The British Labour Party Is in a Fight for Its Very Soul Against anti-Semitic anti-Zionism

Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone's comments that Hitler had a secret pact with the Zionists may have gone too far even for the Labour Party in its current sorry state, but there's hope: Leading London mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan.

Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn launches the local election campaign in Harlow, Britain April 5, 2016.
Darren Staples, Reuters

The British Labour Party melted down today. ”You’re a f***ing disgrace!” screamed MP John Mann, the doughty chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Anti-Semitism, in the face of Ken Livingstone, the oily former Labour Mayor of London. The cameras caught it all. Happily, the Labour Party soon agreed with Mann’s assessment and suspended Livingstone from the party.

The cause of Mann’s fury? Well, where to start?

First, Livingstone told the media that he’d never seen a single incident of anti-Semitism in the Labour party in 40 years.

Second, and worse, he claimed that MP Naz Shah should not have been suspended from the party (she was Wednesday’s suspension; it’s hard to keep up) just because she used social media to suggest that Israeli Jews should be “relocated" en masse to America, compared Israelis to Hitler, spread public warnings that "the Jews are rallying,” compared Zionism to Al-Qaida, and expressed concern that the Zionists are “grooming” Jews to “exert political influence at the highest levels of public office.”

This was all perfectly legitimate “criticism of Israel,” said Livingstone. He then lashed out at the “Israel lobby,” which was smearing good people as anti-Semites to protect Israel. 

So far, so standard, sadly.

But then Livingstone went too far even for the modern Labour Party. “Hitler was supporting Zionism,” he told us, “before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews.” He then noted with heavy implication that “there were private meetings between the Zionist movement and Hitler’s government that were kept confidential where they were having a dialogue about whether to do this.”

Today the anti-Semitism problem was Ken Livingstone. Yesterday it was Naz Shah. The day before it was new NUS president Malia Bouattia. Before her, it was the Oxford University Labour Club students singing "Rockets Over Tel Aviv” and calling Jewish members “Zios.” The procession never stops.

What we are learning from the Labour Party’s turmoil is this: The recent op-ed war in Haaretz about whether anti-Zionism flatly is, or flatly is not, and anti-Semitism, is missing the point, which is that this most protean of hatreds has shape-shifted yet again. The Labour Party is being torn apart by what I call “anti-Semitic anti-Zionism.” We need to see plain the new form anti-Semitism often takes. Hint: there may be no swastikas and skinheads.

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 until both can be forced into the categories, tropes, images and ideas of classical anti-Semitism. In short, that which "the Jew" once was, a collective malevolence, the Jewish state now is. The old racist ideas about “the Jew” as an evil force, full of blood lust, all-controlling but hidden, and the only obstacle to a better, purer, and more spiritual world, can be thrown at the Jewish state.

Anti-Semitic anti-Zionism has a political program: to abolish one state in the world, the little Jewish one formed after the Holocaust.

Anti-Semitic anti-Zionism has a global social movement: to boycott, divest from and sanction one state in the world, Israel.

Anti-Semitic anti-Zionism has a discourse: not a rational criticism of particular Israeli policies but a spectral representation of Israel as the essence of evil, a ”Racist-Imperialist-Apartheid.”

Yet there is cause for what the German philosopher Arnold Schopenhauer called scrupulous optimism about the party. The recent past of the party may lie with the former mayor of London, but the future, I wager, lies with the next.

Sadiq Khan is well ahead in polls and when it comes to Labour’s anti-Semitic anti-Zionism problem, he is no Ken Livingstone.

Khan is on a journey of self-education, critically rethinking his past positions, renouncing his support for boycotts, entering into a deep and sustained dialogue with the Jewish community and listening to what he hears. He has called for the "re-education” of the leadership in the very “meaning” of contemporary anti-Semitism.

”Believe me, I won’t be another Ken Livingstone,” he has promised. Today, Khan tweeted that Livingstone's comments were “appalling and inexcusable,” adding that there “must be no place for this in our party.”

The fight over the soul of the Labour Party is symbolized by these two men. The choice between the former mayor and soon-to-be mayor, the purveyor of anti-Semitic anti-Zionism and the man who understands the need to see it plain and confront it, is the choice facing the entire European left.

Alan Johnson is a senior research fellow at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre and the editor of its online journal, Fathom.