Sunday, April 05, 2020

Can Sir Keir Starmer Turn the Page for Labour and the Jews?

The UK Labour Party has chosen its next leader to replace Jeremy Corbyn. Sir Keir Starmer won decisively in the first round of balloting, beating Corbyn's favored successor Rebecca Long-Bailey and back-bencher Lisa Nandy. Starmer was seen as a moderate candidate who nonetheless ran as a unifier, appealing to groups (including many Jews) alienated by Corbyn's hard-left politics while not actively assailing his predecessor.

So -- what does this mean for the UK Jewish community, and its deeply fraught relationship with the nation's main left-of-center party?

The tone is cautiously optimistic -- and I think justifiably so.

The Jewish Labour Movement -- Labour's main Jewish affiliate, and a true warhorse in fighting Labour antisemitism over the past few years -- endorsed Lisa Nandy in this race, but Starmer came in a very strong second and obviously carried significant support. Starmer, whose wife is Jewish and has relatives who live in Israel, took part in a striking moment where he and every other Labour leadership candidate (even Corbynista Long-Bailey) characterized themselves as either "Zionist" or someone who "supports Zionism". Upon his election, his first act was to apologize to the Jewish community for antisemitism in the Labour Party and said he will "'judge [the] success [of his leadership] by the return of Jewish members."

These gestures have been welcomed by the Jewish community, albeit with the reasonable caveat that actions will speak louder than words. Indeed -- but that does not mean the words are not welcome.

What I will say is that Starmer absolutely deserves a chance. These past few years have been rough, and have left scars. They will not heal overnight. There is legitimate basis for mistrust. But healing requires some amount of trust, and of patience. Starmer's victory was decisive, and we're already seeing additional key parts of the party apparatus swing towards "his" people and away from the Corbynista old guard. Still, things will take time and there almost certainly will not be a highly public purge or bloodbath of Corbyn loyalists. I do not think that such a purge is per se necessary for Labour to right ship. Slow, steady leadership, partnerships, open communication, and rebuilding connections may not offer the visceral satisfaction of someone putting Seamus Milne's head on a spike -- but it might ultimately offer a better route forward in the long run.

The risk of the past few years is that they've created wounds that can never heal, because nothing that can be done going forward can undo the hurts of the past. Last year I wrote the following:
British Jews are angry at Labour, and they're by no means unreasonable to feel that way -- I've been quite vocal in calling out the disgusting cesspool of antisemitism that has taken over the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn's watch. That's legitimately anger-inducing. And one could even argue that Jewish anger about this has played a significant role in forcing Labour to come to the table and take what (meager) steps it has taken to tackle antisemitism in its ranks.

But I also worry that this anger and bitterness has gotten so deep that it's almost impossible to imagine any set of steps by which Jews and Labour might reconcile. Even when Labour officials do issue statements or take steps that seem genuinely positive as expressions of the importance of tackling antisemitism, the mistrust runs so thick that they're often immediately rejected -- "what good is this statement or that commitment coming from so-and-so, who's been so terrible to us in the past?"

I'm not saying that these statements or commitments will always be followed through on or even that they're always offered in good faith. I'm saying it almost doesn't seem to matter any more, the efforts that are offered in good faith and would be followed through on are swept away just as decisively by the omnipresent feeling of woundedness and mistrust. At a certain level, what Jewish anger wants out of Labour is for it to have never done such awful things in the first place. But there's nothing Labour can promise to satisfy that demand -- and so the anger can never be placated. And that, ultimately, can only lead us to a destructive place, where Jews and the left must be enemies, because there is no longer anything that can be said or done that is interpreted to be a gesture of friendship (even the most perfectly worded statement can be dismissed as a front or a guise, or insufficient given past sins).
These feelings of woundedness are still present, and if left unattended they could make even a good faith effort by Starmer to rebuild the relationship between Labour and the Jewish community impossible.

So that's my plea -- don't give into that type of bitterness. I'm not saying give Starmer a free pass. I am saying give him a real chance. And the most difficult part of giving someone a real chance is acknowledging and accepting that -- as legitimate as the Jewish community's grievances are -- things will never be fully put to right; yet still, we must move forward.

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