New British Labour Party leader Keir Starmer tackled antisemitism immediately upon election Saturday, as he promised to root out that scourge from the party that in the past has been charged with fostering hatred toward Jews.
“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,” Starmer said.
“I am sorry and 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.
In a letter to the Labour Party parliamentarians that was posted on Twitter, he also asked for the help of the politicians in his party to rebuild trust with the Jewish community.
Foreign Minister Israel Katz immediately congratulated Starmer for his victory.
“I hope he will keep his promise to fight the antisemitism that has blossomed in the party in recent years and that he will strengthen the UK-Israel friendship, as past Labour leaders have done,” Katz said.
Starmer also has family ties to Judaism. In speaking of his wife Victoria Alexander in a past interview with the British paper The Jewish Chronicle, Starmer said, “As you probably know my wife’s family is Jewish. On her father’s side there are bar mitzvahs, synagogues – there’s all the traditions.”
Starmer, who takes over immediately, said he would work constructively with the government when it was the right thing to do, such as efforts to combat COVID-19, while testing Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson's arguments and challenging the failures.
"Our purpose when we do that is the same as the government's, to save lives," he said in a pre-recorded statement due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Starmer added that once the country emerges on the other side, once the hospital wards have emptied and the threat subsided, it would need to build a fairer society, where key workers on the front line receive decent salaries and better chances in life.
"In their courage and their sacrifice and their bravery, we can see a better future. This crisis has brought out the resilience and human spirit in all of us," he said.
Johnson said on Twitter he had congratulated Starmer and the two agreed on the importance of working together.
The party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown endured its worst election performance since 1935 in December, when infighting over strategy, a confused policy over Brexit and allegations of unchecked antisemitism turned traditional voters away.
Starmer pushed for a second Brexit referendum but said the election result had “blown away” that argument.
Many centrist Labour politicians celebrated the result as a sign the government would finally face proper scrutiny.
"A fresh Labour leader will challenge the Tories where necessary and give the party the chance to renew itself in time for the next election," Alf Dubs, an opposition Labour Party lord who fled to Britain as a child to escape the Nazis, told Reuters.
Starmer acknowledged the scale of the task ahead.
Well ahead in opinion polls, Johnson's Conservatives have also occupied much of traditional Labour territory, with the coronavirus crisis prompting the ruling party to deliver unprecedented state support to workers and businesses.
"This is my pledge to the British people. I will do my utmost to guide us through these difficult times, to serve all of our communities and to strive for the good of our country," Starmer said.
"I will lead this great party into a new era, with confidence and with hope.”
Starmer replaces former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who stood down after the party’s defeat in the December 2019 general elections.
A socialist stalwart, Corbyn assumed his leadership mantle in September 2015 after a campaign that largely framed him as a left-wing foil to then-Conservative prime minister David Cameron.
Corbyn, a veteran campaigner for Palestinian rights and critic of the Israeli government, has long been dogged by charges that he has allowed a culture of antisemitism to thrive in Britain's main opposition party – something he denies.
Eight lawmakers left the party in early 2019 over antisemitism and Corbyn’s position on Brexit, which has also angered many members who want Labour to adopt an unequivocal pro-European Union position.