Ken Livingstone: “[Naz Shah is] a deep critic of Israel and its policies. Her remarks were over-the-top but she’s not anti-Semitic. I’ve been in the Labour party for 47 years; I’ve never heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic. I’ve heard a lot of criticism of the state of Israel and its abuse of Palestinians but I’ve never heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic.”
Vanessa Feltz: “She talked about relocating Israel to America, she talked about what Hitler did being legal and she talked about the Jews rallying. And she used the word ‘Jews’; not ‘Israelis’ or ‘Israel’. You didn’t find that to be anti-Semitic?”
Ken Livingstone: “It’s completely over the top but it’s not anti-Semitism. Let’s remember 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 six million Jews.”
Before I go any further; it is important that we do not conflate anti-Zionism, which is criticism of the state of Israel and/or its policies, with anti-Semitism, which is hostility or prejudice towards the Jewish people. Not all Zionists (they generally being advocates for the state of Israel as Jewish homeland and/or its policies) are Jews and not all Jews are Zionists.
The two concepts are not synonymous; if they were, it would not be possible to criticise Israel, its nature, its policies or its actions without being necessarily accused of demonising or disparaging Jews, and that would simply be an absurd non sequitur.
We must be freely able to criticise Israel when it is appropriate. To be morally prohibited from questioning its conduct would be tantamount to the enforcement of a sort of blind “patriotism”.
The rhetorical equation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism can be seen then as a convenient but insidious means of attempting to impose a taboo over critical discourse relating to the Middle Eastern state.
Jewish critic of Israel Noam Chomsky (who was banned from entering Israel in 2010 on account of his views of the state’s conduct) discussed the distinction between the two concepts and the disingenuousness of attempts to conflate them at the UN in 2014:
It should be noted, however, that if a critic was to apply unique standards to Israel that he or she would not apply universally, that might very well be an accurate indicator of anti-Semitism, but, as I say, criticism of Israel should not ipso facto be assumed a necessary indicator.
Over the past few days, various Jewish commentators, including the Jewish Socialists’ Group, Independent Jewish Voices, members of rs21, Norman Finkelstein, Jamie Stern-Weiner (writing for Jews for Justice for Palestinians), Sam Kriss and Charley Allan have rejected the idea that the British Labour Party has a pervasive anti-Semitism problem. Kriss actually went as far as stating that if any party has an anti-Semitism problem, it is the Conservative Party.
Charles B. Anthony, also of Jewish descent, is of the opinion that “what [Livingstone] said, no matter how cack-handily, was actually, believe it or not, based in truth”. Anthony is, of course, referring to the truth that was the 1933 Haavara (Transfer) Agreement (and presumably Livingstone was too in a round-about way).
This was a pragmatic “collaboration” between Zionists, including Zionist German Jews, and the Nazi government’s ministry of finance that was regarded by both parties as being mutually beneficial to their respective interests insofar as it sought to facilitate or encourage the relocation of German Jews to Palestine by enabling the emigrants to take portions of their assets with them to their refuge.
An appropriated Palestine was, of course, where many Zionists ultimately aspired to establish their desired Jewish state, so as to have it correspond with the biblical conception of the Land of Israel.
The agreement then, formulated under the looming threat of persecution, was drawn up by the Zionist Organisation in tandem with the Zionist Federation of Germany and the Anglo-Palestine Bank (under the directive of the Jewish Agency) to help save German Jews from animus and aggression in an increasingly-hostile Germany whilst simultaneously attracting them to Palestine.
For the Nazi government, it presented a “solution” to what they regarded as a “Jewish problem”. According to Rainer Schulze, “signing an international agreement was further proof [for the Nazi government] of [the Nazi state’s] legitimacy, broke the Jewish movement of boycotting German goods, and helped the recovery of German exports at a time when the German economy was still in the depth of depression”. It was not an expression of affection or support (in the sentimental sense of the word) for Zionism or for a right of self-determination for the Jewish people. As far as the Nazis were concerned, it was to pave the way for effective mass deportation rooted in ethno-religious hatred.
Admittedly, the Haavara Agreement was something of which I had been unaware when I had first heard Livingstone’s comments. Anthony and plenty of others are of the feeling that its existence vindicates Livingstone.
I, however, based on what I understand to be the historical reality, would still perceive Livingstone’s use of the word “support” as fundamentally troublesome. That is not to dismiss the opinions of the aforementioned Jewish commentators who were not bothered by it, nor is it to suggest that they are wrong.
Their contributions to the debate are invaluable – they carry a lot more weight than mine – but perhaps a large part of it comes down to how one would interpret the term “support”.
Whilst Livingstone did later clarify his comments, taken literally, use of the word in the context in which he used it could easily be interpreted as a suggestion that Zionists or German Jews had colluded or were in ideological cahoots with Hitler in some way, or that they were morally complicit in Nazi policy, or perhaps even that Hitler once had Zionist or Jewish interests at heart when, of course, the reality was that he sought to rid Germany of any Jewish character it possessed because he was, after all, an explicit anti-Semite who regarded Jews as a security-threat.
If Livingstone’s intent was not to suggest that Hitler was a Zionist – and, according to later comments, it appears that it was not – his phrasing was certainly ill-advised. He was at least careless and crass with his wording.
Adam Ramsay points out that “[s]ometimes, criticism of the state of Israel, by using terms like ‘Zionist’ as a dog-whistle proxy for ‘Jew’, can be antisemitic or perpetuate antisemitic ideas”, although it did not appear that Livingstone was deploying the term “Zionism” in such a malicious or loaded manner.
Whilst some Jewish commentators have professed to have taken no offence at his remark, I can still certainly see why others might have interpreted it as an insult to their community. (Indeed, Livingstone’s accompanying excusing of Shah’s ethnically-charged “the Jews are rallying” comment did him no favours.) It is important that people, especially those in the public eye, are careful with their language for this reason; every word one uses has significance and connotations. Words are the building blocks of our thoughts, after all.
Livingstone has also been criticised (originally by the BBC’s John Sweeney) for having brought the incendiary topic of Hitler up in the first place, but it should be noted that it was actually Feltz, his interviewer, who first referenced the former Nazi leader during their discussion.
Still, one might ask why the MP even went there or dived into what was already a highly-sensitive minefield if he did not have the time or will to deal with the topic delicately there and then; was it to attack Zionism as guilty by association with Hitler or was he simply trying to furnish Feltz with what he felt was relevant information in respect of the paraphrased claim of “what Hitler did being legal” (which, to be fair to Shah, isn’t necessarily a claim that assigns any particular moral status, one way or the other, to Hitler’s actions anyway)? That is up for debate. Either way though, Livingstone provided his political adversaries with plenty of ammunition in the process.
Separately, within the past week or so in British politics, the following things have happened:
- Jeremy Hunt forced an unprecedented “all-out” juniors doctors’ strike on account of his unwillingness to negotiate a safe and fair contract with the medics. Public support for junior doctors has risen as the dispute has worsened.
- Tory MPs voted to turn away 3,000 desperate Syrian child refugees stranded in mainland Europe.
- The Tories were accused of electioneering fraud and are currently being investigated by the elections watchdog, which has been in touch with fifteen police forces throughout Britain in relation to possible further action.
- Theresa May attempted to drum up support for a potential UK opt-out from the European Convention on Human Rights (no doubt motivated in part by the fact the UK remains in continued violation of its obligations in respect of ensuring state killings and allegations of state collusion from the conflict in the north of Ireland are investigated effectively, transparently and independently).
- The thirteenth round of talks relating to the rather concerning Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership concluded.
- Racist mayor of London, Boris Johnson, attacked Barack Obama’s “part-Kenyan” heritage by assenting to the notion that the US president might have removed a bust of Winston Churchill from the White House upon taking office on account of an “ancestral dislike of the British empire” (as if all those whose ancestry once fell under the remit of the British empire are deserving of such contemptuous suspicion, as if Obama’s decisions revolved around Britain or as if criticism of the British empire couldn’t be legitimately rooted in a reasoned analysis of Britain’s imperial actions rather than in some sort of petty inherited grudge). Implicit in all of this was a further conspiracy theory-style insinuation that Obama’s advising of the UK to remain in the EU ahead of next month’s EU referendum – Johnson supports British withdrawal from the EU, of course – could be plausibly explained and thus dismissed away by this alleged harbouring on the part of Obama of a desire to see the decline of Britain.
- David Cameron, the prime minister, was guilty of Islamophobia as he tried to discredit and portray as suspect or untrustworthy the Muslim Labour candidate for London mayor, Sadiq Khan, by suggesting (under parliamentary privilege) that Khan associated with an imam who Cameron incorrectly alleged was an ISIS-sympathiser. The obvious and scurrilous intention was to lazily use Khan’s (perfectly acceptable) religious-cultural background or perceived “otherness” against him and stereotypically depict him as a “radical” or as “soft on extremists”; a textbook case of poisoning the well. Khan’s Tory mayoral election opponent, Zac Goldsmith, has also been engaging in the same type of dirty tricks.
Éoin Clarke has outlined further issues that have been pressing or developing in Britain over the past month.
These aforementioned matters are all serious in nature and the Tories are in government, after all, so it is reasonable that one might expect they would bear the brunt of most of the media and public’s attention and scrutiny.
Why is it then that an idiotic and inappropriate comment by a Labour MP has been blown up into a three-day “Labour Party anti-Semitism crisis” headline-story by the mainstream media?
Livingstone was already reprimanded by his party on Thursday within hours of making his remarks, so there were hardly valid or serious journalistic reasons to continue prioritising the story and drawing it out. (Naz Shah was also suspended after having made a parliamentary apology for her remarks.)
Might I suggest then that the saturated and disproportionate level of coverage devoted to Livingstone’s transgression is because the Labour Party’s right-wing Blairite faction have strong media connections and they would rather undermine the left-wing leadership of Jeremy Corbyn in the run-up to this week’s local elections than they would the governing Tories.
Those on Labour’s right would depose Corbyn at the drop of a hat if they were able and had the opportunity. Throwing accusations of anti-Semitism, whether real or fabricated, at Corbyn’s party colleagues is a handy and opportunistic means of discrediting the leader, who can then be portrayed as having a major and unruly problem on his hands.
I’m not dismissing or denying the existence of anti-Semitism on the left or in the Labour Party – indeed, it exists and education would be worthwhile and warranted when it is encountered – but the reaction to Livingstone’s words all seems a little extraordinary and disproportionate given the fact there doesn’t appear to be any evidence to suggest that anti-Semitism has actually increased in the party under Corbyn’s leadership.
As Adam Ramsay points out:
In fact, many of the incidents which are being used to attack him seem to have taken place before he was leader, or are online comments from people who joined the Labour party before he ran for leader.
Each alleged incident of antisemitism in the Labour party has been dealt with quickly, yet the party is still being accused of moving too slowly.
The video below features a section of Thursday’s BBC News‘ top-story throughout the day – the Livingstone issue, of course – narrated by John Pienaar.
In the scene, we see the bullish John Mann, a Blarite MP, confronting – or harassing, even – Livingstone and rather theatrically and unjustifiably accusing him of being a “Nazi apologist”. Mann is followed by an eager troop of journalists and camera-people.
We are expected to believe that John Mann just happened to be heading into the same building as Livingstone, at the same time, with multiple television and media crews on the scene and at the ready to capture the animated confrontation.
We are also expected to believe that Mann was unaware of the presence of the cameras. In fact, Pienaar expressly suggests it to us. He tells us that Mann is “seemingly blind to the cameras” despite the fact Mann can be seen looking around during the footage to ensure the cameras are filming and capturing his antics. He is clearly fully aware of their presence; the whole scene is a play for them.
Pienaar presumably overcompensates with what is evidently an untrue statement to dispel any possible viewer suspicion that Mann, likely in the knowledge that news crews were in the area and in order to provide the media with “newsworthy” footage for their reports on a budding “anti-Semitism crisis”, might have orchestrated the whole scene or that the scene might have been staged via a collusive tip-off of the media corps by the Labour right.
Despite Corbyn’s innocence in respect of the entire affair, Pienaar was also sure to draw a tenuous, but loud and explicit, connection between the party leader and the under-fire comments of his fellow party members by referring to Livingstone as a “friend and ally of the leader” and dubbing Shah a “Corbyn ally”.
The whole report was so obviously an anti-Corbyn stitch-up, it would have been laughable if the Blairite faction weren’t so conniving and, worse, the BBC weren’t so keen to indulge them. Of course, the BBC have form in attempting to discredit the establishment-challenging Corbyn and have no doubt been more than happy to oblige again over the past three days.
The opening of Thursday night’s Question Time with a question on the affair (“In light of the remarks made by Ken Livingstone, is there an issue surrounding anti-Semitism within the Labour Party?”) was merely further proof of the BBC’s tendency to tread or at least establish an uneven or narrow platform for the advancement of an anti-Corbyn line under the guise of debate. None of the matters listed above in this article were discussed on the show even cursorily.
A fortnight ago, when Corbyn was “accused” by his critics of having changed his once-sceptical stance on the EU by coming out in favour of the UK continuing its membership as the state approaches June’s referendum on the matter – a fairly minor issue insofar as we are all surely entitled to change our minds on particular matters over the course of our lives – the opening question on that week’s Question Time directly and personally challenged Corbyn’s sincerity: “On the scale of one to ten, how genuine is Jeremy Corbyn’s new-found support of the EU?”
For comparison, the week before that, on the very day David Cameron had admitted that he had profited from his father’s tax-avoiding offshore trust, the show was a full 25 minutes in by the time someone on the panel finally got round to just about mentioning Cameron’s name in the context of a broader, generally-focused question about paying taxes. The explosive Panama Papers issue wasn’t even covered in the opening question.
This Livingstone saga, where the otherwise-clear lines between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism have certainly been blurred by many of Corbyn’s political opponents, will be seen by cynics as merely complementing that trend, if not purposefully serving to muddy the general debate on Israel by deflecting or distracting from the actual actions of the state – which include occupation, war-crimes and ongoing violations of UN resolutions – via a shining of the glare of exposure back onto the perceived or apparent faults of Israel’s critics.
Indeed, there was an odd moment on Friday night’s Newsnight when presenter Emily Maitlis, amidst a discussion on the topic of “when anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitism” entering into the territory of criticising Israel’s actions and human rights abuses, seemed to try and coax Ghada Karmi into focusing her criticism onto other states besides Israel despite the fact the outlined theme of that night’s show was supposed to be criticism of Israel and how or if that was related to anti-Semitism.
Maitlis reacted incredulously to the notion that she might have been raising a red herring and seemed keen to impress upon Karmi that there was a problem with her manner of criticism because she “[hadn’t] mentioned any others”. Karmi was naturally puzzled as to why she was being expected to deviate from the topic under discussion and mention states like “China or Iran”.
Israel’s defenders often argue that there is a disproportionate level of attention devoted to the Middle Eastern state by its critics compared to that devoted to other states that too commit human rights violations – that may well be true – but what distinguishes Israel from other “pariah” states or states in the world that frequently breach international law and universal humanitarian principles, is that Israel professes to be a shining beacon of liberal democracy in the Middle East, yet it hardly lives up to such grand claims. It is not even subtle about it.
Yes, there are those who simply condemn Israel as “evil” – personally, I feel such pontification carries little moral weight as morality is a subjective realm and anyone can moralise about anything to anyone ultimately – but when most critics challenge Israel on its actions, they are attempting to hold the state to its own held or professed (but failing) moral standards. In my view, such an approach holds much greater moral and persuasive force than simple or absolute condemnation rooted solely in one’s own moral compass.
It should also be noted that those other states are not given remotely the same degree of moral, political, economic and military backing by Western governments as Israel is given. In fact, they are often castigated and sanctioned whilst Israel’s actions are tolerated. Thus, our governments are complicit in Israel’s conduct. Not only do they merely allow or enable Israel to do what it does; they often support it (and, as citizens of Western states, that support is extended in our name).
Noam Chomsky’s explanation as to why he focuses most of his time on criticising the crimes of his own US government and its client states rather than on those of its enemies is pertinent:
My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence.
But also for a much more important reason than that: namely, I can do something about it. So even if the US was responsible for 2% of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2% I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.
The lesson is simple: the moral crusaders that spend days loudly condemning Livingstone for an ill-advised (in the insane modern media soundbite environment) comment that he later clarified in a way that made it clear that he was absolutely not being anti-Semitic utter nary a squeak when Israel bombs schools or murders children on a beach; remain silent in the face of the documented day-to-day atrocities of the Israeli government and its soldiers with Western-supplied equipment in Gaza, including the killings of pregnant women and children.
Misconstrued comments by a lifelong anti-racist: one, murdered children: nil. That there in a nutshell is the moral standing of Livingstone’s critics. And if you’re still assigning them credibility, it might be time to seek analysis elsewhere.