IN FULL: Keir Starmer’s keynote speech to Labour Friends of Israel
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IN FULL: Keir Starmer’s keynote speech to Labour Friends of Israel

'Labour does not - and will not - support BDS. Its principles are wrong – targeting alone the world’s sole Jewish state'

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer delivers his keynote speech during the party's last online conference.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer delivers his keynote speech during the party's last online conference.

Chief Rabbi, Ambassador, friends. It is a pleasure to be with you today at LFI’s annual lunch – our first opportunity to gather together since 2018.

I want to join Steve in thanking today’s co-sponsors, Sir David Garrard and Isaac Kaye, for once again making this event possible.

Unfortunately, neither can be here today due to ill health. They will be much missed, and we all wish them all the best.

I also want to thank LFI for the work that you do –

For your unwavering opposition to antisemitism – wherever it arises and whatever ugly form it takes;

For helping to lead the debate about the Middle East in the Labour party;

And for your support for a two-state solution which brings peace to Israel and the Palestinians

I also want to pay tribute to all those – from the Jewish community and the party – who stood up and spoke out against antisemitism within Labour’s ranks.

For me, this is as much personal as it is political. My wife Vic’s family is Jewish, originally from Poland and, as a family we have always observed some of the traditions and very much want our children to grow up knowing their family and their history.

 

 

On the day I became leader of the Labour party 18 months ago, my first act was to acknowledge and apologise for the pain and hurt we have caused to the Jewish community in recent years.

On behalf of my party, I want to start today by firmly repeating that message once again.

And apologising…once again… Antisemitism is a stain on our party.

I said I would tear this poison out by its roots. And, together, we are beginning to do so.

I always said and you have always said…..that actions speak louder than words and this year, we have made real progress:

We have introduced a new independent complaint process; We have proscribed groups which deny or excuse antisemitism.

And I am delighted to say that we have welcomed Louise Ellman back to the Labour party.

It is so gratifying to see Louise and Joan Ryan – another former LFI chair and warrior in the battle against antisemitism – here with us today.

Labour leader SirKeir Starmer welcomes Louise Ellman to the Labour Party conference in Brighton. The former MP who quit Labour over its handling of anti-Semitism has rejoined following changes to the party’s rules on discrimination. Picture date: Tuesday September 28, 2021.

Our work is by no means yet complete, but I give this pledge to you today:

We will not give up this fight against this kind of racism, bigotry, and hatred….until it is finally won!

My resolve was hardened when David Baddiel gave me a copy of his brilliant book –  “Jews Don’t Count, which demonstrates  so clearly  how racism against Jews is held to a different standard from other kinds of racism.

Just last week saw the Royal Court theatre forced to change the name of a character that was blatantly racist stereotyping.

They called it “unconscious bias” which just isn’t good enough.

Royal Court Theatre

I am confident that this shameful chapter in our party’s history is coming to a close.

And as it does – as we look ahead – we return to Labour’s heritage…….. as a strong ally and a close friend of the Jewish community of 100 years standing.

Many in the community over so many years have indeed seen our party as their home.

They have seen their values – the commitment to community, education, and social justice reflected in ourvalues.

From Manny Shinwell and Marion Phillips – the first female Labour party organiser and first female Jewish MP – to Louise Ellman, Ruth Smeeth, and Margaret Hodge, they have served our party and our country with distinction.

Let me also say this…. Labour at its best has also been an ally and friend to the cause of Jewish self-determination.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer arrives with Ruth Smeeth, JLM’s National vice chairs, to deliver his keynote speech during the party’s online conference in September

From our earliest days – even before the Balfour Declaration – we backed the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Labour leaders – from Harold Wilson to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – recognised Israel’s importance to the community here at home, celebrated its achievements and stood by it in moments of peril.

They rightly saw their counterparts in the Israeli Labor party– from Golda Meir to Chaim Herzog, Abba Eban, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres – as comrades in the international struggle for equality, peace and freedom.

“Social democrats who made the desert flower,” as Wilson put it.

This tradition belongs to no one wing or faction of the party.

It is Labour’s tradition!!!

Fifty years ago this year, LFI published a collection of essays, “Labour Looks at Israel”.

It was an ideologically eclectic collection of contributors.

Eric Heffer, David Marquand, Richard Crossman, and Ian Mikardo.

This was the tradition that animated the most recent Labour government’s relationship with Israel and with the Jewish community, and it is a tradition that I am determined to restore.

Our investment in the security of Jewish schools and support for the vital work of the Holocaust Education Trust; Our decision to outlaw religious discrimination, crack down on hate crimes, and proscribe Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

And our work to strengthen Britain’s bilateral ties with Israel, uphold the right for Israel to defend itself and promote the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

I’m proud of this record.

It is a record a future Labour government will seek to emulate and enhance.

 

But for us to do so, we have to recognise that tackling antisemitism is not just a legal and institutional matter.

The changes we have made to our procedures allow us to confront the symptoms of anti-Jewish racism.

But to really identify, confront, and root out anti-Zionist antisemitism.

We should look to the words of the late David Cesarani.

In his paper “The Left and the Jews” – commissioned by Gordon Brown and republished this year – David warned of the danger of “treating Jewish fears about anti-Jewish sentiment as merely a device to muzzle criticism of Israel”.

The left, he presciently suggested, was…AND I QUOTE…. “in danger of repeating the historic error of those … who dismissed hatred of Jews and threats to their well-being as merely a delusion and the symptom of an ephemeral conflict”.

Anti-Zionist antisemitism is the antithesis of the Labour tradition: It denies the Jewish people alone a right to self-determination; It equates Zionism with racism, focuses obsessively on the world’s sole Jewish state, and holds it to standards to which no other country is subjected; And it seeks to paint the actions of Israel as akin to the crimes of those who sought to annihilate European Jewry in the Shoah.

Anyone who has visited a Holocaust memorial , a concentration camp or spoken with a Holocaust survivor…

Will be struck by the cruelty of that charge…. will have grasped the resolve of Israel’s founding fathers to make a reality of the words “Never Again” and will understand why – for so many Jews – Israel will always stand as the ultimate guarantor of their safety.

But the State of Israel wasn’t just built as a response to those who committed mass murder in the bloodlands of Eastern Europe.

It is also a living, breathing rejection of their worldview.

Three years after the liberation of the camps, Israel’s Declaration of Independence committed the new state to

Freedom, justice and peace; Complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; And freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture.

Israel herself is the first to acknowledge that at times she falls short of these goals.

And we, in the British Labour Party, will always say when we believe there are wrongs or shortcomings.

I say this because true friends will always be frank.

But we will continue to support Israel’s rumbustious democracy, its independent judiciary, and its commitment to the rule of law;Israel is a nation with a vibrant media, free trade unions and a lively tradition of debate, dissent, and disagreement; As well as the rights won by the struggle of the women’s movement, the LGBT community, and religious and racial minorities.

And we oppose those who seek to undermine this.

Anti-Zionist antisemitism is the antithesis of the Labour tradition: It denies the Jewish people alone a right to self-determination; It equates Zionism with racism, focuses obsessively on the world’s sole Jewish state, and holds it to standards to which no other country is subjected; And it seeks to paint the actions of Israel as akin to the crimes of those who sought to annihilate European Jewry in the Shoah.

Ten years ago this year, we tragically lost David Cairns. In the last speech he wrote as LFI chair – one he was sadly unable to deliver – he explained his staunch support for Israel.

“It’s because Israel embodies progressive values,” he declared, “that I am a proud friend of Israel.”

I am proud of the fact that, this year, we have re-established relations with our friends in the Israeli Labor party.

Merav Michaeli

Under Merav Michaeli’s inspiring leadership , Labor is back in the game and – with our partners in Meretz – back in government.

I am pleased to say that Merav and I now spoken on a number of occasions and are developing a  close relationship. And just last week I had a very positive conversation with President Herzog who we look forward to welcoming next week on his first visit to the UK as President.

Together, the Israeli centre-left is showing the difference progressive politics can make in power:

New investment in health;  New action to tackle the climate emergency; And new efforts to curb the scourge of violence and discrimination against women.

 

I welcome, too, the new Israeli government’s efforts to re-engage with the Palestinian Authority and Yair Lapid’s proposals to help tackle the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and begin to rehabilitate its economy.

Israel’s most precious features are its Jewish and its democratic identities.

To retain both, we must have a two-state solution.

And to respect and honour the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, they must have a democratic, viable state of their own. This is an aspiration that I know is shared by many millions of Israelis and Palestinians alike.

That is why I am both a friend of Israel and a friend of Palestine.

It is time to step beyond the Manichean view of this conflict.

As Amos Oz has argued: “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a Wild West movie.

“It is not a struggle between good and evil, rather it is a tragedy in the ancient and most precise sense of the word: a clash between right and right, a clash between one very powerful, deep, and convincing claim, and another very different but no less convincing, no less powerful, no less humane claim.”

Our approach to this complex conflict will be guided by a simple principle:

It is not about whether you are pro one side or another.. this is about whether you are on the side of peace. We are pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, and pro-peace.

Our allies will be all those –  Israeli or Palestinian – who seek to further the cause of reconciliation, peace, and progress.

And our goal will be to support the efforts of peacebuilders to overcome the challenges which face them and seize the opportunities they see before them.

We will be clear-sighted about the nature and ambition of the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah -whose use of violence and terrorism – destroys the prospect of peace.

And let me be clear, too, the Labour party does not and will not support BDS.

Its principles are wrong – targeting alone the world’s sole Jewish state.

We fully oppose and condemn illegal settlements, annexation and the eviction of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian territories.

We believe that international law should be adhered to.

But a policy of BDS would be counterproductive.

Palestine flags are waved during the Labour conference 2019 (Jewish News)

It would drive people apart when we should be bringing them together.
BDS wouldn’t just hurt the people of Israel and Palestine, it would cause huge damage to the relationship between Israel and the United Kingdom, when we should be working together to tackle the great challenges of our time.

And let us remember that the relationship between our country and Israel is of huge importance. That relationship sees 1 In 7 NHS drugs coming from Israel.

It creates bilateral trade of more than £8bn and allows security and intelligence cooperation which helps us, together, counter the ever-increasing threat posed by cyber criminals and terrorists.

That relationship must be reinforced, not weakened.

Early next year, we will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Yitzhak Rabin, a solider and statesman murdered for his commitment to peace.

Rabin recognised that the work of crafting a lasting peace is neither quick nor easy.

“We are in the midst of building the peace,” he said when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.

“The architects and engineers of this enterprise are engaged in their work even as we gather here tonight, building the peace layer by layer, brick by brick, beam by beam.

The job is difficult, complex, trying.”

The road from 1994 is littered with set-backs, unfulfilled aspirations, and tragedies.

Many families have paid the price for the failure to realise the hopes of peace

Toddlers whose first years will be scarred by the memories of rocket attacks and bomb shelters;

Parents – Arabs and Jews – whose children have died in terror attacks in pizzerias, night clubs, and shopping malls; And Palestinians – desperate for a state of their own – subjected to the daily humiliations, constraints, and restrictions of the occupation.

More widely, the Middle East has been subjected to a decade of harsh disappointments and fierce devastation: The civil wars in Syria and Yemen – ushering in the greatest man-made humanitarian catastrophes of the modern age; And the rise of Daesh and the return to power of the Taliban – subjecting millions – especially women and girls – to brutal, theocratic rule.

But, as LFI’s New Middle East project has identified, recent years have also seen the first signs of a mood of change in the region: Protesters taking to the streets of Lebanon, Iraq and Iran to raise their voices against corruption, austerity, and the tyranny imposed directly or indirectly by the government in Tehran; A new generation of young people striving for economic prosperity, social modernisation and technological innovation; And the Abraham Accords bringing down the Iron Curtain which has kept Arab and Jew apart for too long…..

Abraham Accords

I want to close today by mentioning the work of coexistence groups.

Their commitment to building trust between Israelis and Palestinians is truly inspiring.

We believe that – even in the current absence of a political process – there is much more that the international community can do to lay the groundwork for an eventual settlement.

I commend LFI for leading the campaign in the UK for the establishment of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. It is a campaign which continues to have our full support.

Modelled on the International Fund for Ireland, it would invest in civic society projects which bring Israelis and Palestinian together and create new constituencies for peace.

This would open up new political space to fashion an agreement and provide the popular support necessary to sustain it.

Having been the beneficiary of so much international support and goodwill in Northern Ireland, Britain has a special responsibility to back this effort.

while the United States has made stellar progress towards creating the fund, our government is once again nowhere to be seen.

A Labour government will back the peacebuilders to the hilt and work with our European, American and Middle Eastern allies to make this fund a reality.

To me, this is the embodiment of the principle – pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-peace – that will guide our approach to the conflict.

 

So I close today on a note of hope.

We will rid our party of antisemitism, bigotry, and prejudice. I promise you that.

We are reconnecting with friends of Israel and our friends in Israel.

And we’re returning to the real Labour tradition – one in which, I hope, the Jewish community will once again have trust, confidence, and faith.

I hope they will feel they can return to their real home in the Labour party and persuade their friends, family and neighbours to do the same.

Under my leadership, Labour will stand shoulder to shoulder with peacemakers and progressives.

We’ll stand up against those who demonise and delegitimise Israel and its people.

Or who say Jews don’t count.

Because under my leadership of Labour party every jew will count.

And we’ll stand by our party’s long and historic commitment to the world’s only Jewish state – Israel

Thank you so much for listening.

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