UK Labour leader says anti-Semitism brings shame on party

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In this image taken from video issued by Britain's Labour Party showing Labour Party leader Keir Starmer as he makes a statement accepting all recommendations of a damning anti-Semitism report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), in London Thursday Oct. 29, 2020. Former party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been suspended by the party Thursday. The report says the opposition Labour Party failed to stamp out anti-Semitism and committed unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination against members of the Jewish community. (Labour Party via AP)

LONDON – Officials in Britain's opposition Labour Party failed to stamp out anti-Semitism and committed “unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination,” the U.K. equalities watchdog said Thursday in a scathing report. Labour's leader said it was “a day of shame” for the party, which has been shaken and divided by allegations of anti-Jewish prejudice in its ranks.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission found “significant failings” and a “lack of leadership” in how the left-of-center party handled allegations of anti-Semitism among its members.

Labour leader Keir Starmer promised “a culture change in the Labour Party,” saying there would be “no more denials or excuses."

“It is a day of shame for the Labour Party,” Starmer said. “We have failed Jewish people, our members, our supporters and the British public.”

His predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, who led the party when the acts described in the report occurred, accused opponents of exaggerating the problem for “political reasons.”

The party responded by suspending Corbyn, who has represented Labour in Parliament since 1983.

Labour has been grappling with allegations that anti-Semitism was allowed to fester under Corbyn, a long-time supporter of Palestinians and a critic of Israel who led the party for almost five years from 2015.

In a 130-page report, the commission said in two cases party officers committed “unlawful harassment” against Jewish people and their allies. It said there were many more accounts of harassment by ordinary party members, but that Labour could not be held legally accountable for them since the perpetrators did not hold any official roles.

The equality commission also said there was “evidence of political interference in the handling of anti-Semitism complaints” by the party leader's office, and that the interference was unlawful.

“Some complaints were unjustifiably not investigated at all,” the report said.

It said there was “a culture within the party which, at best, did not do enough to prevent anti-Semitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it.”

The commission does not have the power to bring criminal charges, but made recommendations for change, which the party is legally bound to act on.

British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, said the report marked a “historic nadir for the Labour Party."

Corbyn stepped down as party leader in December after Labour had its worst general election showing since 1935. The party governed Britain for 13 years from 1997 but has been out of office since 2010.

Starmer, elected leader in April, has vowed to stamp out prejudice and restore relations between the party and the Jewish community. He is also trying to steer the social democratic party back toward the political center after the divisive tenure of Corbyn, a staunch socialist. Corbyn has strong grassroots support but led Labour to two successive election defeats.

Corbyn said anti-Semitism was “absolutely abhorrent,” but added that he did not agree with all of the report's findings. He said “the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media.”

After the comments, Labour said it was suspending Corbyn pending an investigation.

“If after all the pain, all the grief, and all the evidence in this report, there are still those who think there’s no problem with anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, that it’s all exaggerated, or a factional attack, then, frankly, you are part of the problem, too," Starmer said.

“And you should be nowhere near the Labour Party, either.”

Corbyn's allies condemned the decision to suspend him. The left-wing campaign group Momentum called Corbyn “a lifelong, dedicated anti-racist” and said his suspension “risks politicizing Labour’s response to anti-Semitism.”

But Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, welcomed the move, saying Corbyn's “shameless comments today showed that he remains part of the problem and is an obstruction to the resolution of the issue.”

Isaac Herzog, a former leader of Israel’s Labor Party who now chairs non-profit group the Jewish Agency for Israel, said the suspension of Corbyn ”marks an important milestone in eliminating the scourge of hatred and antisemitism from a historic and important party in Britain.”