UK Labour’s new leader better than Corbyn, but that’s a low bar - analysis

Starmer ran as a unifier. But he can't cure the party of antisemitism if he won't identify where the disease is coming from.

Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer attend a general election campaign meeting in Harlow, Britain November 5, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS / HANNAH MCKAY)
Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer attend a general election campaign meeting in Harlow, Britain November 5, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS / HANNAH MCKAY)
The first thing that needs to be said about the newly elected head of Britain’s Labour Party, Keir Starmer, is that he is not Jeremy Corbyn. And that in itself, from a Jewish and Israeli point of view, is an improvement.
Corbyn clearly had a problem with Jews and with Israel. He routinely denied it, but his actions belied all those denials. There was a consistent antisemitic pattern in the behavior of the Hamas- and Hezbollah-supporting Corbyn that was clear to most.
And that behavior allowed antisemitism, often thinly veiled as anti-Zionism, to contaminate the Labour Party, a party that has been led in the past by such pro-Israel prime ministers as Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, James Callaghan and Harold Wilson.
Corbyn was not walloped in last year’s elections by Boris Johnson because of his antisemitism. But his antisemitism was part of the toxins that made him seem unfit as prime minister for so many people. When Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis broke all form and tradition and wrote in the Times of London that under Corbyn the poison of antisemitism had “taken root in the party,” his words had a definite impact on the public.
The office of the Chief Rabbi in Britain has stature and commands respect. There is the Archbishop of Canterbury, and there is the Chief Rabbi. When Mirvis came out with a statement like he did, many ordinary Brits scratched their heads and wondered what was going on between Corbyn and the Jews. It all added up to a picture that this man was not temperamentally suited to govern the country.
So that Starmer is not Corbyn is already a plus.
Another plus is that in his victory speech on Saturday, the new party leader came out squarely against antisemitism in his party and apologized for it.
 “Antisemitism has been a stain on our party,” he said. “I have seen the grief that it’s brought to so many Jewish communities.”
“On behalf of the Labour Party, I am sorry. And I will tear out this poison by its roots and judge success by the return of Jewish members and those who felt that they could no longer support us,” Starmer said.
Those are welcome words that represent good news. The less-than-good news, however, is that he didn’t call out Corbyn in his speech for his antisemitism. Rather, he paid “tribute” to Corbyn, whom he said “energized our movement and who’s a friend as well as a colleague.”
Now there are obvious reasons for this. Starmer, whose opinions on many issues are unclear, ran as a unifier. You can’t heal the party by accusing one side of being antisemitic. Nor, however, can you cure the party if you do not identify where the disease is coming from. At some point the Labour leader is going to have to take on the subculture of Jew-hatred in his party, and those people have names and need to be identified and confronted.
Who would have thought that in the 21st century the British Labour Party would have a problem with antisemitism. But it does. The Corbynists in the party argue there really is no problem, and that the whole antisemitism issue was just fabricated to destroy Corbyn because of his criticism of Israel.
But the opposite is true. What antisemitism has done is make it possible to even more sharply criticize Israel than in the past, as long as you come out as opposed to Jew-hatred. Antisemitism has made it possible to bash Israel with zeal – by calling it criminal, racist and an apartheid state – as long as you make clear that you are not an antisemite yourself.
Israel knows very little about where Starmer stands on issues important to it. It knows he is married to a woman who attends a Progressive Jewish congregation and who has extended family living in Israel.
Starmer was careful not to say specifically at a Jewish Labour Movement event in February that he was a Zionist, though – after mentioning that his wife’s family is Jewish with extended family in Israel – he added: “I don’t describe myself as a Zionist, but I understand and I sympathize and I support Zionism.”
He also was the only one of three remaining candidates in the Labour leadership race who refused to sign a pro-Palestinian pledge the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) asked the candidates to sign.
But because there is such a scant paper trail by which to judge him, the jury still remains out on Starmer’s positions on Israel-related issues. That a Labour leader is not an antisemite does not make him a leader Israel has reason to rejoice over.
Take Ed Miliband for example. When Conservative prime minister David Cameron defeated Miliband, who was Corbyn’s predecessor, in a 2015 election, there was palpable relief in Jerusalem – even though Miliband is a Jew. Miliband was very critical of Israel during its 2014 Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip, and there was concern in Jerusalem that this harshly critical tone would have transferred over to 10 Downing Street had he won.
The same concerns exist regarding Starmer. No, he is not an antisemite. After Corbyn, that is welcome and refreshing. But when judging a leader's position on Israel, that is a very low bar indeed.