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Labour pains for Keir Starmer over Gaza war

The Labour leader gets high marks for purging the party of antisemitism, but he’s facing a revolt on his left over his support for Israel

LONDON — As Britain’s Labour party has surged in public opinion polls, deep divisions are reemerging over the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. 

Sir Keir Starmer, elected leader of the official opposition party in 2020, has fought hard to recover the confidence of Britain’s Jewish community after inheriting the post from Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader who faced a landslide election defeat after leading a party awash in antisemitism. 

But now, just three years later, Starmer finds himself at the center of a political storm over the war in Gaza, with some left-wing opponents in the party criticizing him for “siding with the Jews.”

In staking out a position on the war similar to that of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and other political leaders, Starmer was unequivocal in his support for Israel following the brutal attacks by Hamas on Israel on Oct. 7. 

He received a standing ovation at the Labour party conference, which kicked off in Liverpool that same weekend, when he forcefully condemned the attacks. 

But in the weeks since then, Starmer has faced dissent in his party due to his refusal to call for a cease-fire, instead calling for humanitarian “pauses” to allow aid in and civilians out of Gaza. 

In a recent speech delivered at the headquarters of international think tank Chatham House, Starmer laid out his approach, which aligns with that of the Conservative-led British government, the Biden administration and the European Union. 

Lamenting the horrors on both sides, he said his position “has been driven by the need to respond to both these tragedies.” 

Though understanding of the desire for a cease-fire, Starmer laid out in detail why he does not believe it to be the right course of action. 

A cease-fire, he said, “always freezes any conflict in the state where it currently lies.” It would allow Hamas to regroup, while the hostages would remain in captivity, Starmer argued. 

At the same time, the focus must be on preserving lives and delivering aid, he said. He concluded: “This is an old conflict, but it is not and never has been an issue that will be solved by the black-and-white simplicity of unbending conviction.”  

“Rather, the color of peace – always in conflict resolution is gray. And in the coming days and months, we must do everything we can to fight for it.”

Starmer’s attempts to walk a tightrope between the two positions have caused friction within his party. 

In a letter published on X, formerly Twitter, on Tuesday night, Imran Hussain, MP for Bradford East, became the first Labour frontbencher to quit over the issue when he announced his resignation as shadow minister for the New Deal for Working People. 

Hussain said he had been “deeply troubled” by an interview that Starmer gave with radio station LBC on Oct. 11, in which he “appeared to endorse” Israel’s decision to cut water, power and food to the Gaza Strip. 

Hussain said he now plans to “press from the backbenches for a humanitarian cease-fire.” 

Other key Labour figures who have broken ranks with the official party line to call for a cease-fire include London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar and Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham. Many of the politicians who have been calling for a cease-fire are also ones who represent heavily Muslim constituencies.

LONDON, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 7: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (L) and Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (R) arrive to attend the State Opening of Parliament at the Houses of Parliament on November 7, 2023 in London, England.

Meanwhile, dissent within the shadow cabinet deepened last week when Jess Phillips, the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding, said Israel’s military action will only end in “death and destruction.” 

“Whether we call it a cease-fire or whether we call it a pause… has become semantics, because it isn’t happening,” Phillips argued.

Elsewhere, the leader of Burnley Council, in northwest England, together with 10 local councillors, quit the Labour party over the issue and called for Starmer to resign. 

Others stand firmly behind the Labor leader. On Sunday, a large crowd gathered outside the constituency office of Wes Streeting, the U.K.’s shadow health secretary, to protest his opposition to a cease-fire. 

Responding on social media, Streeting backed Starmer’s call for a “pause,” then said: “I appreciate some colleagues have called for a cease-fire. I’d like to know how they envisage such a cease-fire coming about. In politics it is too easy to reach for slogans, especially to please the crowd, but it’s our responsibility to reach for real solutions.”

The relationship between Labour and the Jewish community is deep-rooted. During the 20th century it was long regarded as the traditional political home for Jewish voters — and was resolute in its calls for a Jewish homeland prior to independence and its support for Israel thereafter. 

But that relationship disintegrated under Corbyn’s leadership. Jewish voters deserted the party in droves, while some Jewish MPs quit the party over its handling of antisemitism complaints. 

Starmer ultimately replaced Corbyn in 2020, immediately pledging to stamp out antisemitism within party ranks. His position was strengthened several months later when a long-awaited report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission found there had been a “breakdown of trust” between Labour and the Jewish community, while also revealing evidence of “harassment and discrimination.”

Writing in Labourlist, a website dedicated to news about the party, Michael Rubin, director of the Labour Friends of Israel (LFI), wrote: “After the dark years of the previous leadership, Labor’s unwavering support for Israel and British Jews – and its unequivocal stand against terror and antisemitism – is hugely reassuring and welcome both to Jewish party members and the community as a whole.”

His colleague Steve McCabe, chair of LFI, wrote: “Proponents of a ceasefire present it as a choice between war and peace. They are wrong. A ceasefire which leaves Hamas in power, with its massive haul of armaments intact, is a recipe for endless war and terror for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

The current situation does not amount to a return to the bad old days under Corbyn, says Mike Katz, national chair of the Jewish Labour Movement. 

“There isn’t a sign that the party is wavering in its commitment to tackling antisemitism,” he told  Jewish Insider

“We were completely stifled and othered under Corbyn, and we are front and center of the efforts to make sure that candidates and councillors understand what is expected of them and the wider impact of antisemitism,” he said. “We continue to do this and obviously at this point in time it’s needed.”

Though his critics may be calling for him to step down, Katz believes Starmer has shown strong leadership. 

“It’s the right principled position to take, that you can’t allow a cease-fire to happen, especially when there are hostages, some of whom are British citizens. You can’t allow Hamas to regroup. What else would you expect someone who aspires to be prime minister to say?”

He added: “It’s not the issue or the time to try and find a dividing line.”

LONDON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 31: Demonstrators hold banners and a cardboard figure of Labour Leader Keir Starmer as they protest outside Chatham House following his speech on the situation in the Middle East on October 31, 2023 in London, England.

As in many countries around the world, including the U.S., Britain has recorded a huge spike in antisemitic incidents since Oct. 7. While the incidents have varied in nature, some clearly emanate from the left. 

Katz, together with the LFI, has written to Labour councillors across the country to stress the importance of maintaining “community cohesion” at this difficult time. He told JI: “You can’t blame British Jews for the actions of the Israeli government, and you can’t blame British Muslims for the actions of Hamas.”

Nevertheless, people continue to do so. 

“Labour is getting a reputation for only caring about the Jews,” Nicole Lampert, a freelance journalist and campaigner against antisemitism, told JI. 

“They are saying that Starmer is only interested in antisemitism and not interested in other racism. He’s seen as siding with the Jews, so there’s a lot of antisemitism towards him and his wife.” Victoria Starmer is Jewish and the couple and their children are said to be members of a synagogue in London.

Though Starmer is “standing firm,” the issue is proving to be a headache. 

“He’s under a lot of pressure from not only the backbenchers but people in the cabinet and even centrists,” said Lampert. “The Labour antisemitism row had a huge Israel element to it, but I think there’s more to this. It unites Muslims from around the world, it doesn’t matter whether they are Shia or Sunni. The scenes we are seeing on our TV screens are obviously upsetting. Palestinians are dying and the Muslim community is naturally upset, as we are.”

That said, not everyone from the Muslim community is demanding a cease-fire. 

“A friend who’s Muslim and a Labour councillor sees what Hamas did as appalling. He’s a centrist and says most of the people who have resigned are Corbynistas,” said Lampert.

“Most Labour centrists reckon it’s really important that they stand with Israel while also asking for humanitarian pauses.”

Meanwhile, some 300,000 people, many of whom vote Labour, turned out this weekend for another pro-Palestinian march in the capital. There were flags and banners and chants not only for a cease-fire, but to free Palestine “from the river to the sea.”

“All those people on the marches don’t understand what Hamas is. They can’t put two and two together or realize that it’s the same ideology behind the Manchester Arena bombing,” said Lampert, referencing the 2017 suicide bombing of an Ariana Grande concert at which 22 people died. 

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