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What the Left can learn about anti-Semitism from Ken Livingstone

Why would the senior Labour member allow himself to be dragged into a debate about the Holocaust while his party is bending over backwards to fend off accusations that it is teeming with anti-Semites?

By Gilad Halpern

File photo of former London Mayor Ken Livingstone of the UK Labour Party. (Viktor Kovalenko / Shutterstock.com)

File photo of former London Mayor Ken Livingstone of the UK Labour Party. (Viktor Kovalenko / Shutterstock.com)

Ken Livingstone may not realize it, but he has done the progressive left a great service.

Livingstone, a veteran UK Labour Party politician and former mayor of London, was suspended from his party on Thursday for saying in a radio interview that Hitler was a Zionist. For his party, still reeling from a series of mini-scandals involving unsavory statements about Israel and the Jews, it was one borderline anti-Semitic remark too many.

Livingstone’s handling of the scandal that now bears his name is a textbook example of everything that’s wrong with the radical European left today. Because if you look at his initial comment, it was perhaps simplistic and crass, but not entirely mistaken.

“Let’s remember when Hitler won his election in 1932,” he said, trying to defend fellow Labour MP Naz Shah who had herself been suspended for writing on Facebook that Israel should be relocated to the United States, “his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism – this was before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.”

This statement is riddled with inaccuracies: Hitler came to power in 1933, not 1932; Israel would not be established for another 16 years, and was then known as British-ruled Palestine; and most important, Hitler was already a murderous maniac in 1932. If he was ever sane, he went mad long before that.

But there’s an element of truth in what Livingstone said: although Hitler himself was most likely not a Zionist, the anti-Semitic European right of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the Nazi regime in its early phase, saw eye to eye with Zionism on where Europe’s Jews belonged — not in Europe.

Edouard Drumont, the godfather of French anti-Semitism, congratulated Theodor Herzl in his 1891 book Jewish France and suggested that Jews should be “sent back to Palestine.” It became an instant bestseller. In 1933, the German government and the Zionist Organization signed an agreement that facilitated the immigration of 50,000 German Jews to Palestine. And in 1934, a delegation led by SS officer Leopold Von Mildenstein visited Palestine to assess the feasibility of resettling Germany’s Jews in it. The coordinator of the visit was Kurt Tuchler, the leader of the Zionist Federation of Germany, whose grandson Arnon Goldfinger made a fascinating documentary about it.

None of the above is meant to defend Livingstone’s jibe nor to criticize his suspension, which I view as fair and well-deserved, all the more so as he remains adamant in his refusal to apologize. The reason he came under so much fire was the subtext: assuming that issue had some relevance for 2016 Britain, he was talking about the present, not the past. It was his underlying intentions that were called into question. Why on earth would one evoke Hitler’s supposed warming to Zionism in a debate about contemporary politics, if it wasn’t to draw some sort of parallel, as awkward and far-fetched as it may have been, between Zionism and Nazism? And why would he allow himself to be dragged into a debate about the Holocaust at a time when his party is bending over backwards to fend off accusations that it is teeming with anti-Semites? Livingstone, an astute and experienced politician, took a plunge into an empty pool.

While all this might have been a slip of a tongue from a politician who’s no stranger to controversies, it is pitted against a dubious backdrop of his consistent effort to downplay positions within his party that could be branded, if not downright anti-Semitic, as bigoted and hateful.

He has repeatedly said that throughout his 47-year affiliation with the Labour Party, he has not once heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic. He continued to say that even as it emerged that party functionary Vicky Kirby tweeted that Jews had “big noses,” and that a local councilor called Hitler “the greatest man in history.” He himself said, in a hair-raisingly awkward attempt to defend his comrades – or perhaps himself — that a real anti-Semite hates Jews everywhere, not just those in Israel. Even in the off-chance that it doesn’t amount to anti-Semitism, an indiscriminate hatred for a group of people by virtue of their nationality sounds an awful lot like bigotry at its ugliest.

It seems that the fall from grace of a heavyweight of Livingstone’s caliber has convinced party leader Jeremy Corbyn that there’s more to Labor’s anti-Semitism problem than mudslinging by his Conservative rivals and centrist Labourites who have been unhappy to see their party taken over by a hardline socialist. Corbyn admitted that there is a problem – and as any addict would know, that’s the first step towards rehabilitation.

Yes, the vetting of old Facebook posts published by Labour representatives long before they dreamed of public office is disingenuous – let alone that only a year ago the leader of the party was the Jewish Ed Miliband. And as always, there’s a hefty amount of hypocrisy: on Saturday, as the scandal spiraled, the Israeli Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog called on his British counterparts to visit Yad Vashem. Strangely enough, he didn’t urge the Conservative Party leaders to do the same when they struck down a proposal, tabled by a Kindertransport survivor, to accept 3,000 child refugees, in case anyone needed further proof who hasn’t learned the lessons of the Holocaust.

But the obsession of some people on the far-left with Israel that often boils over to outlandish conspiracy theories (of which “Israel and the Jews are running the world” is just one), is under much greater scrutiny. And that’s a good thing: sunlight, as they say, is the best disinfectant.

Gilad Halpern is a journalist and broadcaster, host of “The Tel Aviv Review – Ideas from Israel” podcast on TLV1 Radio.

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    1. Mark

      Livingstone has clearly outed himself as a racist, and at the same time outed most of his “progressive left” faction.

      Hiding behind an anti-racist facade he was twice rejected by London voters who could see right through him. He was twice defeated by a bufoon which was the best the Tory party had to offer at the time.

      The current candidate, a Muslim, has completely distanced himself from Livingstone and his ilk. He was on track to win but now fears he is at risk of guilt by association.

      Let’s hope the “progressive left” is finally on the way out, taking all their garbage with them.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Susan

      Well, I’m stunned. This the first time 972 has admitted that there is real antisemitism on the left that I have seen. Ken Livingstone has said that Jews won’t vote for him, because they are too rich. An antisemitic comment that has nothing to do with Israel or Zionisim.

      I actually support a lot of the progressive left’s domestic agenda, but if I were British I wouldn’t vote for the Tories or Labour and the Lib Dems are not really any better.

      Reply to Comment
      • Neggy

        That’s why you should vote UKIP, for a party that doesn’t pander to Muslim antisemitism for votes.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        No need to be stunned. +972 Magazine has no need to “admit” anti-Semitism exists. It in fact has actively challenged anti-Semitic elements and incidents on the left. In my experience +972 has been a remarkably steadfast and consistent champion of human rights for all people, Jewish and Gentile alike, without fear or favor.

        This is just one example:

        By +972 Blog | July 23, 2014
        Anti-Semitism has no place in Palestine advocacy

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Here is another:

        By Larry Derfner | September 4, 2014
        Fight occupation, anti-Semitism, Islamic State at the same time


        We should be proud of +972 on this score, not begrudging and implying that it needs to “admit” something. Far from it. +972 in my opinion is in the vanguard of the fight against all serious human rights violations in its area code, including anti-Semitism. It is tremendously consistent and sure on this. Those who assume otherwise either haven’t been paying attention or come at it with a preconceived and biased agenda.

        Reply to Comment
        • Mike Green

          Anti-semitism cannot be justified under any circumstances but I think it’s a minor issue in the UK compared to other vile stances such as anti-islamophobia or racism. Hating Muslims and/or hating Black people is incredibly common throughout the West and also in the US. Watching Trevor Noah’s programme the other day he told of a story of a guy being eject from a plane because simply he spoke in Arabic, that being perceived as a prelude to terrorism!
          What saddens me about Ken’s comments is that is helps to perpetuate the notion that if you criticise Israeli government abuses at all then you are automatically assumed to be a hater of Jews and Israel itself.

          Reply to Comment
      • Liza

        That’s a major progress, but it doesn’t change the fact that this site is a major contribution to left wing anti Semitism around the world. just look at the comments on its FB page.

        Reply to Comment
    3. sammy weir (@sammyweir1)

      Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933 but the Nazi Party did win its election victory in July, 1932.
      States/nations are judged by their actions & statements of policy as they should be. Thus Israel is widely condemned for its policies in invading Palestine, building illegal settlements, walls, checkpoints, killing unarmed civilians & detention centres.
      There is nothing anti-Semitic about that; such criticism as it has been levelled at many countries in the past.
      Ironic that the Daily Mail should jump onto this issue & use it against the Labour Party, as their owners the Rothermeres, supported Hitler’s Nazis prior to 1939.

      Reply to Comment
    4. This is a particularly useless article which understands nothing of the dynamics of what is happening in Britain.

      Zionism employes the holocaust as a weapon against supporters of Palestine it is therefore legitimate to remind ourselves of Zionism’s treacherous and abysmal role during the holocaust.

      I haven’t read Eduord Drumont’s book La France Juive but it was published in 1886 and I very much doubt that it mentioned Herzl in it since the latter was not then a Zionist!

      Likewise Vicky Kirbyn’s tweet about ‘Jewish noses’ sounds awful but this is one of the bogus accusations of anti-Semitism. This long lost tweet was in fact quoting from a satirical play which used these words. Asa Winstanley’s excellent article on Electronic Intifada analyses the bogus nature of all these posts.
      How Israel lobby manufactured UK Labour Party’s anti-Semitism crisis

      Unlike this ignorant article it actually looks at each anti-Semitic incident and finds it has been contrived, invented or carefully altered.

      The question is who by. To my mind it is quite clear but in 20 years or so when someone does a Freedom of Information Act request it will become clear.

      The Americans quite clearly took fright at the possibility that a radical anti-imperialist, who opposed Trident, NATO and the special relationship between the UK and USA would take over Britain’s 2nd largest party. So what did they do? What the CIA has done in countless countries in South America and elsewhere. Organise to destabilise it with the Conservative press and our friends the Zionists.

      Other mistakes include the fact that the visit of Baron von Mildenstein to Palestine was in 1933 not 1934.

      Livingstone has always been at the fore of those opposing racism. Anti-semitism in Britain is a marginal prejudice at best or worst. It is the anti-racism of the Right who use it to cover their sins.

      If you want to know about real anti-Semitism as about the Conservatives friends in the European Parliament which include people like Michal Kaminski formerly of Poland’s Law & Justice Party and Robert Zile of Latvia’s LNNK, who has an endearing habit of marching every year with the Waffen SS veterans.

      But then most fascists and neo-Nazi groups in Europe love Israel and Zionism even if they don’t love Jews. Because when it comes to hatred of Muslims no one can better Israel

      Reply to Comment
    5. Generally I am always excited to read +972, but this time I have some reservations.
      In the face of real antisemitism (and history giving plenty of examples), considering a statement like “Jews have big noses” to be anti-semitic seems a little strange to me.
      Further, when someone says “Jews” but means “Israelis” s/he is rightly corrected. So if someone hates Israelis, but not Jews, is he rightly considered an anti-Semite? Apart from the futility of hating, there is a clear distinction: Semites vs. the citizens of a country that perpetuate an occupation and everything that goes with it for almost 50 years.
      Even the statement “Hitler was the greatest man in history” is not per se antisemitic (probably the person saying that is but the statement itself is not).
      Accusing people of Antisemitism for thing like that mocks the memory of its true victims.

      Reply to Comment
    6. William Burns

      The Nazis were the largest party following the German federal election of 1932, so Livingstone is correct in referring to 1932 as the year Hitler won his election.

      Reply to Comment
    7. This article misses the orchestrated witch hunt taking place in Britain. To take one example, the ‘Jews have Big Noses’ comment was truncated and taken out of context. Vicky Kirby was explicitly quoting a character in a film (The Infidel) by (Jewish) writer David Baddiel. For detail, see here: https://electronicintifada.net/content/how-israel-lobby-manufactured-uk-labour-partys-anti-semitism-crisis/16481 . Perhaps witch hunts can find some real witches. The majority of the victims will be innocent.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Rascal

      We always read about the conflation of Zionism and Judaism and it seems we have a new argument showing they are not synonymous. Can someone be Jewish and anti-Zionist? of course, an example would be JVP and/or any other anti-Zionist Jewish organization. Now here is the crux of the matter: Can someone be pro-Zionist yet antisemitic? That is Livingston’e argument concerning Hitler and the Zionists. Actually, the argument mirrors many Zionists feelings about Christian Zionists who only want a Jewish state as a prerequisite to Armageddon. The simple answer would be that Zionism, a political philosophy, although borrowing much from the Jewish religion and customs is not synonymous with Judaism no matter how much its supporters seem to fudge and confuse the two.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Article about deportation inaccuracies,because of the omission that Hitler had a pact with the Mufti of Jerusalem that the Mufti would murder all Jews in region

      Reply to Comment

      However,Livingstone gave the imression from his wording that Hitler was well disposed to the Jews. The opposite was the case – He wanted to get rid of the Jews from Germany and saw Zionism as a useful vehicle to achieve this

      Reply to Comment
    11. Mark`

      I am appalled that Jackie Walker, vice-chair of the Momentum movement which is a front for the regressive left to infiltrate the Labour Party, has been reinstated into the British Labour Party. IMHO what she wrote on her Facebook page was undoubtedly grossly anti-Semitic.

      1. She claims that HER Jewish ancestors financed the sugar & slave trades. As this was say 250 years ago, I am wary of this claim. Few people know with exactitude the business affairs of their ancestors 8 generations ago. Even if it were true, it is wholly racist to suggest that MY Jewish ancestors were involved in the trade. It is a classic smear that if some Jews were involved all Jews bear the responsibility for the activities of the few.

      2. She concludes that the evidence of the Jews’ involvement are the early synagogues dotted around Caribbean islands. Now I happen to know Jackie Walker and her connection with Jews is tenuous in the extreme. I suspect she has no idea that early Jewish settlement in the Americas was driven not by business but by flight from the Inquisition.

      3. As things stand I am astonished by the claim that 8.5% of British Jews dare support the Labour Party as it tinkles with racial hatred.

      Reply to Comment