To recap: In an interview by Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio London two years ago Ken Livingstone was asked about Labour MP Nas Shah’s re-tweets of anti-Israel sentiments at the time of Israel’s 2014 action in Gaza. These, notably, included the graphic from Norman Finkelstein’s website suggesting Israel be “relocated” to America. Protesting that the re-tweets were not antisemitic but merely “over the top” Livingstone then uttered the two sentences which have hung round his neck like a millstone ever since: “Let’s remember, when Hitler won his election in 1932 his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel [ie Palestine]. He was supporting Zionism [until] he went mad and end[ed] up killing six million Jews.”
It has been contended, notably by the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), that Livingstone’s conscious desire in introducing Hitler into a discussion about Israel was to equate National Socialism with Zionism and to demonise the Jewish state. Yet to infer such a vicious slur from a fleeting on-the-hoof remark would in itself be forensically unsound even if it were not entirely fanciful. In fact it betrays a failure to appreciate the context of the comment and the uncontroversial point he was clearly trying to make in the interview, albeit in terms perhaps too telegraphic for his own good and with less than exquisite eloquence.
Finkelstein (who has himself chided Livingstone for his lack of nuance) originally posted the graphic by way of recycling an old joke repeated over the years in the United States mostly by ardent Israel supporters. Livingstone’s quite evident intent in bringing Hitler into the discussion was obviously to contrast a satirical absurdity with an actual policy of expulsionary transportation pursued by the world’s all time arch antisemite.
No sensible person – not least Livingstone – would for one moment believe that Hitler ever supported the Zionist aim of establishing a Jewish State. However, there is little dispute among historians that the Nazis actively collaborated with various Zionist agencies in promoting the migration of Jews from the Third Reich to Palestine.
Livingstone was probably unwise subsequently to cite the extortionate Ha’avara scheme, which introduced a complication that was unnecessary for his basic argument. But, as I explained in my JN blog last year, when in 1937 the League of Nations Permanent Mandates Commission adopted the Peel Commission’s partition plan in the wake of the Arab revolt, the Nazis were aghast at the imminent prospect of being challenged by a sovereign Jewish nation. While courting Arab friendship by loudly opposing Peel, Hitler nonetheless ordered strategic collaboration with the Zionists quietly to continue, which it did until well after the outbreak of war. He did so explicitly for the twin purposes of ridding Germany of its Jews and making trouble for the British (and by so doing facilitating the enhancement of Germany’s influence in the Arab world).
It would therefore be linguistically accurate to state that Hitler “was supporting” Zionism in that narrow tactical sense (note the gerundive use, to convey a transient aim) and it is a little obtuse of his critics to continue to fixate on base motives merely because in that fleeting moment he eschewed the more suitable phrase “collaborated with”. It may be tempting to invoke Freudian parapraxis to prove a sinister intent but when the word actually used is so close to expressing the exact, uncontroversial, meaning of that which the context plainly indicates was intended it would be wholly unjust to infer the adverse interpretation.
On 28 February JLM members wrote to Labour’s national executive committee warning of the potential damage to the party’s reputation in key London boroughs if Livingstone’s suspension were lifted after its current expiry on 27 April. The letter alleges Livingstone has not changed his behaviour during his suspension, highlighting his Holocaust Memorial Day participation in an Iranian Press TV discussion on whether the Holocaust had been exploited to oppress others. It calls his appearance “deliberate and offensive behaviour towards the Jewish community.”
On the programme Livingstone unsurprisingly reiterated the more or less accurate assertion that Hitler “worked with” the Zionist movement to “eliminate every Jew who was living inside Germany” and to move them to Palestine.
However, it is almost irrational to regard his appearance as offensive. When the presenter repeatedly declared that the Shoah was an industry and called into question the total number of Jewish victims it is gratifying that at a time of rampant Holocaust denial Livingstone staunchly insisted that there was “no credible alternative to 6 million.” When a caller said “Hitler was extremely fantastic” for creating Israel and that “if it wasn’t for Hitler there would be no Israel” Livingstone rounded on him for saying something “really bad . . . it’s deeply offensive to Jewish communities around the world.”
In the light of these robust put-downs, to condemn Livingstone’s participation in the programme as evidence of incorrigibility is not merely perverse. It is preposterous. In lambasting him for supposedly demonising Israel the JLM and others have only succeeded in demonising Livingstone. If his toxicity poses a risk to Labour’s London council seats it is the JLM-led witch hunt which has been largely responsible for perpetuating it.
For a more detailed analysis readers might be interested in my article “Ken Livingstone is More or Less Innocent, OK?” published in Criminal Law and Justice Weekly, May 20, 2017.