An open letter to UK Labour leader Keir Starmer

This photo appeared in an article in Middle East Monitor on April 4, titled, “Israel settlement turns Palestinian house into a cage,” and it was captioned, the Gharibs’ house in Beit Ijza, caged by a fence and surrounded by the Israeli settlement of Givon Hahadasha, as seen here in a 2018 satellite image, west of Jerusalem [screen grab from Geomolg]

JVL Introduction

In response to Keir Starmer saying  he supports Zionism “without qualification”, Labour Party member Ian Wellens explains quite how troubling he finds this.

He asks for reassurance that in Starmer’s Labour “will energetically defend the right to freedom of thought and freedom of speech on Palestine/Israel”.

This article was originally published by Mondoweiss on Fri 10 Apr 2020. Read the original here.

An open letter to UK Labour leader Keir Starmer

Dear Keir,

Congratulations on your victory. I hope you keep the broad policy direction of the last five years and I wish you the very best of luck in bringing Labour to power, after which I hope you will lead the country in the radical new direction we so badly need.

I have to say, however, that I didn’t vote for you. There was a decisive moment for me in the campaign when the Board of Deputies of British Jews presented candidates with ‘Ten Pledges for Labour leadership’. Ostensibly intended to deal with Labour’s ‘antisemitism crisis,’ it was transparently clear to myself and many others that they actually formed part of the ongoing campaign to silence anti-Zionist and pro-Palestininan voices within the party (number 6, for instance, being the pledge to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism fully and without caveat– a definition that effectively includes anti-Zionism). Your acceptance of these made my support unthinkable. And on the day your win was announced, the Times Of Israel reminded us that you had previously told Jewish News: “I said it loud and clear – and meant it – that I support Zionism without qualification.” As I considered what your leadership would mean for Labour – and for me as a Party member with a strong connection to the Palestinian issue – it seemed that I was faced with an uncomfortable choice.

My dilemma was brought into focus by a news report from Israel in the Middle East Monitor accompanied by a picture of a house just outside Jerusalem [see image above]. It is a very striking aerial photograph, showing the house separated from its neighbours by high walls and barbed wire, overseen by security cameras. Access is by a narrow walkway, also closed off. The inhabitants of the house can see nothing of the outside world. It is as if they are prisoners, and – effectively – they are. This grim scene is compounded by the fact that all around the house – on the other side of the walls – is what looks like a comfortable housing estate, complete with swimming pools. You will be unsurprised to hear that the family in the house are Palestinians, whilst the neighbours who caged them in this way are Israelis.

This foto appeared in an article in Middle East Monitor on April 4, titled, “Israel settlement turns Palestinian house into a cage,” and it was captioned, the Gharibs’ house in Beit Ijza, caged by a fence and surrounded by the Israeli settlement of Givon Hahadasha, as seen here in a 2018 satellite image, west of Jerusalem [screen grab from Geomolg]

The background to this case makes it very clear that the difference in treatment stems entirely from the ethnicity of the house’s inhabitants, and I think that in itself this could constitute evidence for Israel being ‘a racist endeavour’. But I believe it has a greater significance. It seems to me that it symbolises the effect of Zionism on the Palestinians over the last hundred years. The whole point of that ideology, and the state it created, is to distinguish relentlessly between Jews and non-Jews; to privilege the former and discriminate against the latter. The Palestinian family in our example has been singled out for isolation by concrete and razor wire – but discrimination against Palestinians more generally has been, and is, of every type and at every level.

There has been murder, ethnic cleansing, theft of land, property, farms and factories on an epic scale; Palestinians have been beaten, tortured or deliberately crippled; imprisoned without trial; penned into the Gazan ghetto; denied access to maternity wards, swimming pools or parks; their political parties are never allowed into a ruling coalition; they are prevented from building new houses or extending old ones, and there are huge areas of the country and hundreds of towns where they are simply not allowed to live. And – like the residents of the house in the picture – all this is done to them purely because they are what the Israelis call ‘arabs’ – or to put it another way, because of what they are not. That is: they are not Jews. Our photograph therefore symbolises the fate of the indigenous Palestinian people at the hands of the Zionist-inspired colonisers – both before and after the creation of Israel, under all types of government (and perhaps most of all under the ‘labour’ ones). It dramatises an ethnic discrimination which is in Israel’s DNA, and without which the project would have been pointless. And yet, Keir, you say that you support Zionism, and not only that: you support it “without qualification”. I find it hard to express how troubling that is.

Troubling because it means the leader of my party subscribes to an ideology which was rooted in the racism, colonialism and ethnic nationalism of the nineteenth century in which it was born, and the practical application of which (i.e the creation of Israel) has showed their pernicious influence at every stage. Keir, you say that people have different ideas about what Zionism is. Might I suggest you consult its victims? They will quickly enlighten you, describing a settler-colonial project which – like all the others – was marked by the racist attitudes of Europeans towards indigenous non-European people. They will tell you that the creation of a Jewish state in an overwhelmingly non-Jewish country was illegitimate. And they will describe all the details of the particular version of apartheid which has been developed to ensure that they are quite literally second class citizens.

As a Labour Party member I like to think that my party stands with the oppressed, not the oppressor. That indeed, was one of the reasons why I joined. And at home I dearly wish for the sort of social transformation that a Labour government could bring. But my politics is rooted in values, and chief among these are an opposition to all forms of racism and discrimination, and an insistence on equal rights which I am not prepared to compromise. It is these principles have shaped my attitudes to Palestine/Israel. However, my party now has a leader who has pledged his unqualified support to a country and a system which is utterly at odds with those same values.

There is a further problem. According to Israel’s apologists, saying all this makes me a racist, and from everything you have said both before and after being elected leader, I think it is highly likely that you will agree with them. It is, I must say, a truly Alice In Wonderland situation when Israel’s relentless practice of institutionalised ethnic discrimination is deemed not to be racist … but calling it out is.

So it seems that in the Labour Party I face the prospect of being deemed a racist if I speak my mind on Palestine/Israel. And to be absolutely clear, I believe that the idea of a state ‘for Jews’ is wrong. It is, after all, completely at odds with the principles that are supposed to underpin liberal democracies, and instituting anything of a similar character in Europe would be unthinkable (at least, for anyone except the very far Right). I fail to see why an idea which is anathema in Europe should be endorsed elsewhere. And if the idea was wrong, the choice of an overwhelmingly non-Jewish territory made its realisation inherently unjust. It was bound to be a disaster – and it has been. Unless and until Israel re-constitutes itself into a single state with equal rights for all its inhabitants, I would argue that it should not expect any support from the Labour Party. And whilst I reluctantly accept that there is a long history of pro-Zionism in the party and can accept the idea of Zionists being Party members, my own view is that this as a moral error which is incompatible not just with socialist values but with general liberal-democratic ones as well.

Based on your acceptance of the BoD’s ‘Ten Pledges’, your recent letter to that body and your Times of Israel interview, I suspect that in your mind all of this makes me one of the antisemites who must be ‘torn out’ of the party. That will be the Party’s decision. But I have a choice to make as well. I have to consider whether, under your leadership, the Labour Party will be an appropriate place for someone with my values, and whether it is an institution I can continue to support.

I am therefore looking for reassurance. A good starting point would be an unequivocal statement that members will be free to hold and express anti-Zionist views, that Labour regards such views as legitimate, and that under your leadership the Party will energetically defend the right to freedom of thought and freedom of speech on Palestine/Israel.

I look forward to hearing from you,


Dr Ian Wellens

Ian Wellens is a member of the Labour Party in the UK.




Comments (27)

  • geoff rouse says:

    Anyone who supports the state of Israel as it presents itself today must have supported the South African apartheid state in principal and therefore must also be an antidemocratic right wing racist.

  • John Bowley says:

    Another excellent letter. Thank you Ian. And a thank you to our colleagues and true friends of the Labour Party at JVL.

  • Sean O’Donoghue says:

    Great letter thanks Ian. To comply with the requirements of LP, we are expected to dump our moral and ethical principles and side with the oppressor.

  • Philip Ward says:

    In response to Geoff Rouse I’m afraid I don’t agree with you. If what you say is true, then we would have had a much easier time combating the pernicious ideology that is Zionism. Everyone can see that Apartheid is racist, but there is not such a consensus about Israel, especially in the media and the intelligentsia. I therefore don’t think that many supporters of Apartheid would have been anything other than conscious racists, but the same is not true of some Zionists at least. I suspect Keir Starmer is one such person. I am pretty sure that he has not decided to be a Zionist because he wants to support racism. I also don’t think he is ignorant about Zionism. I think it most likely that he has made a calculation that he needs to (claim to) be Zionist in order to secure his own political advancement (obviously not with the rank and file members of the labour party, who are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Palestinians).

    For the same reasons, he’s not going to read articles like the excellent one above and suddenly have an epiphany: “Ah, of course, now I understand what the Israeli state is really like”. He already knows that. We need to think of a another way of changing the labour leadership’s positions on this question.

  • Neil Rowe says:

    Reasonable question. Most interested to hear if any reply. @conspiracy_empiracist.

  • Peter Jenner says:

    Britain has long been a vassal state of the American Empire. Israel is a vassal state of that same empire in a strategically important part of the world. Unconditional support for the state of Israel is a requirement from the Empire for anyone aspiring to be PM of Britain.

    Corbyn was an aberration and had to be destroyed. Starmer is a return to business as usual.

  • John Webster says:

    Phillip Ward – absolutely right. He knows what he’s doing. Lisa Nandy is his shield on this one. What pro-Israel elements are really concerned about and why Jeremy Corbyn was ‘an existential threat’ to them was the potential for the UK supporting the rights of Palestinians. This is, in reality, something that Israel could not accept – until they have annexed everything they want to. When they have done this they will readily agree to the idea of a Palestinian state – which will be a bit of dirt and a shithouse somewhere remote. Starmer thinks by denouncing ‘antisemitism’ in a way that all pro-Israel elements demand but appointing a Shadow Foreign Secretary who supports the right of Palestinians to ‘a homeland’ is clever. He will learn the hard way. They have already written the next chapter. Gantz and Netanyahu are agreed on what is to be done.

  • Steve Griffiths says:

    I think Philip Ward’s post is a vital addition to Dr Ian Wellens’ excellent article, which places Starmer’s position correctly in its relation to democratic values and the historical origin of Zionism in the context of the development of European ethical values. We do indeed need to think of a another way of changing the labour leadership’s positions on this question, as Philip says, and there should be a debate on this. One obvious course is to extend CLPs’ affiliation to JVL as far as possible, engaging the energy and gifts of Jewish members as far as possible, and bringing out the views of so many Labour members. In Ludlow constituency we debated affiliation and were lifted by an electrifying speech by a Jewish member of many years’ standing. The vote to affiliate to JVL was, as I remember, 37 to 4. But that won’t change the world. For years, I have been staggered by the lack of an active grassroots movement to challenge the control, methods and messages of the media, one that challenges with alternative messages from the corner shop up. There is such excellent alternative material – but who knows about it? Is this really beyond our wit? The Coalition for Media Reform has done great work, but it needs a far bigger grassroots wing – or if not, there needs to be a new movement for democracy. The damage to our democracy, to people’s heads, to our health, is incalculable, as we see every waking minute – and the values of JVL and its supporters are an essential part of that. The chips are down with Starmer.

  • RC says:

    Philip Ward is completely right about the broad strategy, but overlooks the way in which it is very easy to persuade oneself that one’s political opponents are racist, so further, that their politics is founded on racism, so that natural justice, openness to evidence and so on must be disposed of. McCarthyism is an essential component of the operation of the Zionist lobby and its fellow travellers throughout the LP bureaucracy, often operating through fear of the atlanticist establishment and the MSM (“bringing into disrepute”). I suspect that there is a further psychological process going on – that gentiles in particular easily unleash their guilt feelings – eg about the holocaust and its victims and survivors – upon themselves as well as upon the Palestinians and especially their supporters. For Jews, the traditional chauvinism of “is it good for the Jews?” will do as well (which now may include ‘survivor’s guilt’); and simple straightforward hatred and contempt for the Arab masses helps do the job.. And both share their traditional Labour imperialism about the Arab masses; remember Nye Bevan’s denunciation of Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal as ‘theft in the night’. This is not a full picture of course; others will add to the profile and suggest a strategy. In the meantime, complete transparency as promised by Jenny Formby in the ‘hearing’ (?!) of cases of alleged AS must be a demand equal to that posed by Ian.

  • Rosemary challands says:

    Brilliant letter Ian ….thank you so much for putting into words what I would like to say myself ….I hope he takes heed

  • CVA says:

    How can the Labour Party keep ties with the Israeli Labour Party when it has been suspended for membership of the Socialist International?
    How can it allow for the JLM to be a socialist society as its proclaim its ties with the Israeli Labour Party?
    Should the Labour Party in view of Starmer accepting the 10 pledges of the BoD reported to the Socialist International?

  • Rose Shirvani says:

    Thank you,

  • Doug says:

    South Africa taught us how to deal with a racist state
    The threat of war crimes also hang over their heads
    If they want peace and reconciliation then stop using live ammunition against innocent men, women and children would be a good start
    In this country we have to make vexatious claims of anti semitism a hate crime and prosecute those responsible
    Interference in the democratic process from another state should also lead to serious sanctions against that country
    Theres nowt new in this world just spineless and gutless politicians failing the electorate time and time again
    That’s why JC was a breath of fresh air

  • Douglas Saltmarshe says:

    What a terrific letter. Well said. Could not be more clearly expressed. Thank you.

  • John Tester says:

    I couldn’t have written this any better, my thoughts exactly. I have resigned from the party, over the make-up of the Shadow Cabinet.

  • Sharon solomon says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with every word said…I too cannot condone a leader who supports Zionism. This cannot continue, the crimes of israel against the Palestinian people must be stopped and their perpetrators brought to justice.

  • Frances Wilson says:

    For what it is worth, I fully endorse your letter. I am in turmoil as to whether I remain a member or leave the Labour Party. I cannot and will not be silenced over the atrocities that the Israeli government pursue and act out on the people of Palestine.
    I do not give my self a label with the exception of being a Human being. I am a member of the Human Race.
    I respect all faiths, cultures and ethnicities, I condemn all acts of violence, murder, apartheid and genocide. Those that offend have the right to be offended. Thus I condemn the Israeli government and their inhumane treatment of the men, women and children of Palestine.

  • David Stretton says:

    I hope Mr Starmer is aware of the latest Sky news feed:
    The 860-page report, seen by Sky News, concluded factional hostility towards Jeremy Corbyn amongst former senior officials contributed to “a litany of mistakes” that hindered the effective handling of the issue.

    The investigation, which was completed in the last month of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, claims to have found “no evidence” of antisemitism complaints being treated differently to other forms of complaint, or of current or former staff being “motivated by antisemitic intent”.

  • Wojciech Dmochowski says:

    Excellent letter.

  • Michelle helps says:

    I agree with the letter by Dr Ian Wellens.

  • Kim Chenoweth says:

    Well said, thank you.

  • Leslie Hartop says:

    It remains possible, or even likely, that Keir Starmer really is an enthusiastic Zionist, and that he is not just saying what the BoD wants him to for political expediency, but will, bit by bit, attempt to turn Labour into a 100% pro-Israel party.

    First step.. to give the BoD and JLM the apparatus to ‘wrench’ anti-Zionists ‘out by the roots’.

    Subsequent steps have already started to be prepared, specifically, placing John Healey as Shadow Minister of ‘Defense’, and Lisa Nandy as Shadow Foreign Secretary.

    Expect no resistance to calls from Israel and the US for the UK to join in attacks on Iran and pro-Assad forces in Syria.

    Corbyn’s party of peace, is being primed to disclose itself as a party of war.

  • Beverley andetson says:

    Excellent letter. We need to here from the new leader . If not we need a petition started for a transparency of labour party’s position . Not the leaders voice .

  • Diane says:

    Keir’s position and appointments are a sad day for the thousands that are in Labour for its moral socialist anti-apartheid principles. What will happen to the disappointed loyal Labour supporters?

  • Lynne Collins says:

    Its quite simple, even to primary children, South Africa under apartheid was morally wrong & is no more Palestine under apartheid is therefore far worse, ashamed to be British & ashamed of the new Labour leaders cowardice

  • IL says:

    Keir Starmer,
    Please listen to the Jewish opinions expressed in this letter, and comments.
    My grandmother Sophie lost her parents in the holocaust. Please think about what was done to Jewish people then, and why to ‘support Zionism without qualification’ is not acceptable.

  • Roland Laycock says:

    Thanks to Ian Wellens for a great letter

Comments are now closed.