JLM: Keir Starmer has passed a major test of leadership

Joshua Garfield

Tackling institutional anti-Jewish racism in the Labour Party was a cornerstone of every Labour leadership campaign, with decisive action promised by all. The weight of the candidates’ commitment to tackle antisemitism was most apparent when Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy, and Keir Starmer proclaimed that MPs who had not signed the Board of Deputies’ ‘ten pledges to end the antisemitism crisis’ would not find a spot in their shadow cabinet. This week, Keir Starmer passed a major test of leadership by proving that actions do speak louder than words.

Rebecca Long-Bailey was stood down from the shadow cabinet for violating Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner’s commitments to take action against antisemitism – a commitment upon which Labour members elected them to lead. Long-Bailey’s reluctance to acknowledge her misjudgement, let alone make a full and proper apology, made her position on the Labour frontbench untenable. After years of anti-Jewish racism being tolerated – even at times encouraged – under Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, it’s no wonder this move has sparked a backlash from a dwindling fanbase who’d rather we had a ‘forgive and forget’ attitude to spreading dangerously racist conspiracy theories.

The initial claim in Maxine Peake’s interview, that police officers who’d murdered George Floyd learnt their fatal neck-kneeling method from Israeli security services, has since been debunked by Amnesty International (initially cited as its source) and Maxine Peake herself, whose apology went further than the former Shadow Education Secretary. If entirely untrue, where did this claim originate?

Police services share law enforcement tactics worldwide and offer counter-terrorism training, but the Minneapolis Police Department didn’t need to travel 6,000 miles to learn how to murder an unarmed Black American. For the past decade, camera phones and social media have helped expose the violent racism that pulses through the heartbeat of US law enforcement, where police forces in the Deep South find their roots in Reconstruction Era slave patrols.

The insinuation that Israel had a role to play in murdering George Floyd is false and irresponsible because it deflects from the systemic racism that is killing Black people, and because it fuels Jew hatred. The Israeli government is responsible for many crimes; its police are not immune to anti-Black racism and its proposed annexation of the Jordan Valley has been rightfully condemned across the political spectrum. At the Jewish Labour Movement, we’ve been supporting Yachad’s campaign against annexation and our parliamentary chair, Margaret Hodge, joined a thousand European parliamentarians opposing West Bank annexation in a letter to European foreign ministries. If the left wants to do right by Palestinians, it must refrain from falling into lazy tropes that blame the ‘hand of Israel’ for all the world’s ills and maintain the moral fibre to legitimately criticise the Israeli government when lives depend on it.

We may never know why Israel popped into Maxine Peake’s head as she searched for explanation to a racist murder in the US, but the origins of the conspiracy theory lie with far-right and far-left antisemites. Peake admitted she was “inaccurate in [her] assumption”, and I imagine in a parallel world where Long-Bailey was truly remorseful for failing to spot an antisemitic trope, she’d still be in a job. A five-year-long culture of permissiveness paints Starmer’s response as extreme, but Long-Bailey’s refusal to retract and apologise exhausted his options.

Peake, Long-Bailey and their defenders have fundamentally derailed the conversation. Black Lives Matter is a liberation movement against systemic anti-Black racism and police brutality. It’s not about Israel, Jews, or Momentum. The murder of George Floyd was used as a platform to promote an antisemitic conspiracy theory; a disgrace to his memory, his family’s fight for justice, and the global movement awakened by his death. We recently discussed the need for Jewish solidarity with Black Lives Matter in an online event, and take attempts to divide our communities very seriously. The casual racism espoused by Peake in that interview cannot go uncritically supported by a member of the shadow cabinet. Keir Starmer pledged zero tolerance on racism through education and discipline, and we have to let him deliver. Swiftly distancing Labour’s top team from a nonchalant approach to racism was only shocking because we are so accustomed to hollow words.

Some reaction to the sacking is proving more problematic than the crime itself: excusing racism with a defence of one’s leftist credentials is repugnant, particularly as a vehicle for a data gathering exercise. There is a reason that the electorate consigned these people to the fringes of our party; anybody lining up to lionise Long-Bailey should take proper stock of the hill they’re dying on. Leftist martyrdom should be built on defence of workers, opposition to state brutality, and universal rights, not the right to accidentally tweet a racist conspiracy theory.

We can demand better action against racism in other quarters of our party, and in society, without rallying around a vacuous cause to reinstate somebody who was sacked for getting it wrong – a reminder of how politics is supposed to look.

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