(June 4, 2019 / JNS) A member of the U.K. Parliament, in February, Joan Ryan became one of more than several members to leave the British Labour Party due to its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and the anti-Semitism fostered by him and others in the party. She is now part of Change UK – The Independent Group.
Ryan has represented Enfield North in the British House of Commons since 1997, serving until 2010, when she was defeated. She won back her seat in May 2015.
JNS talked with Ryan in person this week at the AJC Global Forum. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What caused you to leave the Labour Party this year as opposed to when Jeremy Corbyn became leader of Labour?
A: Looking back, we should have known what Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader was, but I don’t think we knew that at the time. The trigger for me after three to four years, lots of things happened; it wasn’t one event. There was one trigger. It was Luciana Berger, a young woman, a Labour member of Parliament, who experienced abuse at the hands of the Labour Party over a number of years. Nothing was done to deal with the situation to protect her. When she left the Labour Party and said it was institutionally anti-Semitic, for me that was the trigger. I couldn’t contradict that. I knew it to be true. I knew that to be an incredibly serious thing, to say your own party. The very party that is the fence against racism, inequality, intolerance is institutionally anti-Semitic, and she’s been driven out because of it. I had to stand in solidarity with her.
Q: Is Corbyn the anti-Semitism problem in Labour, or is it deep-seated through members like Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell, who has steadfastly defended Corbyn?
A: It’s part of the ideology of people who hold those hard-left, Trotskyist, Leninist, Marxist politics. Some of them describe themselves as Stalinist, or they are very anti-Western, anti-American, anti-Israel. We see that reflected in anti-European Union politics, which they see as a big catalyst club. Although Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of Labour, the leader represents the party’s ideology and has the power to do something about it, which he never has. Actions speak louder than words. His actions lead me to conclude that he is anti-Semitic, whether he recognizes it or not.
Q: If Corbyn were ousted from Labour, would it no longer be institutionally anti-Semitic in that you could return to the party?
A: They have their hands on every lever of power at every level of the Labour Party, so if Jeremy Corbyn was no longer leader—I don’t think he would be ousted, he would only be gone if he retires, steps down—the most likely thing is another one of his ilk will be elected because a lot of the good people have left the Labour Party. All of those who have joined have joined on that agenda sadly.
Q: What has your overall reaction been to the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiment in the European Union?
A: I’m encouraged with what the German Bundestag has done recently in defining BDS as anti-Semitic. If it’s at the E.U., British Labour Party, wherever it is, what I’ve said is one of the first lessons we must learn from what’s happened in the British Labour Party is that you have to stand up to anti-Semitism. You have to call it out wherever, whenever it occurs. You have to do that at the very beginning. It’s a virus; it spreads if you don’t. What’s shocking is how fast and how low the Labour Party has sunk. We are very much a part of the European Union, and I hope we stay in it, but wherever it is, you call out anti-Semitism.
Q: Who do you think should replace Prime Minister Theresa May? U.S. President Donald Trump endorsed frontrunner and former Parliament member Boris Johnson.
A: That might not help him at all. Donald Trump is not popular in the U.K. The sad thing in British politics is that both parties have gone to extremes, and I fear for them to find a way back. Whoever is elected doesn’t just become leader, they become prime minister. We have got to hope that somebody will have a more balanced view about Britain’s relationship with the European Union; whether we’re in or out of it, we can’t become Fortress Britain. That is really bad for us. It needs to be someone who can call out the likes of Nigel Farage and the xenophobia he’s introduced to our political culture. It’s a really serious situation that we’re in. It’s not helped by the fact that the Labour Party is led by the kind of political culture that we’ve seen exist. We’re in a bad place. There’s much to do.
Q: Do you see a path to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians similar to the way that peace was achieved between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom? Can P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas be like Martin McGuinness?
A: There’s a path to peace through a two-state solution, and we shouldn’t give up on that. The fact that we haven’t gotten there yet doesn’t mean we can’t. I’m not sure Mahmoud Abbas is going to be able to do that. No two situations are exactly the same, but there’s much to be learned from the fact that when peace came to Northern Ireland, it came very rapidly and quicker than people thought. But there were many years before that where the foundations were laid. Where politicians and others learned that people have to sit down and talk. You don’t get peace by not doing that.
Also, working with civic society to build a constituency for peace is crucially important. Whether it could be Mahmoud Abbas or not, I don’t know. They’ve got very serious issues because you don’t have a unified Palestinian leadership. You have the situation with Hamas, who can never be partners for peace because that is not their agenda. That makes life very hard.
Q: If Corbyn were to become prime minister, what would that mean for British Jews?
A: That’s a question for British Jews, but I think that they would be very concerned about that. The fact that so many of them left the Labour Party in the last election in 2017 and in elections since on the local, national or regional level means they aren’t voting Labour. A large majority of the Jewish community in the U.K., which is a small community, saw Labour as their political home and were very supportive of Labour. The Labour Party of Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, they don’t feel that’s their political home now. How could we expect members of the Jewish community to want to be part of the party that’s institutionally anti-Semitic?
Beyond that, they would be fearful—not that they’re going to be rounded up and deported—but they would be fearful of their children growing up in a situation in which they have to continually face anti-Semitism. They’re fearful of not having their voice, and not being able to live in a decent and tolerable society that’s based on equality and respect, and not being able to see their children grow up in a community that is free of racism. We should all want that for our children.
I’m not Jewish, but I don’t want my grandchildren to grow up in a society and a community that is riven with hatred. If that’s hatred against Jews, then that’s just terrible. Whatever hatred it is, it’s wrong, and we don’t want our children to live in those situations.
Q: How can Change UK – The Independent Group appeal to British Jews?
A: We are very shortly going to sit down with the president of the board of deputies and some of her vice presidents, and we going to publicly sign the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism and make our commitment to fighting anti-Semitism, to standing up to it, and to being a friend to Israel and strong supporters of the two-state solution. We want to give that leadership not just to the Jewish community, but to the whole community.
Q: Is there anything else our readers should know about you?
A: One of the really amazing things about coming to something like the AJC Global Forum is the warmth and the welcome that you receive and the gratitude. You shouldn’t have to say “thank you” to people for doing the right thing. You shouldn’t have to thank people for having decent values. It’s not easy to walk away from your party. But it would be much harder to stay when they’re so in the wrong and so at variance with your values and everything you believe.