Ken Livingstone’s intervention in defence of suspended Labour MP Naz Shah was a political disaster. He should have accepted that some of what Shah did was wrong; and pointed out that the reaction has been hysterical, that Shah is by all credible accounts not an antisemite, that the party leadership responded swiftly and firmly, and that, while antisemitism must always be taken seriously, claims that Labour has an ‘antisemitism problem’ are devoid of factual basis. Instead, he decided to bring up Hitler and Zionism. The result is that a prominent Corbyn ally has been suspended, while the ‘antisemitism’ smear campaign has advanced to within an inch of Corbyn himself.
But while Livingstone’s comments were politically inept, claims that they were antisemitic—or even that they exposed Livingstone as a ‘Nazi apologist’—are absurd.
Here is what Livingstone said:
[When] Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism. This was before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.
He subsequently clarified:
Back in 1932 when Hitler won the election that brought him to power, his policy then was to deport all Germany’s Jews to Israel. That’s not because he was a Zionist, it is because he hated Jews. And he then had a dialogue with the leaders of the Zionist movement, private, not him personally but his officials, privately discussing whether or not to proceed with that policy. In the end, of course, he didn’t – he chose instead to kill six million Jews.
There are several historical inaccuracies in these statements, but the basic point—that in the early- and mid-1930s the Nazi regime and the Zionist movement engaged in talks and reached agreements to expedite the emigration of German Jews to Palestine—is supported by mainstream scholarship.
As early as 1933, the Nazi administration began discussing and implementing measures to promote ‘Jewish emigration from Germany’, while government ministries facilitated the work of Germany’s Zionist Federation. According to historian Francis R. Nicosia, there was ‘[t]hroughout the 1930s . . . almost unanimous support in German government and Nazi party circles for promoting Zionism among German Jews, and Jewish emigration from Germany to Palestine’. Here is one account:
The SD (Sicherheitsdienst), the [Nazi] party’s intelligence service . . . stated the matter clearly in 1934: to encourage the departure of the Jews from Germany, it was necessary to develop in them the consciousness of a separate identity. Zionist organisations therefore received favoured treatment; their interests coincided here with those of a regime only too happy to see the proliferation of Hebrew schools, sporting clubs, and professional retraining courses geared to emigration to Palestine. One of the Nuremberg laws, that concerning ‘the sanctity of German blood and honour’ which forbade the Jews to display the swastika, expressly authorised them to fly the blue and white Zionist flag stamped with the Star of David.
Meanwhile, the responses of ‘some Zionist leaders’ in Palestine to the new regime in Germany ‘were not negative’, reflecting ‘a widespread hope that the Nazi policy of furthering Jewish emigration from Germany offered great opportunities for the Yishuv’. Indeed, ‘some of the earliest ideas and policy initiatives for the effective achievement of the Nazi goal of Jewish emigration came from Jewish, that is, Zionist, sources, and not from the Nazis themselves’. The Haavara (Transfer) Agreement of August 1933 was one example. This accord permitted Jewish emigrants to Palestine to transfer with them part of their assets; as a result, ‘some one hundred million Reichsmarks were transferred to Palestine’ and ‘most of the sixty thousand German Jews’ who arrived in Palestine between 1933 and 1939 were able to secure ‘a minimal basis for their material existence’.
To be sure, Nazi-Zionist cooperation was ‘instrumental’ rather than heartfelt: Zionists sought German Jewish capital to build up the Yishuv and believed emigration was ultimately the only hope for German Jews; while the Nazi regime desired Jewish emigration in itself and also expected the transfer agreement to yield political and economic benefits. This convergence of interests provided the basis for talks and a measure of cooperation until Nazi policy turned from emigration to extermination.
Labour MP John Mann accused Livingstone of ‘rewriting history’. He might try reading some.
Livingstone’s other comments from the two interviews yesterday have been misrepresented in what has become the standard fashion. (In the verbatim quotes below, italics indicate a question from the presenter.)
- What do you think ‘over the top’ really means? When I say, ‘was it [i.e. Naz Shah’s comments] antisemitic?’ and you say ‘no it wasn’t, categorically no, anyone who says it was is a liar, but it was “over the top”’—over the top of what? Well, I mean, basically, you think of antisemitism and racism as exactly the same thing. And criticising the Government of South Africa, which is pretty unpleasant and corrupt, doesn’t make me a racist; and it doesn’t make me antisemitic when I criticise the brutal mistreatment by the Israeli government.
The right-wing gossip blog Guido Fawkes, which is apparently unable to publish a sentence without an egregious falsehood, cherry-picked the first line of Livingstone’s response and glossed it as follows: ‘Ken: anti-Semitism is not racism’. In spoken presentations, sentences are often imprecise, and meanings can be misconstrued. (For instance, Prime Minister David Cameron today demanded that the Labour Party ‘recognise that antisemitism is like racism’. Like racism?—somebody call John Mann!) But in context, it is obvious that Livingstone was saying the precise opposite of what Fawkes alleges: that, in determining the line between legitimate and illegitimate (‘over the top’) remarks, one ought to treat antisemitism like other forms of racism; and therefore, just as criticising South Africa does not make one a racist, so criticising Israel does not make one an antisemite.
- What worries me is this blurring of antisemitism with criticism of Israel undermines the importance of tackling antisemitism. Someone who is antisemitic isn’t just hostile to the Jews living in Israel, they’re hostile to their neighbour in Golders Green, or the neighbour in Stoke Newington. It’s a personal loathing just like people who hate black people.
Presumably, what was going through Livingstone’s mind here was: if a person is really antisemitic, rather than just opposed to Israeli policies, wouldn’t they also hate Jews in the UK? This may be clumsily expressed, but in what universe is it antisemitic?
Livingstone did err in refusing to acknowledge that Shah’s use of the phrase ‘the Jews’ to warn about the results of an online poll (see here for details) was wrong. This aside, the attacks against him—like the allegations of Labour Party antisemitism more broadly—are without foundation.
The only truly outrageous comments in Livingstone’s interview were made by presenter Vanessa Feltz. At the outset of the exchange, Feltz led listeners to believe that Naz Shah MP had defended Hitler’s actions as ‘legal’. This is simply false. In 2014, before she was an MP, Shah shared the following image on Facebook:
The quote is from that notorious antisemite, Martin Luther King, Jr. In context, it reads as follows:
We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal’. It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.
I suppose, in the midst of this hysteria, it does need saying: King was defending civil disobedience, not Hitler.
It is easy to laugh at all this. But it really isn’t funny. After all, if Ken Livingstone is truly a modern-day Himmler, and if Naz Shah is truly akin to Eichmann, then might not their supporters and constituents conclude that maybe Himmler and Eichmann weren’t so bad? This crude and opportunistic exploitation of antisemitism cheapens the memory of the Nazi holocaust and creates new antisemites who are sick and tired of the browbeating and bullying tactics. Let’s be clear. The problem is not that those prosecuting this dishonest and cynical smear campaign against the elected Labour leadership are oversensitive to antisemitism. It’s that they are so profoundly contemptuous of Jewish suffering that, for the sake of their petty vendettas and tawdry factional jostling, they are prepared to put at risk the living and traduce the dead.
 Nicosia, Zionism, pp. 75, 79-80; cf. Yehuda Bauer, Jews for Sale? Nazi-Jewish negotiations, 1933-1945 (New Haven: Yale UP, 1994), p. 5.
 Nicosia, Zionism, p. 80; cf. p. 89.
 Philippe Burrin, Hitler and the Jews: The genesis of the Holocaust, introduction by Saul Friedländer (London: Edward Arnold, 1989), p. 46. I am grateful to Norman G. Finkelstein for this reference.
 Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany & the Jews, 1933-1939: The years of persecution, vol. 1 (London: Phoenix, 1998 ), p. 64. The ‘Yishuv’ was the Jewish community in Palestine.
 Nicosia, Zionism, p. 78.
 Friedländer, Nazi, p. 63.
 Friedländer, Nazi, p. 63; Nicosia, Zionism, pp. 78-82. Cf. Yehuda Bauer: ‘The Nazis wanted to get rid of the Jews, didn’t they? And the Zionists wanted to absorb them gradually in Palestine—as moneyed settlers, not impoverished refugees. Both sides, for opposing reasons, needed to maintain contact with each other, as only real friends and real enemies do. The result was negotiations over the orderly exit of Jews with capital from Germany’. (Bauer, Jews for Sale?, p. 8)