Analysis

Why the Ken Livingstone anti-Semitism Affair Matters

The case of the former London mayor should show the left what happens when ideology blinds it to its own homegrown brands of bias and racism

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

Even if in the United Kingdom’s next general election every single Jewish citizen votes for the Conservative Party, it will likely have no effect on the electoral fate of Labour. As it is, the party is almost certainly on its way to a meltdown in the polls, consistently lagging the Tories by around 18 percent. The party has already fallen out of favor with most British Jews, only about a third of whom voted for it in 2015. And besides, there aren’t that many British Jews around to make that much of a difference.

So even if the Labour Party weren’t in the grip of an anti-Semitism crisis for the better part of a year and a half, and even if its current leader Jeremy Corbyn were the biggest philo-Semite and pro-Zionist in London’s Islington neighborhood and never embraced his “friends” from Hezbollah and Hamas, Labour under his hapless leadership would still face a loss of nearly half its seats in parliament in the next election. 

And yet, the latest turn in the Ken Livingstone saga is important Livingstone, the former London mayor and leading light of Labour’s hard left who this week wasn’t expelled from the party despite bringing Labour into disrepute by stating over and over that Hitler supported Zionism. The saga isn’t important because Livingstone at 71 is still a key figure in British politics. He may have won two terms in office over a decade ago but he has since managed to lose twice to Tory Boris Johnson in a city overwhelmingly pro-Labour.

Livingstone has become for the huge majority of the British public a figure of derision. The main reason most mainstream broadcasters invite Livingstone on the air nowadays is that he can be relied on to talk once again about Hitler supporting Zionism. It has become compelling viewing like a slow-motion car crash. It doesn’t really matter whether Livingstone is suspended just for another year (not his first suspension anyway) or expelled for life. He’s of little consequence. 

And the substance of what he says isn’t that important either. The narrative he clings to of Hitler the Zionist is so demonstrably warped, based on false facts and cherry-picked minor details, and willfully misinterpreted by a long-forgotten Marxist historian, that it was discredited decades ago. (Interestingly, like other falsehoods of Marxist history, this one also starts to make sense if you replace Hitler with his fellow genocidal tyrant Stalin who actually did support Zionism in 1947 and supplied the Zionists with weapons in 1948 before opting to kill Jews.)

Strange denial

That sort of stuff was long ago relegated to the realms of conspiracy theories and Holocaust denial. If Livingstone insists on repeating it, he’s merely proving himself to be the old and addled fool he seems to have become. But his case is important for wider reasons that affect not only the Labour Party or British Jews, but the relationship between Jews and the Western left in general. 

Livingstone, even in his dotage, is no anti-Semite in any traditional sense. He once had strong ties with many Jewish groups in London and by his own admission had sex with at least two Jewish girlfriends. The key to his peculiar brand of the ancient hatred can be found in the claim he has repeated over the past year that in all his decades of Labour Party activism he has never come across a single instance of anti-Semitism. Given the circles he has traveled in all his political life, this can only mean that for Livingstone, bias against Jews in a left-wing setting is simply inconceivable.

Ken Livingstone standing in front of a poster depicting his rival for London mayor, Boris Johnson, as an alien, April 30, 2012.
Reuters / Olivia Harris

To get a better steer on how he sees Jews, look no further than his last (losing) mayoral campaign in 2012 when in a meeting with Jewish Labour supporters he said Jews wouldn’t be voting for the party anyway because they were generally wealthy and therefore not typical Labour supporters. Not only did Livingstone not realize what a highly offensive generalization that was, especially to a Jewish audience, but he refused to apologize and made a similar claim two years later. In other words, Livingstone has no problem with Jews per se, he just sees most of them belonging to a larger middle- and upper-class section of British society that has no interest in Labour’s progressive and social values. 

It’s no coincidence that this very black-and-white view, both of Britain’s Jewish community and British society in general, is that of someone who obstinately clings to the belief that Hitler somehow could have “supported Zionism.” And it’s this combination of views, not Livingstone himself, that’s important. It’s a significant part of the much more corrosive tendency in contemporary left-wing thinking to go to anti-intellectual and illogical extremes under the guise of being “anti-racist.”

‘Progressive absolutism’

There’s no coincidence that the camp that believes you can’t have an independent opinion on racism or oppression if you’re white and can’t understand poverty if you were born to parents with steady incomes has made the (il)logical leap to such claims as “you can’t be both feminist and Zionist,” “Jews are privileged whites” and “Hitler was a Zionist.” The absurdity of much of the “progressive absolutism” prevalent on many campuses today is exposed when one of the most persecuted minorities in history is suddenly pushed out of the “protected” group because some of its members have had the effrontery to get rich or establish a state. 

Jewish members of the Labour Party are right to chide Livingstone and those in the party who wouldn’t expel him for “enabling” anti-Semites to support Labour. But Livingstone, who in his pigheaded obstinacy didn’t apologize, even after being found guilty of all charges and receiving his minor sentence, is doing us all a favor. (Some in Labour actually believe he’s causing trouble out of envy that the much-less-talented Corbyn unexpectedly became party leader.)

The crass offensiveness of his tirades has made many more level-headed voices on the left admit that Jews, like any other minority, have a right to define for themselves what’s abusive to them, and that while Zionism’s merits and flaws can be discussed and disputed, ascribing any connection between Zionism and Nazism is anti-Semitic. The outrage Livingstone has caused on the British left has forced even his old friend Corbyn to limply repudiate him, and this case is now reverberating far beyond.

Many within Labour are now doubting whether their party will survive the Corbyn era as a viable contender for power. Livingstone has certainly tainted Corbyn’s leadership further and probably made the party’s survival chances a bit slimmer.

If that’s the case, it’s bad for Brexit Britain, which needs a strong progressive opposition to the xenophobia rising on the right as the country navigates a difficult course out of the European Union. But at the least, the Livingstone case should provide the left with a lesson of what happens when ideology blinds it to its own homegrown brands of bias and racism.