LABOUR’S anti-Semitism row is like something out of the satirical BBC comedy, The Thick Of It. Only the scriptwriters who dreamed up the Labour spin doctor, Malcolm Tucker, would have thought it too far-fetched. The former London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, was filmed last week seeking refuge from the press in a disabled toilet in the foyer the BBC’s Millbank studios, after being accused by another Labour MP of being a “Nazi apologist” for suggesting that Hitler supported Zionism. It was beyond satire.
It was also the most damaging prelude to an important election week for Labour. Candidates and activists pounding the streets this weekend must be furious. Labour’s Kezia Dugdale was one of the first to criticise Ken Livingstone, but there are bound to be consequences for Scottish Labour. The press is filled with Labour MPs accusing each other of being racists and bigots. At the very least, it looks like Labour MPs have misplaced their marbles.
The scare has some similarities with the allegations of anti-English racism in the SNP before the General Election when social media became a battleground. Old Twitter comments and retweets from the account of the Labour MP for Bradford West, Naz Shah, dating from before she became an MP, were recycled as alleged indications that the Labour Party suffers from systemic anti-Jewish racism. This is seen as a Jeremy Corbyn problem. However, Shah was installed as candidate in Bradford West by the Jewish Labour leader, Ed Miliband to take on George Galloway of Respect.
Now, it has to be said, the hostility of some Labour politicians to the activities of the state of Israel may stray into anti-Semitism. Naz Shah was certainly wrong to talk about “Jews massing” and her remark about Hitler’s treatment of the German Jews as being “legal” was arguably anti-Semitic, and she herself made a fulsome apology in the Jewish News. She said her tweets were “deeply offensive to the Jewish people”.
But this doesn’t mean that the Labour Party is anti-Semitic or condones Nazi apologists. Ken Livingstone’s injudicious remarks about Hitler were similarly a sign of political insensitivity and stupidity rather than hatred of Jews. What he said in his now infamous interview with the Jewish broadcaster, Vanessa Feltz on Thursday was this: “Let’s remember when Hitler won his election in 1932 his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million.”
Now, it is true that, in 1933, six months after Hitler came to power, the Zionist Federation of Germany discussed an arrangement called the “Transfer Agreement” under which German Jews emigrating to Palestine were permitted to retain some of the value of their property in Germany. You can read all about this in an article by Y’faat Weiss in Yad Vashem Studies, cited on the website of the International Institute for Holocaust Studies. It was also the subject of a book The Transfer Agreement, published by Edwin Black in 1984.
But the Ha’avar, as this agreement was called in Hebrew, does not mean that “Hitler founded Israel” – an offensive allegation has has been endlessly recycled on anti-Semitic websites. The arrangement was fiercely opposed by many non-Zionist Jews in Germany. And there had anyway been extensive migration of German Jews to Palestine before and after the supposed migration deal.
So, let’s be clear: Ken Livingstone was wrong to say that “Hitler was supporting Zionism”. This suggests a much closer involvement of the Nazi leader in the creation of the Israeli state. Palestine was under the control of the British in 1933, and it was only after UK rule ended in 1948 that Israel was created.
Livingstone’s remark could also be seen to imply that Zionism has something in common with fascism, and ignores the fact that most Jews are not Zionists. However, these remarks were not anti-Semitic in intent, and he will surely be exonerated by Labour’s internal inquiry. Though given the hysteria in the party and the press, that forecast may be premature.
The former London Mayor was undoubtedly at fault politically for raising the issue in such an explosive context. At time when a Labour MP had just apologised for allegedly anti-Semitic remarks was not the moment to open a debate about Hitler’s relationship to Zionism. Even as he was pursued by the media in full attack mode, Livingstone kept repeating the allegation. It was like Basil Fawlty trying not to mention the war.
Equally, the intemperate attacks on Livingstone from fellow MPs such as John Mann, who called him a “Nazi apologist”, were damaging and destructive, not just of Labour’s fortunes in this week’s elections, but also of community relations. Not everyone who criticises Israel is anti-Semitic, and Ken Livingstone, whatever you think of him, could never be describe as a fascist sympathiser.
As the Jewish Socialist Group observed, there were several agendas at work here. It looked like an attempt by opponents of Jeremy Corbyn to damage the Labour leader by associating him with anti-Jewish racism. Livingstone is politically very close to Corbyn, and the read-across would be that if the former London Mayor is a crypto fascist, so is the current leader of the Labour Party.
It is also partly an attempt by the Labour Friends of Israel, including figures like Tony Blair’s former fund raiser, Lord Levy, to challenge what they seen as pro-Palestinian bias in Labour and a willingness to condone anti-Israeli attitudes. These are undoubtedly widespread in the party, though given the plight of Palestinians on the West Bank that is hardly surprising.
Critics of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians will now be very much on the defensive in case they are accused of being anti-Semitic. It may no longer be possible to declare yourself an opponent of Zionism – even though many Jews do oppose this form of Israeli nationalism. The term, like its shorthand “Zios”, is used on the internet by some Islamist groups and others as a synonym now for Jews, and has now acquired distinctly racist connotations.
This raises another very sensitive issue for Labour, which has gained much of its support in the recent past from areas of high immigration. In Channel 4’s recent programme, What British Muslims Really Think, the former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, claimed that a significant proportion of Britain’s one million Muslims believe many anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists.
It is difficult to discuss this issue without oneself being accused of Islamophobia. There is undoubtedly a strain of hostility to Jews among whites, and you only need to look at the internet to see anti-Semitic websites asserting that there is a cabal of Jewish bankers ruling the financial world. But addressing anti-Semitism in the Muslim community is very difficult for a predominantly white party like Labour.
However, what all can agree on, surely, is a period of silence from both sides in the Labour Party. The Manns and the Livingstones have done enough damage in their brainless faction-fighting and incontinent animosity. I don’t believe Labour is remotely an anti-Semitic party, but with this kind of language being thrown about, in front of a hostile press, how can ordinary voters trust be expected to trust them?