The refusal of the Labour party’s National Constitutional Committee to expel Ken Livingstone was not unexpected. The verdict of effectively extending Livingstone’s suspension for another year was simply a case of choosing the line of least resistance between Labour’s warring factions.
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It also reflected the desire of many ordinary Labour members not to believe the worst of their movement.
A YouGov poll of party members last year registered the view of 49% of respondents that Labour did not have a problem with anti-Semitism – and that ‘it has been created by the press and Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents to attack him’. An additional 35% believed that the Party actually did indeed have a problem with anti-Semitism ‘but it is being used by the press and Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents to attack him’.
Anti-Semitism was therefore not so much a genuine issue, but more a fabrication which Labour’s external enemies gleefully manipulated – and press coverage reflected this distortion. In essence, the British Right – including the Jewish community – was deliberately targeting the ruling Corbynistas.
The YouGov poll also suggested that 59% of party members thought it was right to suspend Livingstone last year. But this fell to 27% when they were asked to support expulsion.
Livingstone was therefore regarded as more of an embarrassment, a walking, talking, public relations disaster for the party. The objective question of a clear stand on racism was secondary.
Significantly throughout this entire episode, there have been uncanny parallels with Donald Trump: a delight in media celebrity, a self-righteous inability to apologize, the celebration of inarticulate crude rhetoric, a portrayal of falsehood as fact, an imperative to deflect central questions, a depiction of ‘the little man’, beset by powerful elites. Many on the Labour Left have preferred to look the other way when Livingstone dons Trump’s clothes.
In his written presentation to the committee, Livingstone avoided citing the works of the controversial far Left American writer, Lenni Brenner, whom he normally quotes, but settled for the more normative research of Yad Vashem’s Yf’aat Weiss and the noted American historian, Francis R. Nicosia. Yet Livingstone’s public pronouncements such as the comment that Hitler supported Zionism actually fly in the face of this academic research.
In reality, the Nazis ideologically opposed Zionism and any belief in a Jewish homeland. This, they argued, would be no more than another geographical ‘base’ for the Jews to concentrate and extend their conspiratorial tentacles.
Conversely, they desperately wanted to rid Germany of its Jews through de facto expulsion. This led the Nazis to allow Jews to leave Germany from 1933 and to take small sums with them which could only be spent on German goods. Professor Nicosia has pointed out that if it was not for this arrangement, then 53,000 Jews who left for Mandatory Palestine during the 1930s would probably have perished in the Shoah. In contrast to the world’s indifference today to the gassed children of Idlib, this ‘Transfer’ agreement was a Zionist endeavour of heroic proportions.
Yet Livingstone’s public pronouncements have spoken of ‘collaboration’ and ‘collaborators’ – a term which conjures up Vichy France and Vidkun Quisling in the minds of many. The insinuation is that the Zionists of the time willingly and deliberately worked with the Nazis, not to rescue Jews, but because they quietly approved of Hitler’s revolution in German society.
Why, the sentient observer might ask, would he make this incendiary claim? For that, it is important to dissect the narrative and imagery of the mindset of many on the far Left – a mindset related to the notion that current-day Israelis are Nazis, Gaza is the Warsaw Ghetto and besieged Palestinians are the ‘real Jews’.
This leads to the question that if Israelis are sometimes perceived as Nazis, then how does this characterise those who identify with Israel abroad?
Who are the Zionists in Britain today? Are they the spiritual descendants of those collaborators with Nazism? In City University’s recent survey of The Attitudes of British Jews towards Israel (in which I served as an adviser), a majority of UK Jews considered themselves to be ‘Zionists’ while over 90% expressed an attachment to the State of Israel, yet overwhelmingly opposed the expansion of settlements.
This fictitious separation of ‘Jews’ and ‘Zionism’ is the weak link in Livingstone’s perorations. It parallels Trump’s condemnation of anti-Semitism and its separation from populist extremism.
Livingstone chose to include the testimonies of several anti-Zionist Jews in his report to the committee. Yet the City University survey suggests that such views are marginal and highly unrepresentative of the opinions of the vast majority of British Jews.
Livingstone’s main thrust is to delegitimize Zionism while proclaiming himself as a lifelong anti-racist. Yet his crudity about Jews over the years associate him less with the New Left than with the Old Right.
The son of working class Tories, Livingstone grew up in south London where there were few Jews. During the post-war period, there were still geographical pockets of London where Jews were caricatured as wealthy and pushy. His attack in the 1990s on the property developers, the Reuben brothers “Why don’t they go back to Iran and try their luck with the Ayatollahs?” was highly symbolic and central rather than merely accidental. This verbal assault – ‘get back to where you came from’– was very reminiscent of low-level populist racism, directed against Blacks, Irish and Jews in the 1950s. Like Trump, it was indirect and not direct. Yet Jews smelled the odor and understood its significance.
Perhaps the decision not to expel Livingstone was a declaration based on the tactical calculation that since so many Jews had left the Labour party, their concerns no longer mattered.
This is clearly a moral question for many British citizens – more than purely a Jewish concern. Even so, several Labour MPs in constituencies where there is a considerable Jewish population are understandably worried – and annoyed. The verdict was announced on the same day as Labour’s campaign for local elections was launched. Listed in an abysmally low position in the polls, this latest Livingstone controversy will be a heavy millstone to lift from Labour’s neck, and a sad potential epitaph for a hundred years of proud Jewish activism in Labour’s crusade for social justice.
Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London. His latest book, The Hebrew Republic: Israel’s Return to History will be published in May 2017 by Rowman and Littlefield.