LONDON - To the horror of many in the Anglo-Jewish community, veteran Labour politician Ken Livingstone has escaped expulsion from the party over claims he made last year that Hitler supported Zionism.
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Although he was found guilty on three charges of bringing the party into disrepute he was not expelled, as many had expected. Instead he was suspended from holding office for two years, 11 months of which has already been served.
The Community Security Trust, the body that monitors threats to U.K. Jews, had previously condemned his original remarks as “clearly anti-Semitic” and in a statement said that they were “deeply disappointed” with the decision.
“This decision strengthens real anti-Semites and their fellow travelers, and will leave the community less serious than ever that the Labour party is serious in dealing with anti-Semitism.”
The Board of Deputies, Anglo-Jewry’s umbrella body, was similarly outspoken.
Its president Jonathan Arkush said, “Relations between the Labour Party and the Jewish community have reached an all-time low all we can conclude form this hopelessly wrong decision is that the party has an enduring problem with anti-Semitism to which it is unwilling to face up.”
“This verdict is a slap on the wrist for a serial offender,” the Holocaust Education Trust said. “That a mainstream political party would consider these views to be welcome within their ranks simply demonstrates that anti-Semitism is not taken as seriously as all other forms of racism and prejudice.”
Others said that the decision may have been intended as a fudge to placate all parties, but one that has ended up only pleasing Livingstone. National Constitutional Committee hearings are private, but the panel also apparently excluded their own lawyer and secretary from the deliberation.
“People in the community will draw their own conclusions about all the condemnations of anti-Semitism we’ve heard from the top echelons of the party,” one well-placed source said.
“This was the worst possible result,” said Jeremy Newmark, national chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, noting that the panel had clearly stated that Livingstone was in breach of party rules.
A low-level party member found breaking campaign rules would have been immediately expelled, he said, adding, “When someone consistently reviews the history of Nazism in this way you would expect similar sanction.”
Livingstone was unrepentant throughout the process. He called for his case to be opened up to the public, publishing statements from five Jewish supporters he said proved his innocence.
One of them was Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, co-founder of Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods (J-Big), who stressed that she was “of 100 per cent Jewish heritage.”
She said, “I cannot accept the current enthusiasm for alleging that criticism of Israel and Zionism is directed at Jews.” She went on to say, “None of the remarks or actions attributed to Ken Livingstone demonstrate any anti-Semitic intent or motivation.”
Another of his witnesses argued that “Labour's attitude to anti-Semitism should not be determined by organizations within the Jewish community whose loyalty to Israel makes them unable to recognize the difference between angry denunciations of Israel and attacks on Jewish people.”
On the steps of the hearing itself, Livingstone launched into an astonishing tirade claiming that the SS had “set up training camps” for Jews moving to Palestine, and that “only the Zionist flag and the swastika” were allowed to be flown in Germany. There was “real collaboration” he insisted.
Then on the morning of the final day of his hearing, he told BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today program that it was the Jewish Chronicle and Labour MPs who were to blame for any offence caused.
Livingstone has a long history of offending the Jewish community, right back from early 1980s when he was an editor of the Labour Herald newspaper which it ran a cartoon depicting then Israeli PM Menachem Begin in an SS uniform, making the Nazi salute.
During his eight year tenure as Mayor of London from 2000 to 2008 there was one run-in after another with the community. In 2004 he welcomed Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi as a “progressive” figure, enraging both Jewish and LGBT groups.
In 2005, he asked a newspaper reporter if he were a Nazi war criminal, and when the journalist told Livingstone he was Jewish and found that offensive, went on to compare him to a Nazi concentration camp guard.
Livingstone ended up in front of a tribunal and was suspended for four weeks, a decision later overturned by the High Court.
His defense there was simple. "For far too long the accusation of anti-Semitism has been used against anyone who is critical of the policies of the Israeli government, as I have been," Livingstone said.
His stance inspired the term “the Livingstone Formulation” coined by British academic David Hirsh to describe the claim that charges of anti-Semitism are made in bad faith in a sinister attempt to silence pro-Palestinian voices.
“Given that Livingstone is unrepentant, is publicly insisting that he is right about Hitler and the Zionists, that he has never seen any anti-Semitism on the left, and that the charge of anti-Semitism is a conspiracy to smear and to silence, there is no case for a time limited suspension,” Hirsh said. “He has been doing this for 40 years and he will continue to do it."
He never apologized, just as he refused to apologize for comments he made the following year calling for Indian Jewish businessmen David and Simon Reuben to go back to Iran if they didn’t like Britain.
Not apologizing is a key Livingstone trait, and, perhaps for some of his supporters, a major part of his charm. Livingstone has long used his eccentricity to deflect some of the fire away from his comments.
“It’s my big weakness: I still tend to say what I believe to be the truth,” he told the Independent newspaper just a week before the hearing.
(He went on to say there was a “real prospect of human civilization being wiped out by the end of the century,” identifying “super volcanoes” as a pressing threat.)
Livingstone’s repeated mentions of Hitler led to a slew of internet memes, not least the website http://howlongsincekenlivingstonementionedhitler.com/ with a timer that was reset every time he did.
But for many in both Labour and the Jewish community it is no longer up for debate as to whether he is being disingenuous or downright malicious.
Newmark said that the JLM would be taking the issue to the party’s annual conference later this year. But it is likely that Labour, beset already with anti-Semitism scandals, will continue to hemorrhage Jewish support following its decision to keep Livingstone within the party.