Tony Blair in Israel: Antisemitism must be rooted out of British Labour

The former UK prime minister participated in an event at Bar-Ilan University.

By
June 5, 2019 07:46
Opening event of the 64th annual Board of Trustees meetings

Bar-Ilan U. President Prof. Arie Zaban, former PM Blair, Judy Dangoor and David Dangoor, founders of the Sir Naim Dangoor Centre for Universal Monotheism at Bar-Ilan U. and Dr. Danielle Gurevitch, Director of the Dangoor Centre at the gala opening event of the 64th annual Board of Trustees meetings. (photo credit: GILAD ARTZIE)

It was a foregone conclusion that if Channel 12's Yonit Levi were to interview former British prime minister Tony Blair – who was the longest ever serving Labour prime minister, retaining that role for a decade – she would ask about Brexit, whether current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite and whether today's Labour Party is the same Labour Party that Blair used to lead.

Indeed, she did – and threw in a few questions about the Middle East for good measure, though neither subject was mentioned in her opening remarks.

The two were the main attraction at the opening gala of the 2019 meeting of the Board of Trustees of Bar Ilan University at Trask on the Port of Tel Aviv.

Levi asked Blair what it was like to escape British politics straight into the arms of "irrational Israeli politics."

Blair said that whenever he talks to politicians anywhere in the world, the question is inevitably raised: where are politics crazier?

"I think we're ahead," he said, inferring that the political chaos in Britain is little short of bedlam.

"There's a huge change in geo-politics," he continued. "The East is going to rival the West. The technological revolution is changing everyone's lives." He underlined that there are also changing political characteristics and alliances. "We forget in the West that we represent not only a set of interests, but a set of values – and we have to protect them," he said, listing freedom, respect and tolerance.

As for Brexit, Blair – who has been widely reported as being opposed to Brexit – said "If we leave the EU, it has huge implications for us. You can argue if it is good or bad, but you can't argue its importance." There are some people who want to keep the political structures, he said, and there are others who want to keep the economic structures. The only way to resolve this, he said, is to go back to the people, meaning another referendum. "It's a difficult and challenging period for us," Blair conceded, "but we will resolve it eventually."

Momentarily pondering this issue, Blair said that he used to go to Britain after struggling with the Middle East peace process, and now he's coming to Israel with Brexit problems.

On a personal level he said, he feels for outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May, whom he described as "a decent person who tried to do her best for the country."

One of the things that's wrong with politics today, he added, is that if one disagrees with someone, it makes them a bad person. "I long ago learned not to conduct politics by trading insults."

He regretted that there is no compromise solution for Brexit that would bring the country together, but all over the world today, he said, politics are divisive.

As an extension of this statement, Blair said that the media is fragmented and people receive a version of events instead of a true report of the event.

Levi took Blair back to May 1, 1997, when he won a stunning victory and became the youngest Labour prime minister in more than a century and a half.

"Do you recognize the Labour Party today?" She asked. "No," he replied. "The leadership is from the far Left." He acknowledged that Labour had always been Left, but not as far Left as it is today.

"This antisemitism is a shameful thing," he said. "If you had told me that the party that I led for 13 years would have problems with antisemitism, I would not have believed it. Antisemitism must be confronted immediately. It's a poison that must be rooted out and eradicated."

He warned that antisemitism could ruin the Labour Party.

Levi's next question was whether Labour is institutionally antisemitic.

Blair replied that the Labour Party is being investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which he had established, never dreaming at the time that it would investigate the Labour Party. "Most people in Britain recoil from antisemitism," he said.

Commenting that the Jewish community of Britain used to be strongly identified with Labour, Blair said he was troubled by the number of Jews who say that if Jeremy Corbyn is elected Prime Minister, they will leave the country. "That's a terrible thing," he said.

Levi's next question was obvious.

"Is Corbyn an antisemite?"

Blair was careful with his answer. "Corbyn says that he's not, but some of the remarks he makes are not explicable in any other way."

He added that antisemitism always ends up in the same place but doesn't always begin in the same way, and must be fought with renewed vigor.

Aware that anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism, Blair said that there is an urgent need to go out and explain to a new generation of younger people what Zionism means, because for them it has become "something you would criticize but not support."

He would like to have people from outside the government go out and talk about Israel, because such people could say that they don't necessarily agree with the government's policies, but that they believe in Israel's right to exist.

They could also say that while they understand the situation in Gaza, they would like to know which democratic government would tolerate having hundreds of people taking shelter every night from explosives coming from across the border. "They could ask their interlocutors if they were innocent, but charged with a crime, in which Middle Eastern country they would prefer to be tried, and – if they were gay – in which Middle Eastern country they would want to live," Blair continued

When Levi asked whether the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was dead, Blair replied: "It's not dead in the water, but it needs the general cultural acceptance for the State of Israel."

Even though he is no longer the Middle East envoy of the Quartet, Blair is still actively building relationships between Israel and the rest of the region, because that's important, he said.

"The State of Israel needs to know that the State of Palestine will be properly governed with peaceful relations with Israel," so that Israel can feel confident about security, said Blair.

"In the end," Blair surmised, "the majority of people on both sides prefer to live in peace if the politics can be sorted out."

When Levi asked his opinion on the current political situation in Israel, Blair declined to comment, saying that he had good relations with a series of Israeli prime ministers, and he wanted to keep it that way, but he did underscore that "in times of crisis and national security, the country tends to pull together."

It was this ability to overcome differences that gave Blair confidence that Israel, as a vibrant democracy, will sort itself out.


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