Utopia – Whither the Future?

I’ve been very taken with the idea behind this conference, which examines the past, present and future of utopias. It’s being held in New York in September, and the call for papers is open (details here) until 30 June. I can’t attend myself, but what a great topic!

The organisers pose some attractive questions about the past and present of utopia. The future, reasonably enough, is summarised by a question mark.New Picture (2)

I certainly have an interest in the history of utopian thinking and practice. I encountered numerous cases in researching the British work camp tradition, ranging from the Christian Socialist settlement at Starnthwaite and the Tolstoyan anarchists of Whiteway to the Zionist David Eder training farm, the Aryan work camps of Rolf Gardiner’s group, and the peace-builders of Gryth Fyrd. All of these sought to prefigure a different world; and although none managed to persist with its original intentions, some lasted much longer than others.

Given that work camps are seriously hard work, literally as well as figuratively, there may well be some lessons to be learned from these stories. The tension between academic rigour and utopian activism is one of life’s great pleasures.¬† And I very much hope that utopian thinking and practices are far from dead: if we cannot imagine a different way of living from the world around us at present, we may as well turn to the bottle.

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 PDF 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 both 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.