U.K. Labour's 'Hitler Was a Zionist' Controversy Explained

What did the former London mayor say to spark the current storm? Is U.K. Labour really anti-Semitic? Read the top Haaretz analyses and opinions on the uproar plaguing Britain's historically Jewish party.

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Former London mayor Ken Livingstone speaking to the media after appearing on the LBC radio station in London, Britain, April 30, 2016.
Former London mayor Ken Livingstone speaks to the media after appearing on the LBC radio station in London, Britain, April 30, 2016. Credit: Reuters, Neil Hall

The British political scene has been rocked over the past several days by comments by former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who was suspended from the U.K. Labour Party Thursday after saying that Hitler was a supporter of Zionism. It was just the latest in a string of controversies that has dogged the Labour Party, a party that traditionally attracted major support from Jewish voters.

"When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel," Livingstone said. "He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews." The former mayor expressed his comments, which have been widely challenged as inaccurate, in defense of another Labour Party parliamentarian, Naz Shah, after she was suspended for anti-Israel comments. She later apologized.

Labour MP Naz Shah as photographed on her Facebook page.Credit: Facebook

Haaretz's Anshel Pfeffer asked: "So why did Livingstone feel he still had to defend the statements Shah herself had disowned? And how could he have imagined that it would improve matters by saying Hitler had been a Zionist because in the early 1930s he was in favor of banishing German Jews to Palestine?" 

Meanwhile, for his part, Chemi Shalev noted: "The 'Hitler as Zionist' canard is one that anti-Zionists, Holocaust deniers and Nazi sympathizers have been pushing for years. The former seek to tarnish Israel and cast it as a successor to the Nazi state while the latter want to cast a more positive light on their heroes’ unspeakable crimes."

Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn listening in parliament following a statement by British Prime Minister David Cameron, April 11, 2016.Credit: AFP

The Labour Party traditionally enjoyed broad support among British Jewish voters, but in the past several months has faced scandal after scandal involving party figures who have made comments deemed either virulently anti-Israel or patently anti-Semitic. The leading British Jewish weekly The Jewish Chronicle even called it "Labour's Shame" in a front-page editorial in March.

The paper said six months into Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the party, "Labour now seems to be a party that attracts anti-Semites like flies to a cesspit." The party last governed Britain under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown between 1997 and 2010.

Reacting to the latest spat, over the former London mayor's comments, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jonathan Arkush, said: "What Ken Livingstone deliberately did was to draw an equation between Nazism and Zionism. He therefore crossed a line into what certainly most people would regard as distinctly anti-Semitic."

Liam Hoare claimed that the British hard left fails to fully understand anti-semitism and thus cannot truly deal with it: "As Corbyn epitomizes, [the hard left] refuses to grapple with anti-Semitism in and of itself. Anti-Semitism is indeed anti-Jewish racism — but it is also a unique form of prejudice, at once a virus and pathology. Merely replacing the word “Jewish” with “Zionist” or ”Israeli” — wrapping anti-Semitism in the veil of anti-Israelism — does not sever these phrases' roots from the soil out of which these ideas grew: the old lie of Jewish omnipotence.

Interestingly, the controversy over Livingstone's comments has even prompted the U.K.-based polling YouGov to explore the extent to which members of the British public as a whole make the distinction. Some 60 percent of those surveyed last Friday said criticism of Israel alone does not amount to anti-Semitism, but 53 percent said hating Israel and questioning its right to exist does.

The issue is explored in depth by in an opinion piece by Alan Johnson of BICOM, the Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre: "Anti-Semitic anti-Zionism is not 'criticism' of the occupation and the settlements. It is so much more. It cruelly distorts the very meaning of Israel and Zionism," he writes.

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