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April 5, 2020 7:25 pm

British Jewish Groups Express Cautious Optimism Over New Labour Party Leader’s Pledge to Stamp Out Antisemitism Within the Party

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

New Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer speaking during the Labour leadership hustings at the SEC centre, Glasgow, February 15, 2020. Photo: Jane Barlow via Reuters.

Leading Jewish groups in Britain offered praise over the weekend for the newly-elected leader of the UK Labour party for his pledge to root out antisemitism within the movement, but noted that action must be taken immediately.

Keir Starmer replaces the far-left MP Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader after a landslide victory in the leadership elections. Corbyn’s five-year tenure was marked by a massive rise in antisemitism and anti-Zionism in the party, with the majority of British Jews considering Corbyn personally antisemitic. Labour’s crushing defeat in the December general elections was met with relief by the Jewish community.

In his victory statement Starmer said, “Antisemitism has been a stain on our party. I have seen the grief that it’s brought to so many Jewish communities. On behalf of the Labour Party, I am sorry.”

“I will tear out this poison by its roots and judge success by the return of our Jewish members and those who felt that they could no longer support us,” he added.

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In a television interview shortly after, Starmer said of his apology, “I didn’t do it to win votes, I did that because it was a value statement, a matter of principle.”

“And then I spent yesterday afternoon making a number of calls reaching out to leaders in the Jewish community to demonstrate that I want to rebuild the trust that we have to rebuild,” he added.

“It’s going to be a long road, it’s going to take a lot of hard work, but I hope I’ve put in at least the first steps yesterday,” Starmer said.

Responding to Starmer’s outreach, Board of Deputies of British Jews President Marie van der Zyl congratulated the new leader and said she was “pleased” that he had agreed to the group’s “Ten Pledges” to stamp out antisemitism.

Starmer and his allies, she said, “Must act to rid the party of the awful disease of anti-Jewish racism.”

“Keir Starmer has made some headway already today in the statement he made and in the letter he has written to us,” she added. “We have always said that the Labour Party leader will be judged on his actions rather than his words and this remains the case today.”

In his letter to the BOD, Starmer said he wished to “reiterate my commitment to stamping out antisemitism” and invited van der Zyl to discuss the matter further.

The BOD, van der Zyl said, will work with Starmer “to draw a line under this awful period in Labour’s history” and hoped “that the party can begin to repair its relationship with the Jewish community in the months and years ahead.”

Advocacy group Campaign Against Antisemitism also emphasized the important of action, with its CEO Gideon Falter saying, “As the new leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir has no time to lose in making good on his pledge to seek out antisemitism and ‘tear out this poison by its roots’ and rebuild relations with the Jewish community.”

Starmer, he said, “knows that this is not a matter of politics but of justice, and justice requires an impartial process of inquiry with sanctions for offenders.”

“This must start with addressing our outstanding complaints against Jeremy Corbyn and disciplining him in order to send a message that anti-Jewish racism no longer has a home in the Labour party,” Falter urged.

Denny Taylor, founder of the internal party advocacy group Labour Against Antisemitism also expressed guarded optimism, saying the group “cautiously welcomes” Starmer’s victory.

Citing the BOD’s Ten Pledges, Taylor said Starmer “must now honor those pledges in full” and work with Jewish communal organizations to do so.

“The election of a new leader does not mark the end of our campaign,” he noted. “We will continue to report instances of antisemitism in the Labour Party as we find them, and hold the leader (and the wider Labour movement) to account.”

One prominent member of the Jewish community, however, expressed strong skepticism toward Starmer’s statement.

Journalist Angela Epstein tweeted, “Why didn’t @Keir_Starmer speak out this way on antisemitism when the Jewish community feared for their very future in UK? Shameful political skin-saving. Let’s hope he delivers.”

The American Jewish Committee also weighed in, with CEO David Harris saying, “Keir Starmer’s election and commitment to assertively take on antisemitism are rays of light in what has been for Jews a particularly dark period in British history.”

“We agree with our partner organization, the British Board of Deputies, that concrete action to assertively eliminate hatred of Jews inside the Labour party must now follow Sir Starmer’s pledge,” he added.

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