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Opinion: Britain’s opposition leader tries to cast off the albatross of anti-Semitism

Keir Starmer is the new leader of Britain's opposition Labor Party.
(Lewis Whyld / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images)

What would have been a huge story in British politics — the election of a new leader for the opposition Labor Party last week — was understandably overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the hospitalization of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (Johnson was released from intensive care on Thursday.)

But the election of Sir Keir Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions, could be the beginning of a comeback for Labor, which suffered a humiliating defeat in December’s parliamentary elections.

It isn’t just that Starmer projects more competence than the hapless Jeremy Corbyn, the hard-left politician who led Labor to two election losses and who was unable to finesse divisions in the party over Brexit. Starmer isn’t burdened by Corbyn’s reputation for not responding decisively to anti-Semitism within the party.

Starmer has apologized to Jewish leaders for anti-Semitism in the party. In a column in the Evening Standard this week he wrote: “Passover is also a fitting moment for me to acknowledge the pain and hurt that the Labor Party has caused Jewish people in recent years anti-Semitism has been a stain on our party.”

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Corbyn too had expressed a grudging apology for anti-Semitism in the party before the election, telling a television interviewer who pressed him on the subject: “Obviously I’m very sorry for everything that’s happened but I want to make this clear: I am dealing with it. I have dealt with it.”

But Corbyn had a massive credibility problem with British Jews who regarded him as insufficiently vigilant about anti-Semitic tropes and insults that they said flourished under his leadership. In a submission last year to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Jewish Labor Movement alleged that the party was characterized by “endemic, institutional anti-Semitism” and argued that “anti-Semitic conduct is pervasive at all levels of the party.”

The filing as based on the testimonies of 70 current and former Labor Party staffers. One reported 22 examples of anti-Semitic abuse during party meetings, saying that he had been called a “Tory Jew,” a “child killer” and “Zio scum” and had been told that he was “good with money.”

Anti-Semitism is an amazingly adaptable prejudice, manifesting itself on both the political left and the political right. On the left, criticism of the state of Israel and its policies sometimes morphs into anti-Semitic tropes.

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That’s the case with much of the anti-Semitism that has bedeviled the British Labor Party, and it also manifests itself, to a lesser extent, in U.S. politics. Last year Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) offered this explanation of the influence of pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington: “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.” (Omar apologized, and the Democratic-controlled House later passed a resolution condemning all sorts of bigotry and discrimination.)

Anti-Semitism wasn’t the only or even principal cause of the Labor Party’s defeat in last year’s election. In addition to Corbyn’s unpopularity and confusion over the party’s position on Brexit, Labor had to cope with Johnson’s outreach to traditional Labor voters with a relatively moderate platform.

Still, anti-Semitism was an albatross for the party that Starmer now says he wants to cast off. That will make it easier for him to challenge Johnson on other issues, including his response to COVID-19.


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