Anti-semitism and the history of Zionist emigration: it seems I might be a Nazi apologist

I’m not particularly a fan of Ken Livingtone, or for that matter of the Labour Party: I’ve been a Green since the 1980s. But I am genuinely shocked that Livingstone stands seriously accused of anti-Semitism, and has been suspended from the Party while the allegations are investigated. Even more extraordinary is that a senior MP has called him a ‘Nazi apologist’.

What is not at dispute are the words that the former Mayor of London used in a BBC radio interview:

When Hitler won his election in 1932 his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.

It is easy to pick holes in this statement: Israel didn’t exist in 1932, though the Zionists certainly believed that they were building Eretz Israel  through settlement. Hitler never gave any indication that he ‘supported Zionism’. And I’m not sure we can describe the extermination policy as a result of Hitler going mad. But do these inaccuracies amount to anti-Semitism?

I’m by no means a specialist on National Socialist policies towards Zionism. Still, I did look at the Zionist movement in my book on work camps, where I discuss the Habonim movement and its training farm in Kent, which prepared young Zionists for life on a Kibbutz. It was an interesting episode, and I might write a future post about it.

I came across a number of studies of Zionism in the 1930s, including some which examined the ways in which the Nazi regime set out to exploit the Zionist aim of resettling Jews in Palestine. The quotation comes from one of them, a book called The Third Reich and the Palestine Question, by Francis Nicosia, the Raul Hilberg Distinguished Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Vermont..

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It doesn’t say that Hitler ‘supported Zionism’, but what it makes abundantly clear, with references to the evidence, is that the National Socialist regime set out to exploit the Zionist movement.This political strategy of course predates the Holocaust. If you are concerned that I might be quoting selectively, then you can find a version of the book here. In fact, you will find a lot more on this topic.

I’m not particularly worried about Livingstone, an old political bruiser who can look after himself. He also has form in this area, as Matthew Cooper makes clear in his excellent and detail review of his latest book, so he presumably hoped to provoke a response. What shocks me is the way in which his opponents fell for it, in an outburst of exaggerated indignation and hatred.

Livingstone’s comments were at best a cheap shot which exploited a miserable period of our history. But the torrent of abuse heaped upon him is equally guilty of playing games with history for short term political gain. By the standards of Livingstone and his critics, presumably any historian who uses archives rather than prejudice is either a Zionist or a Nazi apologist. The net result is to cheapen the charge of anti-Semitism and degrade its value in British political debate.

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11 thoughts on “Anti-semitism and the history of Zionist emigration: it seems I might be a Nazi apologist

  1. Well said.

    When will the powerful Jewish lobby stop calling those who criticise Israel’s foreign policy, in particular its treatment of Palestine, anti Semitic?

    • I certainly wouldn’t want to use the term “powerful Jewish lobby”. But you are right that the term “anti-semitism” is deployed to inhibit debate over Israeli policies. In my view, the term “Zionist” is also used frequently to close down debate over anti-Semitism.

      • I think this debate has little to do with anti-Semitism or Israel or so but with a rather nasty slur on the Labour party itself – which has made everybody loosing a sense of proportion here.

    • Israel is entitled to a foreign policy like most countries. Why is Israel targeted more than others? Was the carpet bombing of Hanoi madness or just in the economic interest of the USA.
      The British left need to be honest, do they want Israel to exist as a state or not. I suspect they want Israel destroyed but have not got the bottle to declare themselves.
      I do not think Hitler was mad. Killing people in large quantities is normal in history. It is happening now in Syria and sensible! countries are facilitating this.

  2. Thanks Geoff. Until today, I had thought you were a serious thinker – whose blog I followed – albeit someone with a tendency to express yourself a little intemperately at times. Having just read your reference to that old anti-Semitic trope of the ‘Jewish lobby’, I now realise that I was wrong and your views are not worth a second glance. Thanks for saving me – and others, too, I’m sure – from spending a second more considering your views in future.

  3. I’d agree with all you said about Ken L – and the Labour Party. But there is clearly something else going on at the moment. Self righteous indignation standing for social and political action – and its use for a different – sometimes quite other – set of political motives. It’s also hard to get to the level of detail you’ve included in your piece though it shouldn’t be difficult for journalists to do so. So at least two kinds of exclusions are taking place; one which counts exclusion as a sufficient political act in itself and another which excludes discourse on the details of history and its analysis.

    • Thanks Finbar. The particularities of the past are always going to be skated over in everyday political discourse, but I find it hard to see this ‘scandal’ as anything other than manufactured – and dangerous.

  4. John, you add very interesting background. but I think your scholarliness leads you to be too protective of KL. Of course at one level he’s just made a (supposedly) factual statement to show how complex history is. but he knows enough about politics to know how this would play – if not at the actual moment he said it, then afterwards when he had plenty of chances to clarify things.
    That still leaves open the question of whether he is technically an anti-semite (however ‘technically’ is defined). As/more important is the question of how far this kind of thinking permeates the LP. My guess is that in most cases it is more sloppiness than racism, but as we know this easily turns into something else.

    • Thanks Tom. You are right that Livingstone is a pro who knows exactly how to pull the tails of his opponents, and I have no desire to protect him. On this occasion I am equally unimpressed by John Mann’s behaviour – another pro who knew what he was doing. And as you say, this stuff can easily turn very nasty indeed.

  5. Am I guilty of “anti-semitism? In my life I’ve had my best friend Jewish, a half Jewish girlfriend, accepting of a Jewish son-in -law and Jewishness never seemed important . In France on Sunday morning I enjoyed listening to the Jewish Sunday contribution, which was often more philosophical than theological or gave interesting historical glimpses of Jewish life in earlier times in France.
    Having said that I was disappointed when British troops were defeated trying to keep the mandate for Palestine given to Britain by the League of Nations . I thought that the displacement of the Palestinian Arab population was unjust and the continuing stealing of land since then is also unjust. I boycott Jewish goods and feel support for the Palestinian cause. But history cannot be reversed and I now support a Palestine which could have Jews and non-Jews living in peace and friendship together in equal citizenship.

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