Labour Movement. “Under Corbyn was the very rapid decline in working relationships that saw the party try and circumnavigate the mainstream British community and the mainstream British left,” he added. Starmer, in contrast, sent a widely praised letter to the Board of Deputies in his first day of office.

Despite a good start, it will take more than just kind words and productive meetings to make Labour a space where Jews feel welcome again. The way complaints of anti-Semitism were handled internally became the focus of a controversial BBC Panorama investigation last summer that included testimony from whistleblowers alleging that Corbyn’s allies were interfering with the disciplinary process. Then, this year, a leaked internal investigation produced by the previous leadership claimed the party’s efforts to tackle anti-Semitism were undermined internally by those on the right of the party. The emergence of this sort of toxic factionalism, which reduced the Jewish community and the issue of anti-Semitism to little more than a political football, has made desire for structural change widespread.

“There is no resolution that does not involve a conversation about an independent disciplinary process,” JLM’s Peter Mason said, “whereby people aren’t making decisions on the basis of their political allies or their friends any more, but they’re making them on the basis of honesty and transparency.”

“Something that will be really helpful with this, something Keir has talked about a lot already, is making the complaints process independent,” agreed Charlotte Nichols, a Jewish Labour MP who represents Warrington North, referencing the pledge put forward by the Board of Deputies, which all the leadership candidates, including Starmer, accepted.

But the level of expected independence and transparency may clash with what is achievable, or even legal. “The idea of outsourcing the complaints process completely, when it comes to issues with compliance to party rules and whether you’re upholding Labour values, is difficult,” Nichols admitted.

However Starmer chooses to construct this, it will significantly impact his relationship with the Jewish community, as will his treatment of the whistleblowers featured in the BBC investigation, who have threatened to sue the party for libel after being denounced as disaffected, political ax-grinders by Corbyn’s team.

Even this sort of institutional change could be rendered irrelevant if Starmer does not act quickly enough on impending recommendations from the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) investigation into anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. The recommendations are due any day now, and Labour’s subsequent action will be under the microscope from the word go. “What Keir needs to do is a delicate act of defending the Labour Party, but also agreeing with and changing systematically based on what the findings of the EHRC are,” said Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, senior rabbi of Reform Judaism, alluding to the imminent tightrope Starmer will be traversing once the report is published.

“I think the Jewish community will want to see action on the report,” said Gabriel Webber, a student rabbi who worked with a number of congregations across the U.K., “and I think some level of prioritizing of this issue for some time as well.”

There is still a sense in which the community is waiting for reports to be published, relationships to develop, and words to become consistent and effective actions before any real judgments can be made.

Aaron Drapkin is a freelance writer and journalist.