On Ken Livingstone’s Attitude Problem

Now that Venezuela is in full crisis, Ken Livingstone is in the news a lot doubling down on his support for the failed regime. Can’t ask the leopard to changes its spots, I guess. But I was surprised to learn from all this that Red Ken is suspended from the Labour Party for "bringing it into disrepute" for making anti-Semitic statements. Somehow I missed this last year when it happened. If you read a bit between the lines, the story is basically that Livingstone ran interference for a Muslim comrade – Naz Shah, MP from Bradford – who was facing expulsion from Labour for spreading an allegedly anti-Semitic cartoon1 on social media. Though she apologized, the scandal surrounding her only really evaporated once Livingstone, in an interview defending her, kept mentioning that Hitler and the Zionists were fellow travellers for a bit there in the 1930s.

Now, it’s not hard to see why that was effective in taking the heat off Shah. And it’s boring predictable that British Jewish leaders are saying that failure to outright kick Livingstone out of the party (he’s merely suspended from holding office as a Labour member for 2 years) has irreparably damaged relations between them and the Labour Party. And it’s not like it’s not tempting to cheer any time Ken is down. He really does have some objectionable opinions. But the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend, and I feel like it’s important for people to defend Livingstone on this one.

The fact is, he’s not saying anything that isn’t historically well documented. Unfashionable it may be, but lots of unfashionable things are true (and the more politically correct the world gets, the more of them there are). The fact is, there were significant swathes of the NSDAP who were Zionist allies.

By all means, let’s be precise about this. Livingstone himself:

If I’d said Hitler was a Zionist, I would say sorry. You can’t apologise for telling the truth

And that’s correct: it would be a step too far to say that Hitler himself was Zionist. Hitler was an anti-semite to an extreme degree, and I’m unaware of any statements Hitler may have made proposing mass Jewish emigration to Palestine as a solution to the "Jewish Question" in Europe2. Hitler was notoriously unspecific about how to get Jews out of Europe – which is the main reason the ever-ellusive Führerbefehl will probably never be found.

But Himmler and the SS weren’t, and for the entire decade of the 1930s their prefered solution was exactly the Zionist one. Moreover, they were quite public about this, and the documentary evidence for it is copious. Nor was the support merely rhetorical. There was an active effort to encourage Jews to emigrate specifically to Palestine that included discouraging the German press from reporting on the hardships they faced there and lessening the exit tax on Jews who chose Palestine as their final destination (to discourage going to the US or Britain).

None of this support was amicable, and it’s important to remember that Zionism has never been non-controversial among Jews. What Himmler and the SS were doing was not supporting the flourising of the Jewish people abroad – rather, they were actively taking sides on an issue that was divisive in the German Jewish community at large. Jews then (as now) were divided between the options of assimilating fully, maintaining a distinct Jewish identity while otherwise being good citizens of their host countries, or ending the diaspora by congregating in a Jewish nation somewhere (preferably Palestine). Himmler and the SS weren’t wishing the Jews well – they simply had a strong preference for the later option. Which, mutatis mutandis, makes them Zionist fellow travellers. Livingstone is not wrong to make this point. It happens to be true.

More savvy commenters of course recognize this and choose more nuanced complaints – focusing on Livingstone’s tone. For example, David Baddiel:

The real problem, in a way, is the tone of Livingstone when giving this interpretation. There’s no sympathy. No compassion – no sense of the tragedy behind this.

That’s fair, and it’s certainly true that you don’t have to read too deep between the lines in things Livingstone’s said over the years to get the impression that his dislike of Israel and sympathy for the Palestinian cause makes him a bit chilly toward Jewish groups in the diaspora. But my problem with this is that it lets the complicity of contemporary Zionists in this faustian bargain go unmentioned. I don’t think it would be fair to say that Zionists in the 1930s welcomed the Nuremburg Laws. Of course they didn’t. But they knew an opportunity when they saw it and were happy to work with the Nazis to the extent it meant funnelling Jews to Israel rather than elsewhere. In an address to the Mapai in 1938, Ben Gurion said the following:

If I knew it was possible to save all the children in Germany by taking them to England, and only half of the children by taking them to Eretz Israel, I would choose the second solution. For we must take into account not only the lives of these children but also the history of the people of Israel.

If you post this online, people quickly "correct" you by saying it’s being taken out of context – and that context is that the UK had just denied entrance to Palestine (then under their Mandate) to 10,000 Jewish orphans in the wake of Kristallnacht, and were offering to compensate by taking some or all of them in themselves. Ben Gurion was furious because he saw this as the beginning of the end of more or less unrestricted immigration by Jewish refugees into Palestine. The local Arab population had been pressuring Britain for some time to curb the numbers.

But nothing about this context mitigates the original charge: that building Israel was a more important goal for Ben Gurion than ensuring Jewish safety, and that Ben Gurion was willing to sacrifice innocents to build his state. There is an important distinction between being motivated by Nazi oppression (in particular, and anti-semitic violence in general) to want to build a Jewish state and exploiting Nazi oppression to do it. Ben Gurion’s statement is consistent with the latter. It is only consistent with the latter, in fact, because it betrays an unwillingness to settle anywhere besides Palestine and a general indifference to the wishes of the Arabs already living there.

Baddiel finishes his charge like so:

It’s just complacently presented as a deal that Hitler made with German Zionists, and therefore – and this, of course, is the point, the banal, shit point – a way of confirming that Zionism is bad. Through an association with the top bad thing, Hitler.

In other words, Mr. Baddiel’s objection is to any treatment of Zionism that involves nuance. You can talk about any shared interests between the Nazis and the Zionists, one presumes, only so long as the Nazis are unambiguously bad and the Zionists unambiguously good. This, in a nutshell, is why it is important to defend Livingstone on this – because the real objection to his statement seems to be not so much to his facts as to his spin. That’s dangerous. A fair and open discusion can’t, by definition, be predicated on how it comes out. When you’re saying "cite whatever facts you like so long as you reach my preferred conclusion," you’re in Orwell territory.

OF COURSE the fact that Nazis and Zionists had overlapping interests should be on the table for discussion. In fact, it’s hard to see how any cogent discussion of the history of Zionism could avoid this topic. And OF COURSE it should be allowed to look at the history of Zionism and notice that it’s pretty damn race-conscious itself. In a lot of quarters, the fact that Ken Livingstone is merely suspended for two years rather than kicked out (of the party he’s been a faithful member of for over 50 years) over this is a scandal. I think he shouldn’t even be suspended. In fact, I think he shouldn’t even get a slap on the wrist. If the Labour Party leadership wants to issue a statement clarifying that it doesn’t share his opinion and outlining what they would’ve said differently in his shoes, then fine. But if you can’t say true things in public without offending certain lobby groups, then the problem is with those lobby groups. The fact is that a lot of Jewish interest groups don’t like honest discussions about Zionism and are happy to stack the deck to avoid having them. You don’t have to like Ken Livingstone or support anything he stands for to see the problem with letting these groups use him to reinforce the taboo.

Open discussion of history should always be allowed. If Jewish interest groups don’t like Livingstone’s opinions on Zionism, that’s their right, and they’re certainly welcome to push whatever interpretation of Zionism they prefer. But we should all insist that this be a discussion. Putting pressure on organizations to suspend or fire people who say true things you don’t like is, well … something else Nazis and Zionists have in common, when you get right down to it.

Look, I get it. If Labour doesn’t suspend him, there’ll be no end to Tories opportunisticially playing this up as "evidence" that the entire Labour Party hates Jews. But that’s precisely my problem with this. That’s an option they have only because we, as humans, keep letting stuff like this happen. At some point, you have to start thinking deeper than optics. Or thinking at all.

  1. The cartoon suggested deporting Israeli Jews to the US – YMMV on whether that rises to the level of anti-Semitism.

  2. IN fact, just the opposite – Hitler is on record several times implying that setting up a state in Palestine was just a way of getting a safe headquarters where they could spin their plots without international oversight. That said, the usual caveats apply: one has to be careful attributing any specific policy proposals to Hitler because he wasn’t, as they say in modern business jargon, much of a details guy. More of a "big picture" guy. His specific opinions about things are all over the place. It’s unclear if Hitler’s worries about the Jews using Palestine as an HQ for world domination still apply if Palestine is the only place Jews live, for example. After all, the main theme of his rants was that they were infiltrators, and it’s hard to infiltrate an organization you’re not allowed to join.

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