In a classic piece of unconscious attention-seeking he found himself on the radio defending Labour MP, Naz Shah, who had been suspended by the party for anti-Zionist remarks on social media (before she was a MP) that Israel should be “re-located” and their people “transported” to the United States. It would save the US money, you see.
Now I don’t hold to the view that all anti-Zionist remarks are necessarily anti-semitic. By ‘anti-Zionist’ I mean: critical of, or antagonistic to, the policies and actions - historically and in the present - of various governments of the State of Israel. But to my mind such anti-Zionist views shade into anti-semitism when there is a wish to de-legitimise the very existence of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people: such a view makes Jews into the only people who are not permitted to have a self-determining existence as a nation state. Thus the rhetoric of anti-Zionism can hide, or mask, anti-semitism. And such hiding or masking of deeper-seated anti-semitic feelings (i.e. anti-Jewish feelings) can be consciously done - or it may not even be conscious for the one holding ‘anti-Zionist’ views.
Naz Shah’s remarks are hard to defend as anything other than anti-semitic. Her use of the vocabulary of “transportation” is particularly chilling to Jewish ears. But Ken Livingstone, while admitting that her views were “over the top”, denied that Naz Shah was anti-semitic. This is actually an interesting test case as to what we mean by ‘anti-semitic’, for now that she is an MP, in Bradford, Ms. Shah apparently has very good relationships with the Jewish community. Can someone who can say, as it were and un-ironically, ‘some of my best friends are Jews’ still be anti-semitic? I suppose so, because while any of us might have warm individual relationships with other people we perceive as ‘other’ than us, we can still harbour prejudices and antipathies to whatever group they belong to; and that group could be an ethnic, sexual or national group. This is part of what it means to be human – to be contradictory, to be a composite of different, sometimes mutually opposing, views and feelings and impulses.
Part of the difficulty of discussing these issues of anti-semitism and anti-Zionism is that acknowledgement of the unconscious, and the tendency for all of us to be holding within us contradictory views and feelings, rarely figures as part of our public conversation. Psychological complexity goes by the board as everything is reduced to simplicities and essentialist formulations like ‘she’s an antisemite’, ‘he’s a monster’, ‘they are crazy’. But things – and people – are rarely that black and white.
Let me return to Ken Livingstone. After defending Naz Shah, he seemed to become bewitched by his own rhetoric and proceeded to utter remarks that have stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy - and have led to his own suspension (not for the first time) from the Labour party. “Let’s remember”, he said, “when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism – this before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews”.
Livingstone has subsequently defended these gratuitous remarks as “historical fact”. Which is bizarre, given that each of the separate parts of that sentence - other than the last phrase - is incorrect.
Let’s start with Hitler’s so-called ‘election’: there were in fact four major elections in Germany in 1932, none of which Hitler ‘won’ – there were 2 rounds of Presidential elections, in both of which Hitler was defeated by Paul von Hindenburg; in the Federal election of July 1932, the Nazi party gained more seats than other parties but didn’t have a majority, leading to a minority government led by Franz von Papen; in the Federal election of November 1932, the Nazi party saw a significant drop in both votes and seats. So Hitler never won an election in 1932. In January 1933 the weakened 84-year old President von Hindenburg made Adolf Hitler Chancellor. Following a systemic campaign of terror and suppression directed at other political parties, particularly the communists, Hitler then ‘won’ 43% of the vote in the subsequent March 1933 Federal election - which still necessitated a coalition in order to rule.
Secondly, the statement that Hitler believed that “Jews should be moved to Israel” might be Livingstone’s shorthand way of speaking, but is of course a historical absurdity as even he must know: Israel did not come into being until – following the UN’s Partition Plan for Palestine of November 1947 (Resolution 181) - the State of Israel was declared on 14th May, 1948.
But of course most controversial of all – a piece of polemic that he must have known would engage and enrage his audience (which these days, with 24/7 news, includes us all) – is the statement that Hitler “was supporting Zionism”. What on earth does Livingstone think is the “historical fact” behind that? As he hasn’t said, I can only surmise.
If you do a bit of digging in the history books you can read about the so-called ‘Ha’avara (Transfer) Agreement’ signed between Nazi Germany and the Zionist Federation of Germany on 25th August 1933. This was designed to facilitate the transfer of German Jews to Palestine. German Jews gave up their possessions to the government before departing for Palestine, having paid the equivalent of £1000 into the Anglo-Palestine Bank (which was under the direction of the Jewish Agency in Palestine).This money which could then be used to buy back their goods and have them transferred to Palestine as German export goods.
This agreement was, inevitably, controversial at the time: it was criticised by many Jewish leaders, both in the Zionist movement and outside it, and Hitler’s support of it seems unclear, veering from criticism at the beginning to support in the period 1937-9. Is this what Livingstone means when he said that Hitler “was supporting Zionism”? If so, then by Livingstone’s confused and devious logic, Donald Trump’s call for 11 million unregistered Mexicans to be returned – ‘transferred’ – back to Mexico could be described as evidence for him being a pro-Mexico patriot and supporter. Or as commentator Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian in regard to Livingstone’s “garbled and insulting” version of history: it’s “as if there is any moral comparison between wishing to inflict mass expulsion on a minority and the desire to build a thriving society where that minority might live.”
Of course what underlies Livingstone’s bombastic and egregious comments is his wish to set up a moral comparison between Nazism and Israel (and its alleged ‘war crimes’). It could be argued that it is not overtly anti-semitic to make this comparison: I was shocked to read 25 years ago about the way in which soldiers in the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] routinely described their activities in the occupied territories by using - with bitter and self-knowing irony - Nazi vocabulary such as going out on an Aktion (see Ari Shavit’s On Gaza Beach, New York Review of Books, July 18th, 1991). But Livingstone’s tarring of Israel with the brush of Nazism is a regular and depressing trope of ideologically-rigid leftist rhetoric as well as some strands of Islamist-inspired Muslim prejudice.
What leads me to the last error in Livingstone’s polemical sentence. His belief that the murder of 6 million Jews happened because Hitler “went mad”. This betrays, sadly but significantly, a real blind-spot in Livingstone’s thinking. For it was not a mental aberration that led to genocide. It was the cold and calculated result of an ideology. The logic of Nazi Aryan ideology required the extinction of ‘inferior’ classes of people: Jews, the mentally handicapped, the disabled, and so on. (Too rigid belief-systems are forms of cruelty – the one who suffers may be the believer themselves, but more often someone else has to suffer). That Livingstone can’t see that it was the pernicious effects of an ideology that led to mass murder – and not one man’s mental derangement – is a reflection of his own lack of insight about the destructive nature of so much ideological political thinking, including his own.
A final word. Livingstone’s reckless display of his own unconscious antisemitism may have damaged the chances of the Labour candidate for Mayor, the liberal Muslim Sadiq Khan, a decent man who has had to endure from some quarters a semi-racist and Islamophobic campaign against him. If it has, then Livingstone can enjoy his – what shall we call it? – perhaps schadenfreude is the necessary word in this context. If he can’t be London Mayor, no other Labour candidate can be allowed to. That remains to be seen.
But what is clearer is that in the presence of Livingstone-like hostility to the Jewish State, inflected with stands of antisemitic discourse, it becomes harder for Jews to continue undauntedly to express their loving concern about Israel’s ongoing failure to correct the historic injustices of the nearly 50-year occupation of Palestinian lands, the systematic daily brutalisation of Palestinians that is a consequence of occupation, and their intransigence in relation to agreeing to a two-state solution and an independent Palestine. Yet for Jews the moral case for the existence of a Jewish State and the moral critique of the existing State will continue to go hand in hand.
For those who are interested in these issues
For those who are interested in these issues
there is an interview with me available from BBC London’s Sunday morning ‘In Spirit’ programme. Go to :
You can find it at 02:11:10 into the programme.
This may not be available outside the UK