|Labour Friends of Israel welcomed Labour leader Keir Starmer as guest of honour to its Annual Lunch this week, which saw capacity crowd in a packed out hall.
The 2021 Annual Lunch was the first to take place since 2018, after previous lunches had to be cancelled due to the calling of the 2019 general election and then the Coronavirus pandemic last year. With more than 300 people and over 60 parliamentarians in attendance, this was by far the most successful in several years, with the biggest turnout and most positive atmosphere.
- Alongside Keir Starmer as guest of honour, the lunch was also attended by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotovely, Board of Deputies president Marie van der Zyl, JLC chair Jonathan Goldstein, and former LFI chairs Dame Louise Ellman and Joan Ryan.
- Speeches were given by LFI chair Steve McCabe, Ambassador Hotovely, Dame Louise Ellman and Keir Starmer.
- Attendees included parliamentarians, Jewish community leaders and LFI supporters.
- The Annual Lunch followed LFI’s hugely successful conference reception in September this year.
Guest of honour
Keir Starmer became the first Labour leader to address an LFI Annual Lunch since Ed Miliband in 2014. Addressing the packed hall, his twenty-five minute address marked a decisive break with the past.
- Starmer began by thanking LFI for its “unwavering opposition to antisemitism”, “helping to lead the debate about the Middle East in the Labour party”, and for its “support for a two-state solution which brings peace to Israel and the Palestinians”.
- He spoke of his own family connections to the Jewish community and of his personal commitment “to acknowledge and apologise for the pain and hurt we have caused to the Jewish community in recent years”.
- Starmer pointed to the progress towards tackling antisemitism that has taken place under his leadership, including “a new independent complaints process”, the proscription of groups “which deny or excuse antisemitism”, and the return of former LFI chair Dame Louise Ellman to the party.
- He recommitted “not to give up the fight against this form of racism, bigotry and hatred until it is finally won”.
Back in business
Speaking at length about the historical contributions of Labour Jewish MPs like Manny Shinwell, Marion Phillips, Louise Ellman, Ruth Smeeth and Margaret Hodge, he made clear that “Labour at its best has also been an ally and friend of the cause of Jewish self-determination”.
- He also celebrated the work of previous Labour governments under Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to “recognise Israel’s important to the community here at home” and “celebrate its achievements and stood by it in moments of peril”.
- Starmer expressed his “pride” in Labour’s record of work “to strengthen Britain’s bilateral ties with Israel, uphold the right for Israel to defend itself, and promote the Israeli-Palestinian peace process” and pledged that “it is a record a future Labour government will seek to emulate and enhance”.
- Perhaps most importantly, Starmer made clear that he wanted to “identify, confront and root out anti-Zionist antisemitism” within Labour.
- Pointing to David Caesarani’s The Left and the Jews, which LFI originally published, he made clear that “anti-Zionist antisemitism is the antithesis of the Labour tradition” and criticised anti-Zionism’s denial of “the Jewish people’s right to self-determination”, “equation of Zionism with racism”, and “obsessive focus on the world’s sole Jewish state”.
A new approach
Starmer continued “we oppose those who seek to undermine” the reality of Israel’s “rumbustious democracy, independent judiciary, commitment to the rule of law, vibrant media, free trade unions and lively tradition of debate, dissent and disagreement”.
- Celebrating how he had “re-established relations with our friends in the Israeli Labor party”, he spoke about how he was “developing a close relationship” with Labor leader Merav Michaeli and “looked forward to welcoming” Israeli president Herzog to the UK next week.
- Starmer outlined how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is not about whether you are pro one side or another” but rather “about whether you are on the side of peace. We are pro-Israel, pro-Palestine and pro-peace”.
- Starmer pledged to “be clear-sighted about the nature and ambition of the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah”, and committed that “the Labour party does not and will not support BDS”, which he criticised as “counterproductive” and “wrong”, damaging both to the prospects of peace but also UK-Israel ties.
Starmer backs coexistence
Starmer’s speech closed with a note on the “truly inspiring” work of coexistence groups.
- He “commended LFI for leading the campaign in the UK for the establishment of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace”, which he added “has our full support”.
- Pointing to the success of the International Fund for Ireland, Starmer made clear that “a Labour government will back the peacemakers to the hilt and work with our European, American and Middle Estern allies to make this fund a reality”.
- “To me”, he continued, “this is the embodiment of the principle – pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-peace – that will guide Labour’s approach to the conflict”.
Ending his speech to a standing ovation, Starmer made a number of clear and welcome commitments:
- “We will rid our party of antisemitism, bigotry and prejudice. I promise you that”.
- “We are reconnecting with friends of Israel and our friends in Israel”.
- “And we’re returning to the real Labour tradition – one in which, I hope, the Jewish community will once again have trust, confidence and faith”.
- “Under my leadership, Labour will stand shoulder to shoulder with peacemakers and progressives”.
LFI chair Steve McCabe opened proceedings with a speech welcoming guests and thanking LFI’s supporters who had made the event such a success. He also condemned events at LSE last week, which saw Israeli ambassador Hotovely subjected to aggressive and intimidating behaviour during an event she was attending. “Labour”, he declared, “is coming home to its traditional beliefs and values”, including “our commitment to the right of the Jewish people to self-determination”. He added that “LFI stands shoulder to shoulder with Keir in the battle to rid the Labour party of anti-Jewish racists”.
Pointing to the crux of the problem – “anti-Zionist antisemitism, an ideology formed in Stalin’s Russia […] which mixes medieval tropes with perverse left-wing fantasies and results in no more than support for, and freedom to voice, the world’s oldest hatred”. Anti-Zionism, he made clear “has nothing to do with the justice of the Palestinian cause” and “everything to do with delegitimising and demonising the State of Israel and Jews round the world who rightly look to it as a source of pride and inspiration”.
McCabe also announced the launch of a new LFI campaign next week, Steps to a Two-State Solution, “based on the simple premise that Israel’s security and character as a Jewish, democratic state – and the legitimate right of the Palestinian people to self-determination – are bound together”. Outlining the ethos of the campaign, he continued: “we should encourage all sides to undertake positive, incremental steps which can narrow the parameters of the conflict and contribute to an eventual and lasting settlement” – listing steps including:
- “Action on settlement building”
- “An end to incitement in the Palestinian school curriculum and the payment of ‘salaries’ to convicted terrorists”
- “Urgent action to tackle the humanitarian crisis in Gaza”
- “Tougher action against Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran”
- “Encourage Arab states to normalise relations with Israel and deepen the Abraham Accords”
- “A permanent Gaza ceasefire” and
- “The establishment of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace”.
HE Ambassador Tzipi Hotovely also addressed the lunch, following in the footsteps of her predecessor Mark Regev.
- The Ambassador recognised that “the last few years have not been easy for many people in this room: for friends of Israel and British Jews in general” and thanked attendees for “your willingness to stand up to antisemitism and anti-Zionism whatever its source” and “your desire to build greater understanding of, and support for, Israel”.
- She pointed to the UK’s close economic, research, medical and security ties with Israel and made clear the “new government is working to further strengthen the ties between our two countries”.
- The Ambassador characterised the new government, which unseated Benjamin Netanyahu in June, as “a government which brings together parties from across the Israeli political divide and across communities”, with “Jews and Arabs working together” and “Left and right working together in the spirit of compromise”.
- She pointed to “Foreign minister Yair Lapid’s recent announcement of a new vision for Gaza – one aimed at creating stability on both sides of the border and the reconstruction and recovery of Gaza”.
- The Ambassador finished with a warning that Israel “will not allow Hamas, Hezbollah and Tehran to slow our drive to expand and deepen the Abraham Accords as we seek to build a new Middle East”.
- Labour Friends of Israel would like to thank everybody who joined our Annual Lunch yesterday, including our speakers Keir Starmer, Steve McCabe, HE Tzipi Hotovely and Louise Ellman.
- Thanks to the parliamentarians and supporters who attended the lunch and made it such a success.
- And a special thanks to the volunteers who helped make the event run smoothly on the day.