Above: the LBC interview that started it all
This article also appears in the present issue of Solidarity and the Workers Liberty website.
By Sean Matgamna
On one level the sudden media outcry about Ken Livingstone’s anti-semitism is being used and fed by the Labour right, especially the stupid part of the right — and, of course, the Tories — to sabotage the Labour Party in the London mayoral and other local government elections and to discredit Jeremy Corbyn.
Livingstone has been what he is now for decades. He was the same Livingstone when the Blairite right took him back into the Labour Party, in 2004, after his 2000-4 term as London mayor. The bigger truth, however, is that, whatever their motives, those who cry out against Livingstone’s vicious nonsense about Hitler supporting Zionism and wanting to send Jews to Israel in 1932 (he said Israel, not Palestine) are right to do so. If the enemies of the Labour Party and of the left have found a soft target, it is a legitimate target. A big part of the pseudo-left believe or assert that “Zionists” (that is, for practical purposes, most Jews) are historically tainted by Nazism. That “the Zionists” “collaborated” with the Nazis in making the Holocaust and share responsibility for it; that “the Zionists” manipulated even the Nazis during World War 2 and especially share responsibility for the Nazi murder of one million Hungarian Jews in 1944-5. That in their “racism” — that is, in first their wanting a Jewish state and then in their Israeli nationalism — they run parallel to Nazism. That Israel, in that sense, is a continuation of Nazism.
This bizarre “story” originates in the Stalinist anti-semitic campaign against “Zionism” of the late 1940s and the first half of the 1950s. The fact that it is a tissue of contrived and vicious nonsense does not discredit it: one reason why it survives is that it is rarely expressed as a coherent story, as it is here. It is the thesis of the play ‘Perdition’, written by Jim Allen and produced by Ken Loach, and based on Lenni Brenner’s grossly biased and distorting book which Livingstone says he will submit to the Labour Party inquiry into his statements.
Politically inexperienced young people, justly indignant at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Gaza and moved to side with the Palestinians, are easily led into accepting some or all of these ideas. A petrol bomb, or Molotov cocktail, consists of soapy water and petrol in a bottle, and “works”, after the glass container is shattered, by way of the soapy water spreading the burning petrol. Righteous indignation at the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians is the soapy water here, spreading a lethal anti-semitism disguised as “anti-Zionism” — what someone called “absolute anti-Zionism”. It has been spread on anti-war demonstrations, for example, by way of placards and chants equating Israeli prime ministers with Hitler, identifying Zionism and Nazism, coupling the Star of David and the swastika, and proclamations of the need to destroy (in real-world terms, conquer) Israel. Young people indignant at Israeli government policies and actions against the Palestinians are miseducated to believe that support for the Palestinians against Israel demands not an independent Palestinian state side by side with Israel, but the destruction of Israel.
Least of all does this vicious claptrap help the Palestinians. Even leaving aside the question of the national rights of the Hebrew nation in Palestine, this attitude implies indefinite postponement of a settlement, until Israel can be conquered. It rules out emancipation for the Palestinians in any foreseeable future. Its devotees actively campaign against the only real solution: an independent Palestinian state side by side with Israel.
They “use” the plight of the Palestinians to float Arab-chauvinist, Islamic-chauvinist, “anti-imperialist” hostility to Israel. They are functionally indifferent to the living Palestinian people. The terrible truth is that the pseudo-left, and most so the “revolutionary” pseudo-left”, is a cesspool of an “absolute anti-Zionism” which is anti-semitism because it condemns — as “Zionists”, as criminals, as racists — Jews who refuse to agree that Israel should be abolished.
In the not-so-distant past, student Jewish societies have been banned for refusing to support this. Livingstone’s comments were only a small and half-sanitised version of that politics, that attitude, and that mindset. It is a historical fact that some anti-semites — for instance, Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein — did say they found Zionism acceptable. It would if successful remove the Jews they hated to a distant land. For decades such facts as the talks between Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, and the minister of the anti-semitic Tsarist government, von Plehve, or the “Transfer Agreement” made by the Jewish Agency in Palestine with Hitler’s government in August 1933, allowing Jews who fled Germany to Palestine to keep some of their property, were setpieces in Stalinist anti-Zionist agitation. But Livingstone wasn’t just referring to such things in the past and “construing” them. It is plain from the way he spoke that he was jeering, baiting, just as he did in 2005 when he called a Jewish journalist “like a concentration camp guard”.
“Hitler supported Zionism”. He wanted Jews to go “to Israel”. The Holocaust was not a logical development in war conditions of Nazi policies, but a matter of Hitler, previously a Zionist, “going mad and killing millions of Jews”. Slight pauses in his speech indicated that Livingstone was being careful with his words. He reaffirmed his statements in three separate interviews on 28 April, and has refused to retract them since. With Livingstone, the cesspool of pseudo-left “absolute anti-Zionism”, that is anti-semitism, overflowed into mainstream politics. It gave the right and the Tories an easy target and an opportunity to bring the scandal out into the open. It needs to be out in the open. It needs to be discussed. It needs to be purged politically — and the labour movement needs to purge itself of the unteachables like Livingstone.
The immediate suspension of Livingstone from the Labour Party and the setting-up of an investigation into his statements overlaps with the distinct and separate question of the rights of Labour Party members and the continuing waves of expulsions of leftists. “Progress” and other Labour right-wingers are campaigning to make expulsions even easier, and for anyone adjudged by a Labour Party official as guilty of “anti-semitism, racism, or Islamophobia” to be summarily banned from membership for life. Livingstone and his supporters try to present Livingstone’s suspension as one more unjustified reprisal against the left. They try to amalgamate the issues. Serious socialists should not let them do that.
Livingstone is not a typical victim of Labour’s expulsion-freaks. There is a mystery here. What does Livingstone think he is doing? He is a calculating man. He is a Livingstone-serving opportunist, not a principled politician who will stand by his version of the truth, irrespective of consequences. His saying what he said and refusing to retreat from it is uncharacteristic behaviour. He knows perfectly well that he is helping the Labour right and the Tories, sabotaging Labour’s election campaign. He wants to do that? Why?
The explanation may lie in Livingstone’s dual character. Inside this supremely self-centred, manipulative politician Dr Jekyll-Livingstone there is imprisoned a contrary, irrational, egotist, Mr Hyde-Livingstone, who sometimes takes over.
The Labour right offensive targets not only Livingstone but Corbyn. Prominent has been John Mann MP. Mann is something of a rent-a-gob, an MP in a symbiotic partnership with busy journalists who need an immediate response, a comment, a quote. That gives the MP a spurious prominence and the journalists usable copy. In his rent-a-gob role, when it became plain in the middle of the 2015 Labour leadership contest that Corbyn would win, Mann made the preposterous proposal that the election be called off, thus branding himself as not only a right-winger but also as a notable dimwit. But Mann has for long been an open opponent of “left-wing” anti-semitism. He is entitled to have a go at Livingstone, even though, characteristically, he did it with wild hyperbole. Whatever the motives of those attacking Livingstone, the issue of pseudo-left anti-semitism must be tackled on its merits.
For the serious left to ally with Livingstone, and to let opposition to the expulsions regime in the Labour Party prejudice us in favour of Livingstone, pushing aside the political question in this case, would be a suicidal mistake. “Left” anti-semitism is no small thing. The future of the labour movement depends on it being opposed, combated, and uprooted. The Labour leadership had a right to suspend Livingstone and open an investigation, and they were right to exercise it. The alternative would have been to show themselves numb, indifferent, or collusive to anti-semitism and the anti-semites. Livingstone will have the chance to argue at the investigation all his claims to have been unfairly or unjustly treated.
There is a plain danger that the politics of the issue will be buried in the churning mud of denunciations and counter-denunciations. Typical left “absolute anti-Zionists” are not racists. They most likely share all the horror of decent people at racism. Their mental furniture includes denunciations of Hitler’s and Stalin’s anti-semitism, loathing of the Tsarist Black Hundred anti-Jewish pogromists, and so on. The central problem with the “absolute anti-Zionists” is that they don’t see the connection between the anti-semitism and the racism they loathe, and their own politics now on Israel. They see themselves only as champions of the Palestinians oppressed by Israel, and their hostility to Israel only as a just and necessary part of that. Such people are typically not racists against Jews. The dividing line is not on racism, but in the politics of the Middle East. It is not between critics of Israel and its uncritical defenders, but on the political answers subscribed to. The dividing line is between those who want to change and reform Israel, and have an independent Palestinian state side by side with Israel — and those who deny Israel’s right to exist at all, who see Israel as an illegitimate political formation, a mistake, a crime of history that must be undone by the elimination of the whole Israeli polity.
Everything anti-semitic specific to the left is rooted in that divide. It is impossible to draw a line saying which degrees and kinds of criticism of Israel are to be licensed. Who should decide what is untrue or true, too severe or merely just, preconceived or a legitimate response to reality? It is a hopeless task. Such a Labour Party regime could not but be arbitrary and capricious, and, in current conditions, driven by a hysteria invoked for the occasion by the Labour right.
On the one side there will be people inclined to see any serious criticism of Israel as anti-semitism; on the other, those inclined to see any defence or justification of Israel as “Zionist apologetics”. The political dividing line, both true to the reality and serviceable in practice, is between critics of Israeli policy and action who want to improve things, and those whose often just criticism carries the demand that Israel be destroyed, that the Hebrew nation be deprived of self-determination — who back armed action by such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and by Arab or Islamic states, to put Israel out of existence.
It is important in all this not to lose sight of the Palestinians held in the stifling grasp of Israeli occupation, outmatched militarily and more or less helpless in the face of Israeli military might. The Palestinian demand for their own independent state, alongside Israel, deserves the support of every socialist and honest democrat.