Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone has a long history of anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic remarks. He has described Israel as racist, accused it of ethnic cleansing, called for its leaders to be put on trial for crimes against humanity. He once said that Likud and Hamas are two sides of the same coin. He likened a Jewish reporter to a concentration camp guard, compared British Jews who enlist in the Israeli army to British Muslims who join terrorist groups and opined that Jews wouldn’t vote for Labour “because they were rich.”
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Now he’s in hot water for having declared that Adolf Hitler supported Zionism, which is of course a ridiculous statement, though, frankly, not ridiculous enough to make it the one definitive assertion that will finally do him in. Hitler wasn’t a Zionist, but he did give his passive and sometimes active support to the limited collaboration between the Zionist movement and the Nazi regime throughout the 1930s. It was Adolf Eichmann, in fact, who once reportedly declared, "I am a Zionist." He didn’t mean that he supported the Jewish people’s right to self-determination or safe refuge, only that Zionism provided an efficient way of getting rid of Jews before more drastic measures were conceived.
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. Livingstone must be getting his information from the small coterie of Marxist and/or anti-Zionist historians who have adopted the same narrative: Lenni Brenner’s book "Zionism in the Age of Dictators," which was cited by Livingstone, is the most successful of the lot.
Nonetheless, it is also true that Livingstone has put a spotlight on a chapter in history that most Zionists would rather leave untouched: their limited shared interests and consequent ad hoc cooperation with the Nazi regime. It lasted for about seven years, from 1933 until 1940, when the international blockade prevented further emigration of Jews from Germany, just before Hitler gave the order to annihilate the Jews instead.
At the center of the give and take between the powerful Nazis and the rather desperate pre-state Zionists was the 1933 Transfer Agreement, Heskem Haavara in Hebrew. It was a deal negotiated by German Zionists by which some Jews would be able to sell their properties in Germany in exchange for funds that would allow them to buy property in then-Palestine. The Zionists would also refrain from participating in the international boycott declared by World Jewry against Germany and would try to persuade Jewish leaders to revoke it.
By virtue of the deal, about 60,000 Jews, mostly well educated but mainly well to do, came to Palestine and were saved from extermination. They had to deposit a minimum of 1,000 British pounds – close to $100,000 in current terms – in order to qualify. The agreement provided critical help to the Yishuv, which was reeling at the time from Arab riots in Palestine and from the global Great Depression. German immigrants injected eight million British pounds, close to a billion dollars in today’s terms, directly into the Palestinian economy and another six million pounds indirectly. They were part of the Fifth Aliyah that significantly strengthened the struggling Yishuv with their talents and knowhow. My mother, of blessed memory, was the beneficiary of a similar agreement signed in Czechoslovakia after the Nazis took over, which allowed students to emigrate.
There is no denying that a few Zionists saw the rise of a racialist Nazi regime in the early 1930s as confirmation of their ideological claim that assimilation for Jews in Europe was an illusion. There were others, on the far end of the Revisionists Movement, who actually admired Hitler and Mussolini’s fascism, but they were soon shut down by their leader Vladimir Jabotinsky and by the increasing reports of anti-Jewish measures undertaken by the Nazis after 1933. Most Zionists had no illusions about the odious nature of Hitler and the Nazis, but they sharply disagreed about the way they should react to it: the Transfer Agreement was a deal with the devil by all accounts, but the question was whether it was a necessary evil or a mortal sin.
It is this dispute, in fact, that shaped Zionist politics for a half a century and in some ways continues to serve as its backdrop to this very day. One June 16, 1933, the promising Mapai leader Haim Arlosoroff , who had been one of the champions of dialogue with the Nazis, was murdered on the beach in Tel Aviv by two unknown assailants. David Ben Gurion and most the Yishuv leadership were convinced that the murder was perpetrated by militant Revisionists as retribution. Three members of a right wing splinter group were indicted for the crime but later acquitted by the courts. Among the Revisionist sympathizers who sought to rebuff what they described as the “blood libel” perpetrated by Labor Zionists were Benjamin Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, as well as his grandfather, Nathan Milikovsky.
Despite Arlosoroff’s involvement, the Transfer Agreement was initially concluded between the Nazis and German Zionists alone. Ben Gurion and other Zionist leaders in Palestine kept their distance, especially as public opinion seemed to oppose the deal. But as a result of Nazi pressures, increasingly desperate appeals by German Zionists as well as their own recognition of the critical importance of the deal, the Zionist leadership in Palestine signed on to the agreement in 1935. It was then discussed and ratified in the 19th Zionist Congress that convened in Luzerne in 1935. It was this Congress that marked the final split between Labor Zionism and the Revisionists, who accused the leadership of the Yishuv, much like Livingstone, of being "Hitler’s allies." The question of "Who Killed Arlosoroff" reverberated throughout Zionist politics for decades ever since.
Historians have been unable to trace Hitler’s personal response to the initial Transfer Agreement. He certainly didn’t block it. In 1937 he personally intervened in order to keep it going and did so for the next two years as well. That does not make Hitler into a supporter of Zionism by any stretch, as Livingstone annoyingly claims, because Hitler wiped out millions of Jews, including millions of potential Zionists, who would have changed the arc of Jewish history completely. As for the Zionists themselves, all that can be said is that it was a desperate time that required desperate measures that are still difficult to judge today, even with the benefit of 80 years of hindsight.