Instead of advisedly keeping his own counsel, I fear Ken Livingstone did himself few favours in telling LBC last week that the anti-Semitism row in the Labour Party was a “complete diversion”. 

Whether it warrants his ultimate expulsion from the party between now and July will be for others to judge. But as someone who, along with the mainstream of our community, is ardently committed to Israel, I would nonetheless argue that on a careful scrutiny, his remarks in that notorious BBC radio interview with Vanessa Feltz two years ago do not deserve the obloquy that has been heaped upon his head. Although he perhaps only has himself to blame for not being clearer, it may be that the episode ought not to be included in the “indictment”.

Feltz had asked him about Labour MP Naz Shah’s retweeting of anti-Israel sentiments and the graphic that postulated Israel’s “relocation” to America. Insisting that they were not anti-Semitic but merely “over the top”, he then uttered the two sentences that have hung around 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.”

After this excursus into history hit the headlines, we read column after column of condemnation based on the assumption that Livingstone had intentionally cast an irredeemable slur on Zionism and Jewry. But apart from what I wrote in two Jewish News columns and a law journal article, no one has tried to comprehend the exact point he was trying to make.

Context is all. The relocation graphic was originally got up to recycle a facetious old joke popular among American Jews. It was a satirical absurdity and Livingstone was evidently saying in effect (but perhaps rather too telegraphically) that if you need an actual example of racist banishment, look no further than Hitler’s early policy, before he turned to genocide.

Fair enough, it may be said. But did Livingstone really need to mention the Zionist movement’s dark chapter? Surely he could have contrasted the joke and an historical truth without gratuitously bringing up the painful memory of collaboration between certain Zionist agencies and the Nazis.

This is the crunch point. The spoof is about a fantasy agreement for population transfer between Israel and America. So it was logical enough to contrast it with the well-documented fact of Zionist/Nazi scheming to get Germany’s Jews into Palestine (which Hitler hoped would make trouble for the British). Otherwise, it was a complete non sequitur.

But why say that Hitler – who obviously abhorred the very idea of a Jewish state – “was supporting” Zionism? The short answer,
I would suggest, is that Livingstone was instinctively looking for a less pejorative-laden verb than “collaborated” in order to signify Hitler’s tactical backing of Zionist migratory operations and, speaking off the cuff, simply chose the wrong word. How often have I done so – on my feet in court.

Yet before casting Livingstone into the abyss, we should hesitate to apply Freudian parapraxis in imputing base motives.

If he were the master of language he is sometimes painted, he would hardly be in his present pickle.

We may utterly deprecate talk of diversions and smears, but in his Holocaust Memorial Day participation in an Iranian Press TV discussion, he rounded angrily on a Judeo-phobic caller and reacted to the Holocaust-denying moderator with the abrupt insistence that there was “no credible alternative to six million”.