One of the collateral misfortunes of the far left’s appropriation of the British Labour Party has been the perfusion into the popular consciousness of hardcore antisemitic canards formerly the preserve of underground pamphleteers and wild-eyed placard-makers: Jews controlled the slave trade, Jews were in cahoots with Hitler, Big Jews sent Little Jews to their deaths in the gas chambers the better to hasten the creation of Israel and so on. Since Jeremy Corbyn’s accession to leadership of the party in 2015 the overarching goal of the hard leftists, as with any entryist movement, has been to normalize hitherto abnormal ideas: To get people talking, to get them Googling, to mainstream the rattle bag of antisemitism and conspiracism which bedrocks so much of their thinking.
As a strategy it’s been highly successful, thanks in particular to the efforts of the more prominent inciters like Ken Livingstone, who resigned from the Labour Party this week at the end of a messy two years of constant, ostensibly pointless, quite unrepentant insistence that Hitler supported Zionism “before he went mad.” Ken of course went mad a long time ago, the difference now being that his obsessions are on all fours with the moods and preoccupations of the Labour leadership itself, the same leadership that’s only tardily repudiated his antics while prevaricating for two years without undertaking any meaningfully decisive action against him. Indeed, if anything, his resignation leaves them in his debt. Now they’re not obliged to do anything at all.
Livingstone’s theories are nothing new. What’s novel (and worrying) is that they’re at the top of the headlines. Go back just 15 years or so and it would have been unthinkable that the Labour Party- at the time a glossy, corporate, landsliding machine under Tony Blair- would one day be convulsed by deep, divisive, and very public discussion about whether or not Hitler was a Zionist. Just as unthinkable back then: Britain’s Jewish community- normally downright Anglican in their collective reticence and profound reluctance to court controversy- forced to take to the streets to demonstrate against the open hostility of a major political party, a party with a very real shot at power. Unthinkable, yes. Yet here we are. It is to wonder how it ever came to this.
The allegation of Nazi-Zionist connivance is an old slander first deployed by the Soviets before being taken up enthusiastically by generations of Arab propagandists. It’s a particularly vile (and wilfully sadistic) insult which serves several purposes at once. Most obviously, it hits the Jews where it hurts, weaponizing the Holocaust against its primary victims. It also neatly resolves an uncomfortable intellectual dissonance for the far left, the same far left which trumpets its ideological opposition to fascism while simultaneously indulging a visceral hatred of Israel, a state founded by the very people who suffered most under fascism’s iron heel. Alleging that the Jews were in effect Nazis and that the Nazis were in effect Jews elides the two enemies into one giant super-enemy, cut from the same cloth, in the process “disinheriting the Jews of pity” in Howard Jacobson’s striking idiom. In reality it’s a form of Holocaust Denial Lite. What’s really being said is: (1) The Jews are so diabolical they were complicit even in their own destruction and (2) For that reason there’s no need to feel quite so bad about what happened to them during the war (the bastards deserved it; and anyway look at what they’re doing in Gaza).
It goes without saying that Livingstone is a stirrer, a mixer, a fomenter, a colossal mischief-maker who enjoys poking the wasps’ nest then pleading the defence of Fair Comment while the chaos unfolds satisfyingly around him. The problem however is that like all conspiracy theorists roughly 5% of what he says is true. Therein lies the danger, the seductive magic of the innumerable Google searches (“Was Hitler a Zionist?”, “What was the Haavara Agreement?” etc) prompted by his every appearance on the news; which searches, with their tens of thousands of results, give the impression to the curious and the guileless that maybe there’s something in it after all. And around that 5% of truth coalesces a malignant mass of half-truths, semi-truths, quasi-truths, paranoid conjectures, and hostile inferences until what you end up with is plain old antisemitism, the universal voodoo which underwrites any and all conspiracy theory if you follow the rabbit hole down deep enough.
It’s true, for example, that the Nazis initially toyed half-heartedly with the idea of encouraging Jewish emigration to Mandatory Palestine- albeit this had nothing to do with any doctrinaire allegiance to Zionism, rather, it was an early stab at a quick fix to a Jewish Problem which couldn’t yet be solved by outright eliminationism. The Palestine option was in any event quickly superseded by crackpot schemes like the Madagascar Plan (deport all the Jews to a tropical protectorate where malaria and starvation would finish the job) before the World War gave the Nazis the cover and impetus they needed to do what they’d always wanted to do and murder as many Jews as possible.
None of this matters to Livingstone and his apologists, since for all their appeals to the historical record they’re not interested in facts at all, merely in mutilating facts to fit a very ugly predetermined anti-Israel agenda. Within an hour of Livingstone’s resignation he was already doing the rounds in the TV studios, wearing his best martyr’s frown while reiterating his thesis more dogmatically than ever. And a cursory glance at Twitter that same evening indicated the sheer intractability of the problem. Livingstone’s supporters lost no time mantling him in a saint’s robes, a sacrificial victim on the pyre of truth, with the perfidious Jews lighting the faggots. Corbyn himself had a chance after all this to at least make an attempt on some kind of closure; astonishingly however he chose instead to pay tribute to Ken’s “vital contribution to progressive politics” while refusing to put to bed the immediate speculation about a possible future comeback. There’s no serious reason to believe that Corbyn- who, it’s salutary to recall, came within a few thousand votes in a few key constituencies of winning a General Election last year- disagrees with a word Livingstone says.
What we’re left with, even after Livingstone’s departure, especially after Livingstone’s departure (freelance and off the leash, he’ll doubtless wax yet madder on Corbyn’s behalf), is a Labour Party that’s now the natural home of antisemitism in British politics, a deranged ecosystem that nurtures all manner of mega-meshuga Jew-baiting freakery, with a leadership that lacks the will (in truth the inclination) to root it out. The only crime it seems is when the mask slips just a little and the more enthusiastic among the congregation say “Jew” instead of “Zionist” or some other ideologized code word. Long gone is Harold Wilson’s “moral crusade.” Like the cordyceps fungus infecting the carpenter ant, the antisemites have vitiated a great party of state and subverted its purpose to their own.