Labour leader Keir Starmer slammed for ‘colonial’ speech on Israel and BDS

Alex MacDonald

Middle East Eye  /  November 17, 2021

Jewish and Palestinian activists criticize Labour leader after he states public opposition to anti-Zionism and Israel boycotts.

British Jewish and Palestinian campaigners have criticized Labour Party leader Keir Starmer for a speech in which he said his party would oppose boycotts of Israel and said opposition to Zionism “denies the Jewish people alone a right to self-determination.”

Speaking at an event hosted by the Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) lobby group on Monday, the Labour leader said that his party “does not and will not support” the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to pressure Israel over its human rights abuses and occupation of Palestinian lands.

While he said that his party “fully opposes and condemns illegal settlements, annexation and the eviction of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian territories”, he added that he believed BDS was “counter-productive”.

“It would drive people apart when we should be bringing them together. BDS wouldn’t just hurt the people of Israel and Palestine, it would cause huge damage to the relationship between Israel and the United Kingdom, when we should be working together to tackle the great challenges of our time,” he told the audience.

Among those in attendance was Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s ambassador to the UK, who was at the centre of a controversy last week after activists protested outside a talk she was giving at the London School of Economics.

Hotovely, known for supporting a number of far-right causes in Israel, including opposing mixed marriages, claimed the demonstrators had attempted to “silence” her, while Starmer described the protests as “unacceptable”.

Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour’s shadow home secretary, went as far as describing the incident as evidence of “antisemitism” and said “he would support the police in any investigation”.

‘Turning a blind eye’

In a statement to Middle East Eye, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) said Starmer’s speech had drawn on “racist anti-Palestinian tropes” and engaged in “willful denial” of the expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their lands that had accompanied the creation of Israel in 1948.

“He condemns BDS for singling out Israel, ignoring it is a Palestinian founded and led movement. He absurdly praises Israel as a bastion of democracy, turning a deliberate blind eye to the analysis of human rights bodies including Israeli B’Tselem, who have comprehensively chronicled its practice of apartheid,” said Ben Jamal, director of PSC.

He described the Labour leader as “grossly out of sync with the values and sentiments of the majority of Labour members” and said he “clearly also has a low opinion of the British public who have increasingly wised up and seen Israel’s oppression for what it is.”

Tommer Spence, a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, also noted on Twitter that while LFI’s tagline was “working towards a two-state solution”, a position that Starmer also reiterated as the official Labour line on the issue, they had given a platform to Hotovely, who explicitly opposes a Palestinian state.

During his LFI speech, Starmer also attacked “anti-Zionist antisemitism” and said that opposition to Zionism “denies the Jewish people alone a right to self-determination”, a comment that was criticized by a number of left-wing Jewish activists.

“This is only true if one understands ‘self-determination’ as the right of a people to an ethno-state, an understanding I reject,” said Rivkah Brown, a reporter for Novara Media and editor of the Jewish media platform Vashti, speaking to MEE.

“In making this assertion, Starmer is trying to do what philosemites – who are simply antisemites who find a political use for Jews – have done throughout history: implicate Jews in their colonial project. I, like the rest of the Jewish left, will have no part of it.”

Labour’s ‘colonial’ legacy

Labour has spent several years engulfed in a controversy around allegations of antisemitism in the party following the 2015 election of Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran leftist and pro-Palestinian activist, as leader.

Corbyn was accused of failing to tackle antisemitic abuse in the party – since Starmer took over as leader in 2020, he has attempted to distance himself from Corbyn and reassert the party’s historic pro-Israel credentials.

During his LFI speech Starmer made reference to a quote by former Labour leader Harold Wilson, that Israel was founded by “social democrats who made the desert flower” in reference to the leaders of the Israeli Labor Party.

Brown said that Starmer’s quoting of Wilson was evidence that he was continuing the Labour Party’s “colonial” legacy in denying Palestinians their existence and own right to self-determination.

“Starmer’s belief that Israel made the desert bloom is as colonial as the idea that Columbus ‘discovered’ America. It’s also a reminder that British Labour has never been a truly anti-racist party: Clement Attlee, like Keir Starmer, was more than happy to sacrifice Palestinians as collateral damage in the fight against antisemitism,” she explained.

She added that the “closest” Labour had ever come to an anti-racist leader was Corbyn.

Corbyn remains suspended from the parliamentary party since last year after Starmer removed the parliamentary whip from him for stating that a report by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) had exaggerated the level of antisemitism in the party.

Alex MacDonald is a reporter at Middle East Eye