Dear Keir Starmer,

28/06/2020 Comments Off on Dear Keir Starmer,

RE: Covid-19, Kashmir, Antisemitism, Rebecca Long-Bailey

28 June 2020

I have spent a lot of my time in lockdown writing letters of protest. Yesterday, I sent an email to Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and Jeremy Hunt about the Tory’s 300-strong vote in Parliament this week to deny NHS and care staff Covid-19 tests for their own safety and that of their patients. You can read it here.

I was very upset when you responded to the Kashmir situation by more or less saying it was up to India to deal with it. A group of us wrote you a letter about that. I then saw that a letter had been sent to you by 100 Muslim groups who said they would stop supporting Labour electorally if you did not change your stance. That same article reported your response, in which you changed what you said, as quickly as 24 hours later. Good for you, I thought, though some questioned how deeply it was meant.

Regarding Kashmir, I would like to recommend that you read Arundhati Roy’s book, My Seditious Heart (2019), a collection of her essays written over 20 years, in which among many other things she traces the history of Narendra Modi’s rise to power, starting in Gujarat, and details the persistent, horrific violence against Muslims in both India and Kashmir that he and his party and supporters are responsible for. I think it’s a book you will want to have read.

I voted for you as Party leader, enthusiastically. I was impressed with the range of people you appointed to your shadow cabinet and how you have been challenging Boris Johnson in the House of Commons.

Then, this week, you unceremoniously dumped Rebecca Long-Bailey. Maybe people behind the scenes knew it was coming. I was totally shocked. I’ve been reading what I can find about why it happened, and listening to all the various opinions flying around about it, many of which I think are beside the point. But the more I read, the more I think you’ve made a major mistake.

OK, she re-tweeted something about an interview with Maxine Peake. You thought (or someone convinced you) it was antisemitic? The interview? The tweet? Why? I can only presume you thought (or were told and believed) that it was false that US police were being trained by Israeli police. Then the situation was made worse when, instead of challenging this accusation head-on and presenting you with the facts surrounding it, Long-Bailey published a statement that her tweet wasn’t intended as a defence of the whole article. That wasn’t a defence at all, in my opinion, but then she apparently refused to withdraw the tweet. Very messy, from whatever angle you look at it. But it got messier.

I read on Skwawkbox, published 25 June, that there are big differences between the two of you regarding whether children should go back to school right away in July or not, with her supporting the NEU position of wanting to wait until everyone’s safety can be guaranteed, while you are thinking they should all go back right away. The Skwawkbox view is that this political disagreement was the real subject of conflict between you, and the real reason for you sacking her, but that you used antisemitism to justify yourself. So I have to ask you: is that true? I sincerely hope not. Today, however, just before I was planning to send this letter, I received details of a second article, making the same claim. This Covid-19 related issue is certainly an important political disagreement, but not just between you and her. In fact, it’s an issue for all of us in the Labour Party, and in far more ways than one. But why has it not emerged in the mainstream media as the real reason why you sacked her? And if it is indeed your real reason, how should you have addressed it? This question leads to further questions:

First, has the Shadow Cabinet got a collectively agreed position on the issue of children returning to school? Have they even been asked? If so, what is the position and when was it reached? I am an editor and author on women’s reproductive health issues and I have been reading widely about Covid-19. I happen to think the NEU is absolutely right. I believe the role of children in the transmission of this virus is greatly under-recognised. Preparation for their safety and the safety of everyone in the school community and in children’s own homes is critical. The government has failed to advise how to accomplish that preparation, as they have failed with everything else related to this virus. But isn’t it Long-Bailey’s role to stand up for the NEU position in the Shadow Cabinet if she is convinced it’s correct? Isn’t this her area of expertise? Or must she fall on her sword just because you disagree with her? That brings me to the question of what kind of Party Leader you are going to be, and most importantly how you will deal with dissent and disagreement within the Shadow Cabinet, as well as within the Party more widely. This is something you’ll confront every day. You can’t just go sacking ministers every time one of them disagrees with you. There’ll soon be no one left if you do. But this is not the only thing upsetting me and, it seems, many other people.

Coming back to the accusation of antisemitism, did you use that to set her up, knowing the mainstream (anti-Labour) media would jump on it, since they still get off on the bloodletting that occurs as soon as the words Labour and “antisemitism” appear together? You would know full well she would be crushed in five seconds with that. Or did you really believe the tweet (or the original article) were antisemitic?  If so, who convinced you?

One of my most politically astute friends thought her re-tweet was a stupid thing to do and that it proved she didn’t deserve to be in the Shadow Cabinet, that she should have known better. But that assumes the original article and the tweet were both antisemitic. Most people still understand very little about the parameters of what is and is not antisemitic. If Keir Starmer says it was antisemitic, it must be antisemitic, they would assume. But what if it wasn’t, and you used it anyway? Does it turn out that you are totally unethical? I hope you will explain and justify your reasoning and your actions.

Accusations of antisemitism raise many more issues. One is, what will the new process be in the Labour Party for dealing with allegations of antisemitism? I thought we’d all agreed by now that, in recent years, the process had been a disaster from start to finish. Any doubts on this were put to rest by the “leaked report”. I thought it had also been agreed that a new process is needed. But one thing is for sure – what you did isn’t it. Leader or not, you cannot be allowed to dismiss someone for antisemitism on your own, acting as judge, jury and hangman. It won’t do. If anyone in the Party actually supports your doing so, I fear I’m suddenly in the wrong party.

It is of course in your power as Leader to dismiss someone from the Cabinet over a serious political disagreement, but that’s NOT what you did. The uproar was inevitable. With wrongheaded political decisions being made left, right and centre on starting lockdown too late and stopping lockdown too soon, and all the risks attached to this, this is the last damn thing the country needed.

But returning to antisemitism and the Party. We’re waiting to hear from the EHRC. I think it’s crucial that whatever they say, we need a national discussion in the Party on how to respond, along with a process for dealing both with antisemitism and all other forms of racism, religious and ethnic discrimination – both in response to Black Lives Matter and following from the letter from the 100 Muslim organisations who support Labour. Not treating these separately from each other. And not focusing only on antisemitism.

I also believe the Party needs to tell the Jewish Board of Deputies to step back and stop acting as if they’re in charge. If you want to appoint them as the controllers of the Labour Party on the question of antisemitism, I think you need to ask Conference’s approval. That should also not be in your gift.

When you want Jewish opinions on something, there are hundreds if not thousands of members of the Party who are Jewish, including me, who are ready to give you advice – as long as you don’t expect us all to agree with each other. We are a part of the so-called “Jewish community” too, which is not a monolith and not beholden to the Board of Deputies either. Most importantly, we are Labour Party members. The Board of Deputies should never have been allowed to dictate terms to us, any more than we would allow the Pope to do so.

Lastly, there is the other issue that is part of the toxic mix from this event – the issue of Israelis training police from the USA. I have no idea what you know about this subject. I knew almost nothing till all this blew up. Having done my homework I can say there is no doubt such training is happening, like it or not. It was exposed some years ago by the US group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), who have been campaigning against what they call these “deadly exchanges” since 2014. These “exchanges” involve more countries than the USA and Israel, however. For evidence, I refer you to three articles, from the JVP website:

This last article says:

“Any militarized tactics or technologies acquired through police exchange programs go directly to executing the unchanged mission of the American police, established long before the founding of the state of Israel. Highlighting these police exchange programs without enough context or depth can end up harming our movements for justice. Suggesting that Israel is the start or source of American police violence or racism shifts the blame from the United States to Israel. This obscures the fundamental responsibility and nature of the U.S., and harms Black people and Black-led struggle. It also furthers an antisemitic ideology. White supremacists look for any opportunity to glorify and advance American anti-Black racism, and any chance to frame Jews as secretly controlling and manipulating the world. Taking police exchanges out of context provides fodder for those racist and antisemitic tropes.”

It goes on to say: “Police exchange programs are a mutual exchange of rights violations between like-minded governments. U.S. police have long built partnerships and swapped ‘worst practices’ with militaries and police forces that abuse human rights all over the world. Police exchange programs solidify partnerships between the U.S. and other governments, including Israel, and facilitate a two-way exchange in methods and equipment for state violence and control, including mass surveillance, racial profiling and suppression of protest and dissent.”

Lastly, in an article from 10 June 2020 in the Jerusalem Post, the Israel Police national spokesman Micky Rosenfeld acknowledges that there has been Israeli training in counter-terrorism for US police for some time. He says that the procedure used to kill George Floyd is not taught by them, however, and he argues that counter-terrorism techniques save lives. The difference between how JVP (and I) and the US and Israeli police see this training is a matter of very different politics, to be sure. But nothing, I would argue, nothing to do with antisemitism.

It is perhaps inevitable that the left of the Labour Party has interpreted your sacking of Long-Bailey as a sectarian act that proves you were always  intending to get rid of everyone on the left. But I can’t figure out why you would bother to appoint someone from the left of the party to a high-level position to begin with, if that was your intention. What I do know is that if this turns into a war between left and right internally, we will all lose. And it’s your responsibility to prevent that, not to fan the flames.

I think the anger on her behalf is justified, because she has been greatly humiliated by being called antisemitic over a stupid tweet that was not antisemitic. Now, everyone’s anger needs to be assuaged – so that no one loses face, yourself and Long-Bailey included. Is that possible?

I signed the petition to protest your decision. But I do want to see you bring everyone in the Party together, as you promised. We need unity very badly. For all the members who voted for her to be leader, unity includes Long-Bailey. That’s a lot of people for a new party leader to have pissed off all at once. There’s a lot to be said for not taking rash action. This did not have to happen.

With best wishes,

Marge Berer

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