Livingstone's free gift
Late April 2016. The London mayoral elections are approaching and the Tories are running an openly Islamophobic campaign against Sadiq Khan. The Labour Party, which founded Britain’s race relations laws, and whose representatives have spoken on countless anti-racist platforms, should be well placed to expose and oppose it.
But Labour is on the back foot, facing repeated accusations of antisemitism, most of them false or wildly distorted. They emanate from Tory politicians, right wing newspapers, pro- Zionist commentators and Blairite Labour MPs, who share a desire to undermine Jeremy Corbyn and restrict free speech on Israel, Palestine and Zionism. They trawl through old social media accounts looking for gold. That month they denounced Bradford MP Naz Shah for tweets made during the 2014 Gaza War, before she was elected to Parliament. One tweet urged friends to answer an online poll about the Gaza War because, she warned, “The Jews are rallying”. Not “Zionists”. Not “supporters of Israel”, but Jews. But Shah wrong-foots her accusers by apologising and acknowledging her mistake and the offence it caused.
Seeking to defuse the right-wing campaign, Corbyn’s team welcome her apology. The next day Ken Livingstone is interviewed on Radio London. A smart tactic would be to acknowledge Shah’s apology and use the weight of his considerable record of anti-racist initiatives in London turn the heat on the Tories Islamophobic mayoral campaign. Disastrously, he defends the tweets for which Shah has already apologized. He then claims that in 1932 Hitler supported Zionism “before he went mad and killed six million Jews”. Many ordinary Jews are shocked. Anti-Corbyn plotters are gleeful at Livingstone’s free gift. Principled anti-racists – including Jewish leftists – are appalled and exasperated.
Livingstone is immediately suspended. Many leftists offer him unconditional support. Others, myself included, are more reticent. His supporters claim he was simply stating a “fact”, and facts can’t be antisemitic.
Disgracefully, it took a year for his case to be heard. During that year, Labour right-wingers such as Wes Streeting, Ruth Smeeth and Michael Dugher, repeatedly brought the party into disrepute with puerile, damaging comments about Corbyn, but faced no disciplinary measures. It took the NEC four months to suspend the Labour donor, Michael Foster, who likened Corbyn supporters to Nazi stormtroopers. That hypocrisy stinks. I oppose any moves by these hypocrites to expel Livingstone but I can’t excuse his crass and damaging intervention.
Livingstone claims that his enemies want to expel him because he supports Palestine and Jeremy Corbyn. But the nature and timing of his intervention embarrassed Palestinians and undermined Corbyn. Palestinian spokespersons remain conspicuously silent over Livingstone. They know that dredged-up partial truths, which omit context and ignore inconvenient contradictory factors, are also partial lies. For many years, cynical Zionist propagandists have highlighted the pro-Nazi activism of the Mufti of Jerusalem during World War 2 (he was imposed by the British), as if he actually represents Palestinians past and present.
Ken Livingstone’s prime source on Nazi and Zionist history was an American journalist Lenni Brenner, who published Zionism in the Age of the Dictators in 1983. Brenner’s selective history makes crude allegations of Zionist-Nazi collaboration, treats the actions of some Zionists as representing most Zionists, and profoundly distorts the power relations between Zionists and Nazis. Hitler’s psychological assessment by Livingstone is way off too. Hitler didn’t suddenly “go mad”. He had elaborated his virulent, antisemitism towards Jews in Mein Kampf in 1925. Once in power, his efforts towards expulsion, deprivation of rights, and ultimately mass industrialised extermination followed a gruesome internal logic.
Livingstone referenced an agreement involving Nazis and some German Jews (and got the date wrong). I could furnish proof of leading Zionists in 1930s Poland giving further succour to antisemites. For example, they publicly agreed with prominent politicians who said that Poland had “a million superfluous Jews”. But it would be dishonest to do so without acknowledging that: other Zionists disagreed with them; many Zionists were heroic anti-Nazi ghetto fighters and partisans (alongside anti-Zionist Bundists and Communists); and some non-Zionist Jews also tried to make deals with their Nazi overlords to save lives.
Those, like Livingstone, who believe that digging up historical misdemeanours by selected Jews, including some Zionists under Nazi rule, is a useful way of critiquing Zionism today are seriously mistaken. They demonstrate a crude belief in collective guilt that spans decades or even centuries. Shami Chakrabarti was right in her Inquiry report to urge critics of Israeli policy to “use the modern universal language of human rights, be it of dispossession, discrimination, segregation, occupation, persecution and … leave Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust out of it”.
The case against Israel’s occupation and ill-treatment of the Palestinians is unanswerable. Resting that case on what some Zionists, criticized by other Zionists, did in 1930s Germany is shoddy politics. It risks justifiable charges of antisemitism for diminishing the Nazis’ responsibility for the Holocaust. It also diverts responsibility away from the Israeli government’s own policies that subjugate Palestinians today.