Truth and Labour first casualties of Livingstone row

April 21, 2017
Sarah Benton
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This posting has these items:
1) Haaretz: In Defence of Ken Livingstone, by signatory Jonathan Rosenhead who argues there’s nothing antisemitic about historic facts. But there is something sloppy about facts out of context and assertions which aren’t actually facts;
2): Guardian: Free speech and historical accuracy in the Livingstone affair, two critical letters from two JfJfP signatories;
3) TLS: Hitler and the Zionists, Toby Lichtig on all the muddles in this argument, especially by Ken;

Würzburg on “Boycott Day”, 1 April 1933. SS and SA militiamen next to a truck bearing banners calling to boycott Jewish businesses. One of the banners reads “The Jews are our Disaster” (Die Juden sind unser Unglück).
Translation and photo from Yad Vashem.

In Defence of Ken Livingstone

Quoting historical facts can hardly be antisemitic, which is presumably why the Labour Party didn’t even charge Livingstone with it

By Jonathan Rosenhead, Haaretz premium
April 12, 2017 

Ken Livingstone, enfant terrible of the British political left, was arraigned before a Labour Party tribunal last week for things he said in a radio interview in April last year. (He has been suspended from membership since that time.) The outcome of the hearing has produced a mighty uproar.

The affair has its origins in a surge of accusations of antisemitism against prominent Labour Party members in the early months of 2016. One casualty had been Labour MP Naz Shah, who at the time of the 2014 conflict in Gaza had tweeted extensively and not wisely. (She was then not yet an MP.)

Livingstone rode in to her defence, and it was an interview with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio that led to the case against him.

One of Shah’s re-tweets had been a quote from Martin Luther King: “Remember that everything that Hitler did in Germany was legal.” Feltz asked Livingstone a question about Hitler, seemingly to pick up this point, but he misunderstood the thrust and responded with some views on Hitler’s interactions with European Zionist leaders in the 1930s, which he had written about decades earlier.

This response turned out to be a gratuitous own goal, with escalating demands that he be expelled –which peaked last week when the Labour Party tribunal failed to sack him, but ‘only’ extended his suspension.

It is a shame that Colin Shindler gave such a one-dimensional account of the Jewish community component of this furor.* Shindler paints a picture of a British Jewish population all but united behind Israel and against Livingstone, except for a few ”marginal” and “highly unrepresentative” types.

Like me. I need to declare an interest. Although my previous direct contact with Livingstone was limited to a conversation while walking down two flights of stairs after a public meeting some years ago, I was one of five Jewish Labour Party members who gave evidence for the defence at Ken’s hearing a week ago. We testified in particular on the allegation that his remarks had been antisemitic.

The oldest of us had got out of Germany as a child in 1937, with his parents lucky enough to make it two years later. My own back story is less dramatic. I grew up in a thoroughly Zionist family in Liverpool. I spent the summer of 1956 in Israel on the Jewish Agency’s Summer Institute project. I celebrated without any doubts Israel’s military victories from 1948 through to 1967. Many others have since then, like me, been forced by Israel’s continuing treatment of the Palestinians to rethink and regret our former position.

Those who self-describe as Zionist have actually decreased from 72 percent to 59 percent in just five years.

It is true as Shindler says that the great majority of us (around 90 percent, according to a reputable 2015 survey) express some degree of attachment to Israel. Indeed I do myself. However what he glosses over is that more than 40 percent of respondents, when specifically asked, declined to describe themselves as Zionists. Those who self-describe as Zionist have actually decreased from 72 percent to 59 percent in just five years. My own subjective experience is that of those who still do identify as Zionists a substantial proportion express criticisms, some verging on disillusion, with the actual policies of successive Israeli governments.

It gets worse. What the survey calls “dovishness” increases the younger you are, and the more education you have. Among under-30s, the percentage who say they would support sanctions against Israel if they thought it would get Israel to negotiate for real with the Palestinians rises to 41%.

It is not only Shindler who paints a picture of a united Jewish community “up in arms” because the “antisemite” Livingstone has not been expelled. On the day of his non-expulsion Haaretz reported the Jewish Leadership Council as blasting the Labour Party. An article by Daniella Peled quoted incandescent condemnation by the Community Security Trust, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and the Holocaust Education Trust.

The UK’s Jewish communal organizations have indeed been jumping up and down and making a lot of noise, in unison. But this apparent unanimity is a construct.

These organizations effectively blanket out any coverage of this dissident, alternative Jewish perspective. It is as if the Jewish organizations which take a sceptical or downright critical view of Israel – Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Free Speech on Israel, Independent Jewish Voices, Jewish Socialist Group and others – do not exist.

So what did Livingstone say that makes his expulsion so compulsive? He said, in his now infamous radio interview, that when Hitler became chancellor “his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism…” This Transfer (Ha’avarah) Agreement is, perhaps unfortunately, solidly based in fact –  and many more people probably know that now than did before Livingstone’s gratuitous history lesson.

The agreement was based on a unity of purpose (but not of motivation) between the Nazi regime and a range of European Zionist organizations, which lasted through to 1937. The Nazis wanted Jews out of Germany, and Zionists wanted Jews to settle Palestine. As a quid pro quo for the arrangement Zionists called off the economic boycott of Germany and gave other assistance to the faltering German economy.

Although shortly after Hitler’s election as Chancellor in 1933 the Central Jewish Association of Germany issued a statement of support for the regime and held that “the responsible government authorities [i.e. the Hitler regime] are unaware of the threatening situation,” saying, “we do not believe our German fellow citizens will let themselves be carried away into committing excesses against the Jews.” Most other Jews were not blinded by such wishful thinking and joined the boycott of German goods, initiated in the USA.

How could Livingstone’s statement of facts about the Ha’avarah agreement be seen as antisemitic? One neat solution found by Livingstone’s enemies was to misquote it, either as “Hitler and the Zionists collaborated”; or even as “Hitler was a Zionist.” The host on a BBC radio programme swore blind to me that Livingstone had said just that.

Quoting historical facts can hardly be antisemitic, which is presumably why the Labour Party didn’t even charge him with it. The allegation was, rather, of “bringing the Party into disrepute” – a nicely vague and plausible accusation, for which he received a two-year suspension. No penalty was imposed on all those MPs and other Labour worthies from the right of the Party who seemingly thought they might be able to get rid of one of the Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s most effective supporters. They brought the party into disrepute but, of course, were not charged.

Weaponising the charge of antisemitism

There are multiple casualties in all this. Foremost there is the truth, bent and misused for partisan purposes. Second, the Labour Party, brought even lower in popular esteem by the continuing disloyal attempts to unseat a leader with a radical mandate – and one who supports the Palestinian cause. Third, the fight against antisemitism. Until recently there was no doubt about what the concept meant, and that it was anathema to all but an unsavoury fringe. Individuals and organizations who think that it can be raised into both a shield against criticisms of Israel, and a weapon for taking back control of the Labour Party, are trying to politicize the notion of antisemitism. Only the real antisemites will benefit from the resulting confusion.

Jonathan Rosenhead is Emeritus Professor of Operational Research at the London School of Economics. He is chair of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, Vice-Chair of Free Speech on Israel and a JfJfP signatory.

Free speech and historical accuracy in the Livingstone affair

Letters to The Guardian from two JfJfP signatories
April 7, 2017

Whatever motivated Ken Livingstone to play the Hitler card in a bizarre, unprompted and unwanted attempt to defend Naz Shah, justifications on the basis of alleged historical accuracy (Letters, 6 April) miss the point that the context and purpose of such remarks need to be taken into account.

It is difficult to see them as anything other than another way of saying that Zionism equals Nazism, an equation that is not only offensive to many Jews and others who resolutely oppose Israel’s policies, but also undermines the legitimate national aspirations of the Palestinian people. It would have been difficult for members of Labour’s national constitutional committee to have reached any conclusion other than that the party had been brought into disrepute, though the sanction has proved controversial.

In this respect, the party might usefully learn from the practices of bodies dealing with professional standards. In the case of doctors, for example, a tribunal will consider a series of factors including remorse, insight and risk of repetition in deciding between suspension and erasure from the medical register. It is also axiomatic that the reputation of the profession as a whole is more important than the interests of any individual doctor.

Given the pressing need for a credible Labour party to challenge Tory hegemony, it would be a sub-Shakespearian but necessary outcome of continued due process if Livingstone, who has indeed “done the state some service”, proves through persistent lack of insight to have effectively written his own political obituary.
Dr Anthony Isaacs

• It is not as a Jewish Labour party member but as a historian that I am offended by Ken Livingstone’s views on Hitler and Zionism. Livingstone has a feeble grasp of this history and his repeated claims to be merely speaking the historical truth compound his original error.

To claim that Hitler “was supporting Zionism” travesties the fact that Zionists aspired to create a Jewish state in Palestine, while Hitler was committed only to achieving the wholesale removal of Jews from Germany. Some German Zionists were prepared to negotiate with the Nazis in pursuit of their objective, but Hitler’s own interest in Palestine was purely opportunistic.

Nazi thinking was based on the premise that a resettled German-Jewish population in Palestine would remain under the firm rule of the colonial power, Britain. In this vision, German Jews in Palestine, far from achieving the statehood to which Zionists aspired, would live in a kind of controlled reservation policed by the British.

To the extent that a Jewish state nevertheless seemed likely to emerge in time and threaten to provide a new basis for the global “Jewish conspiracy”, Hitler’s interest in a “Palestinian solution” cooled. Why these simple facts escape Livingstone and his defenders is beyond me.

Jane Caplan
Professor emeritus of modern European history, University of Oxford

Hitler and the Zionists

By Toby Lichtig, TLS
May 05, 2016

Amid all the outcry and ill feeling surrounding Ken Livingstone’s Hitler-was-a-Zionist “gaffe”, it’s probably worth referring to a few historical facts. I’m not sure which history book the former London mayor has been reading, but it presumably isn’t Peter Longerich’s Holocaust (2010), in which we can find (on page 67, should Livingstone wish to consult it) a very clear explanation of the Reich’s policy on Palestine:

“on 16 January 1937 [well before Hitler, in Livingstone’s estimation, ‘went mad’] the Reich Minister of the Interior informed the German  Foreign Office that it was planning to continue to support the policy of Jewish emigration regardless of the destination countries [including Palestine]. But after it began to emerge in early 1937 that Britain’s Peel Commission might opt for a Jewish state in Palestine, on 1 June the Foreign Minister, Neurath, sent guidelines to the embassies in London and Baghdad and to the Consul General in Jerusalem in which he made it crystal clear that he was against the formulation of a Jewish state or ‘anything resembling that state’”.

In other words, and not surprisingly, the Nazi Party was not happy, in the words of Longerich, with the idea of “an internationally recognized power base for world Jewry”.

It is true that Adolf Eichmann visited Palestine, also in 1937, to promote “Zionist emigration of Jews from Germany”, as well as to keep a close eye on the Zionist organizations in the British Mandate, and perhaps this confused Livingstone, who apparently fails to understand the difference between Hitler’s desire to get rid of his Jewish population as quickly and efficiently as possible and a sincere concern for the desirability for nationhood of a much persecuted ethno-religious group.


Vladimir Jabotinsky (centre). © FPG/Getty Images
Vladimir Jabotinsky (centre), a ‘Jewish fascist’ according to fascist Mussolini. ‘Colossus or neo-fascist?’ asks a review of his biography by Colin Shindler, Jewish Chronicle, Sept. 4th, 2014. Photo by FPG/Getty Images

Perhaps Livingstone was also thinking about the arguably “fascist” – although certainly not Nazi – elements of certain Zionist factions in the years leading up to the formation of the Jewish State in 1948 and beyond. It is interesting to note, for example, that Benito Mussolini, whose own antisemitism was born more of political expediency than ideological fervour, praised Vladimir Jabotinsky – the founder of Revisionist Zionism and the father to today’s Likud Party, currently in power in Israel – as a “Jewish fascist”.

Certainly, there was plenty of talk of Jewish sweat and Jewish soil and Jewish exceptionalism in a specifically Jewish state. Indeed, it would have been surprising if a nationalist movement at that time hadn’t, in its most extreme manifestations, taken on some of the characteristics of the fascism so in vogue. In December 1948, a few months after the formation of the Israeli State, Albert Einstein, who knew a thing or two about the terrible effects of right-wing politics, wrote to the New York Times to complain about one of “the most disturbing political phenomena of our times” – the new Israeli Freedom Party (also the precursor to today’s Likud), which he described as “closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist Parties”. There is a genuine debate to be had about the fascist strains in certain – and I stress certain – elements of early Zionist ideology, even if that ideology was born of the desire to escape oppression. But regardless of the context in which Livingstone was speaking, and apart from anything else about this sorry episode, he does us no favours at all by getting history so badly wrong.

Perhaps the former mayor was also confused by the term “Hitler Zionist” – a pejorative used in the 1950s and 60s by the Zionist pioneers (“Sabras”) who had been in the country for several decades, or were born there, to refer to those who had merely been forced into their “Zionism” by dint of their expulsion by Hitler. If so, he might again wish to consider the difference between ejection and nation-building.

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Adolf Eichmann in 1932 the year he  joined the SS Division of the Austrian Nazi Party. Letter from SS Untersturmführer Eichmann to Herbert Hagen, May 8, 1938:
“…All Jewish organizations in Austria have been ordered to make out weekly reports…The first issue of the Zionist Rundschau is to appear next Friday…I am now on the boring job of censorship… In any case, I have got these gentlemen on the go, you may believe me. They are already working very busily. I demanded an emigration figure of 20,000 Jews without means for the period from April 1, 1938 to May 1, 1939, from the Jewish community and the Zionist organization for Austria, and they promised to me that they would keep to this.” (cited in Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews. The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939, HarperCollins Publishers, NY, 1999, 244)

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Whatever the case, what no part of Ken Livingstone’s little indiscretion does is encourage people to be clear-headed about the very distinct and salient differences between Zionism in the 1930s; Zionist ideology in the twenty-first century – the original aim of Herzl’s Zionist project having been emphatically attained; and the foreign and domestic policies of the current and recent Israeli governments. Nor, for that matter, does it help us to consider the various differences between Jews of the diaspora, with their multiplicity of views on Israel; Israeli Jews who support a two-state solution; those who support a one-state one; Zionist settlers who believe in a greater Israel; and Israeli Arabs – as opposed to the long-suffering Palestinians of the Occupied Territories – who so often tend to get forgotten in discussions about Israel: which is to say, the Arabs who are represented by a robust, if troubled, democracy, with MPs in the Knesset.

But, then, nuance isn’t one of the most noteworthy features of contemporary discourse on Israel–Palestine, whether or not it is used as a smokescreen for antisemitism. We can only hope that the rightful widespread outrage about Ken Livingstone’s foolishness or – possibly – racism does not itself get co-opted to drown out the very many nuances of this most vexed of political issues: an issue whose very vexedness – in comparison to, say, the rather more muted outrage expressed daily at human rights abuses in Sudan or Equatorial Guinea or even that other great Western ally in the region, Saudi Arabia – is itself in danger of transmuting from a justifiable concern for the wellbeing and need for nationhood of the Palestinian people into something far more worrying and obsessional.


* The Stench of the Anti-Semitic Old Right That Hangs Around Ken Livingstone, Colin Shindler, Haaretz, April 6th, 2017

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