Keir Starmer, the new leader of Britain’s Labour Party, lived up to a solemn promise and did the right thing by sacking his shadow education secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, on June 25.
Starmer, who succeeded the discredited Jeremy Corbyn as party leader in April, pledged to root out antisemitism within its ranks and rebuild trust with the Jewish community, which had lost faith in Corbyn’s commitment to deal with that pressing matter.
In firing Long-Bailey, who ran against Starmer in the party’s leadership race, he distanced himself from Corbyn, a pro-Palestinian politician who, while not anti-Jewish himself, tolerated expressions of anti-Israel vitriol and antisemitism.
Having denounced antisemitism and voiced solidarity with British Jews and Israel, Starmer was morally bound to dismiss Long-Bailey after she expressed agreement with an interview in the Independent newspaper in which the actress Maxine Peake falsely and provocatively claimed that the U.S. police practice of kneeling on a person’s neck had been learned in Israel.
The article in question also contained a denial by the Israeli police chief that there is a “tactic or protocol” allowing members of the force “to put pressure on the neck or airway.”
George Floyd, an African American man, died under excruciating circumstances when a police officer in Minneapolis pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. The May 25 incident set off nation-wide protests denouncing police brutality and demanding an end to racial discrimination in the United States.
Peake raised this issue when she told the Independent, “The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learned from seminars with Israeli secret services.”
Long-Bailey, an ally of Corbyn, recklessly posted the article on Twitter with a personal observation. “Maxine Peake is an absolute diamond,” she wrote.
Some readers were outraged not only by Peake’s false comment, but also by Long-Bailey’s endorsement of her allegation, both of which sounded conspiratorial.
Long-Bailey’s allies who rushed to her defence pointed to a 2016 Amnesty International report that American law enforcement officials had travelled to Israel for training. In fact, this report made no mention of either the Minneapolis police department or the neck restraint technique that caused Floyd’s tragic death.
Furious that Peake had misconstrued its report, Amnesty International issued a clarification denying that it had referred to “neck kneeling” in connection with Israel.
Apprised of this information, Starmer had no alternative but to fire Long-Bailey, who claimed in a second tweet that her praise of Peake had not been “intended to be an endorsement of all aspects” of the Independent story.
Starmer did not buy her lame explanation.
In a statement released to the media, his spokesman said that “the article Rebecca shared earlier contained an antisemitic conspiracy theory.”
He added, “As leader of the Labour Party, Keir has been clear that restoring trust with the Jewish community is a number one priority. Antisemitism takes many different forms and it is important that we all are vigilant against it.”
Long-Bailey was clearly upset by her demotion, but said she would continue to support Starmer.
In retrospect, Long-Bailey has only herself to blame for this fiasco.
As Marie van der Zyl, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, correctly said, “As someone who aspires to be the next education minister, we would expect (Long-Bailey) to read and understand materials before sharing them. If she is incapable of doing this, it raises serious and immediate questions about her suitability for the role.”
Long-Bailey’s failure to grasp the underlying meaning of Peake’s insinuation lay at the heart of the problem. Peake’s anti-Israel diatribe left an antisemitic odour, implying that Jews are partly to blame for the racism that afflicts African Americans.
Much to his credit, Starmer understood the problem and dealt with it boldly and expeditiously, sending an unmistakable message to Long-Bailey and her followers in the Labour Party: Antisemitism, or even intimations of it, will not be tolerated on my watch.