Rachel Reeves has told Jewish News how “incredibly angry ” she was after a backbench Labour MP used the words “fascist” and “apartheid state” to describe Israel in the House of Commons.
The shadow chancellor issued her own strong condemnation of Liverpool Riverside MP Kim Johnson’s “totally unacceptable” outburst at last week’s Prime Minister’s Question Time session.
But Reeves, 43, said the dressing down Johnson received from the party’s chief whip, and her subsequent swift apology for the comments only hours later was a sign of just how serious Keir Starmer is at booting both antisemitism and “anti-Zionism” out of Labour.
The Labour frontbencher spoke out on the issue as she visited East Finchley with Sarah Sackman, the party’s parliamentary candidate for the Finchley and Golders Green constituency at the next election.
Reeves and the barrister, who will aim to take the seat from Conservative MP Mike Freer at the next election, discussed with local how soaring mortgages are impacting on businesses, homeowners and buyers.
They claimed only Labour had a credible economic plan to improve people’s lives.
But Reeves – who had looked visibly angry as she sat on the Labour front-bench to hear Johnson use PMQs to launch her venomous anti-Israel attack, was also keen to offer her own thoughts on the conduct of one of her party’s backbench MPs.
She told Jewish News: “To call a government ‘fascist’ and an ‘apartheid state’ is just totally unacceptable, especially the week after Holocaust Memorial Day.
“And especially given the recent history of the Labour Party, and frankly the recent history in Liverpool Labour where Kim is a member of parliament.
“She represents a seat where the wonderful Louise Ellman used to represent.
“I don’t mind saying I was incredibly angry, frustrated, and depressed when I sat there and listened to Kim’s question.”
Reeves, 43, seen by many observers as the most significant powerhouse in Labour’s shadow cabinet apart from leader Starmer, revealed that Socialist Campaign Group member Johnson was “told by the chief whip she was to go back into the House, make a point of order, and apologise.”
The Leeds West MP added:”And she did that very quickly. Would that have happened under the last Labour leader?
“I think that shows how seriously Keir takes this. He was not willing to say ‘this is just a backbench MP’. This matters to him.
“I think that shows how seriously Keir takes booting antisemitism .. anti-Zionism ..out of the Labour Party.”
Johnson – who had labelled the Israeli government “fascist”, and referenced the Amnesty report that used the “apartheid state” claim in a question directed to Rishi Sunak – eventually apologised in the Commons.
She said:”I would like to apologise unreservedly for the intemperate language I used during PMQs, I was wrong to use the term fascist in relation to the Israeli government and understand why this was particularly insensitive given the history of the state of Israel.
“While there are far-right elements in the government, I recognise that the use of the term in this context was wrong.”
A long-time vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel, who stepped back from frontline politics under Corbyn, Reeves stressed she was a proud supporter of the Jewish state, visiting on four previous occasions, and hoping to return with Starmer in the future.
Labour’s “industrial strategy” being developed by Reeves, along with other senior party figures, includes a focus on “some of the amazing things happening around tech” in Israel, particularly in the health sector, she said.
“It’s really, really exciting,” says Reeves.”But we have still got a lot to learn.”
The former Bank of England economist and barrister Sackman also spent some of their time in East Finchley, discussing the fragile state of the property market during a meeting with staff at estate and lettings agent James Leaf and Co.
Labour’s own analysis has claimed mortgage costs could rise by an average of £7,490 a year in Finchley and Golders Green as a result of interest rate rises, and other factors.
Reeves speaks of the impact of a “Tory mortgage penalty”, while Sackman says that as a result of rising costs “everybody is having to cut back.”
The opinion polls prove Labour is increasingly seen as an economically credible party, with many in the community in agreement, including a succession of former donors from the business world.
But Jewish News raised the point that some, who say they are considering a switch to Starmer’s party at the next election, still have concerns about the party’s stance on Israel.
A long-time vice-chair of the Labour Friends of Israel group Reeves, who has visited the Jewish state on four occasions, is also the keynote speaker at a forthcoming UJIA event, and her owns views on the Middle East have won her standing ovations at communal functions.
In a reference to the current hardline Benjamin Netanyahu government she insisted her staunch support for Israel “doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything the government does.”
Sackman,37, said Labour is now emerging as a party supportive “not just of a two-state solution, but also of Israel …we want to see Israel prosper.”
Growing up in Brim Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, within a family of regular Norris Lea synagogue attendees, Sackman is also well aware of the deep unease amongst some around the far-right influence in Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government.
“We say that classic thing, don’t we? Two Jews, three opinions … ,” opined Sackman, now a successful barrister at Matrix Chambers.
“What is clear is that the community, particularly here in Finchley and Golders Green, has a strong connection, as I do personally, with what goes on in the Middle East.
“So when we see violence on both sides, such as the terrible, devastating terrorist attack we saw on a Friday night on the Sabbath in Jerusalem, that is deeply felt by Jewish Londoners and the wider UK Jewish community. ”
But Sackman also added:”Make no mistake about it, I uphold Labour values, that’s why I’m standing for the Labour Party.
“I believe deeply in a liberal, democratic, and I underline the word democratic state alongside a viable Palestinian state.
“And actually, far-right elements that exist currently with the Israeli government, I believe are actually antithetical to some of those democratic values.”
A Jewish Labour Movement vice-chair, Sackman also spoke of her experience working as a foreign law clerk within the Israeli Supreme Court herself before she was called to the bar in this country.
“I know how important those institutions have been, the foundational strength of Israel, and all its economic liberal success and support for minority rights over its 75-year long existence,”she said.
“The likes of Smotrich have nothing in common with Labour. Let’s be clear those within the Netanyahu government who hold those values are not values we share.
“It’s vital that as a friend, we are a critical friend.”
Last year’s local election victory in Barnet by Labour was hailed by Starmer recently as his “proudest’ moment so far as party leader.
Reeves says the party would not have been able to secure its first success in the borough for over 30 years “if we hadn’t been serious about rooting antisemitism.”
She added:”I can’t speak for Sarah, but I suspect she would not be a parliamentary candidate if she did not believe Labour had changed. Like Keir, I was just so proud of that.
“I was really shaken by what went on under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn in terms of the antisemitism that was allowed to take hold in the party.
“When Keir asked me to return to the shadow cabinet when he became leader, I was only willing to do that because he said rooting out antisemitism was his number one priority.”
By the time of the next general election, now likely to be next year barring further unforeseen developments, the antisemitism issue within Labour is unlikely to be the main concern of voters in constituencies such as Finchley and Golders Green.
Economic issues will almost certainly dominate.
Justice minister Mike Freer, a popular figure in the local community, has built up a formidable reputation in the seat he held since 2010.
Freer previously secured a 5000 majority over Sackman, when she stood against him for the first time in 2015.
But the next election is likely to take place before the impact of the cost of living crisis is over
“It’s the after school clubs, it’s the synagogue membership, it’s the family summer holiday,” says Sackman, assessing the impact of the financial crisis on lives in Finchley and Golders Green,
“We have seen where 13 years of Conservative government have got us. Is anyone better off than they were 13 years ago?”
She continues:”Labour is now under new management.
“You have heard that from Rachel and you’ve heard that from Keir. I think we’ve earned the right to have a hearing from the public.
“That’s precisely why the public voted in Barnet for a Labour council in May – the Tory administration, in charge for decades, was bankrupt of ideas.”
Despite the harsh economic climate, no-one would completely write off MP Freer’s chances at the polls come the general election.
But with Labour and Conservatives both putting up high-quality candidates, the battle for Finchley and Golders Green is certain to be one of the most engrossing and hotly contested in the country again.
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