‘Livingstone is not anti-semitic – but his poor judgment invites notoriety’
18 April, 2017 — By David Rosenberg
Under Ken Livingstone’s visionary Left Labour leadership from 1981, the Greater London Council (GLC) railed against inequalities and discriminatory practices – racist, sexist, homophobic and disablist.
Through a generous grants programme its Ethnic Minorities Unit gave grassroots anti-racist campaigners the resources to make their voices heard.
I was a beneficiary, working then for the Jewish Cultural and Anti-Racist Project, a Jewish Socialists’ Group (JSG) initiative funded by the GLC.
How is it possible that three decades on, the very person who was pivotal to the fight for equality is facing demands for expulsion by the Labour Party after making dubious comments about Hitler and Zionism, and defending another MP’s comments about Jews, which she herself apologised for?
Livingstone claims that he is being targeted because of his support for Palestine and for Jeremy Corbyn. In my view, his controversial and completely unnecessary intervention undermined Corbyn and damaged the Palestinian cause. It was a gift to right-wingers in both the Labour and Conservative parties and to pro-Zionist and pro-Conservative elements in the Jewish community determined to do down both Labour and Corbyn and associate support for Palestinians with anti-semitism.
The bad blood between Livingstone and self-proclaimed Jewish leaders, especially the Board of Deputies (BoD), goes back to the early 1980s when Livingstone took power in the GLC.
The BoD regards itself as the sole legitimate political representative of Jews in Britain. Although it initially co-operated with the GLC’s Ethnic Minorities Unit, it wrote to Livingstone insisting on its right to vet any applications for GLC funding by Jewish groups. Livingstone steadfastly refused, on democratic grounds, and was never forgiven by them.
In 1983 the Board suspended its participation in the work of the unit. Leaked minutes reveal that this decision was taken because of “a grant to the Jewish Socialists’ Group, against the advice of the Board”. There were further clashes after Livingstone made pro-Palestinian statements in the aftermath of the Lebanon war of 1982.
In that period, Livingstone was guilty of a misdemeanour which links directly to the recent controversies. He co-edited a left-wing newspaper called Labour Herald which published crude denunciations of Israel and cartoons of its right-wing Prime Minister Menachem Begin dressed in Nazi uniform, which drew accusations of antisemitism. It also carried a review by one Harry Mullin of three publications alleging Zionist-Nazi collaboration.
This review crossed a line from anti-Zionism to anti-semitism by effectively diminishing Hitler’s responsibility for the Holocaust. The Jewish Socialists’ Group complained. In a private response Livingstone described Mullin as a respected labour movement writer. A few years down the line Mullin had found his more natural home in the fascist British National Party. This episode gave an early hint of Livingstone’s lack of sophisticated judgment in this area.
During the recent controversy in which Livingstone claimed that Hitler supported Zionism before “he went mad and killed six million Jews”, he cited his “academic” source – an American freelance journalist, Lenni Brenner. Brenner’s 1983 book, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, makes crude allegations of Zionist-Nazi collaboration, treats the actions of some Zionists as representing all Zionists, and utterly distorts the power relations between Zionists and Nazis.
This attempt at finding evidence of Zionists behaving badly in the 1930s in order to expose the way Zionism behaves today, is a clumsy and shoddy way of supporting the Palestinians’ just demands. I say that as a Jewish opponent of Zionism and a supporter of justice for Palestinians.
The case against Israel’s occupation and ill-treatment of Palestinians is unanswerable. Basing that case on what some Zionists did in Germany in the early years of Hitler’s ruthless dictatorship – and without describing the context of terror – invites accusations of anti-semitism, and ultimately lets the Israeli government in 2017 off the hook.
Livingstone was also apprehended for defending tweets made in 2014 by Bradford Labour MP Naz Shah, which Jewish “leaders” described as anti-semitic. One tweet recycled an old Jewish joke suggesting that Israel solves its problems by relocating to America. It pokes fun at the mutually sycophantic relationship between the Israeli and American governments. I don’t regard that as anti-semitic. But another tweet, imploring contacts to participate in an online poll about Israel’s war in Gaza, by saying “the Jews are rallying”, was antisemitic.
Just after Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesperson had welcomed Shah’s apology and sought to move forward constructively, Livingstone’s comments inflamed the controversy again.
I do not believe Livingstone is anti-semitic. Nor do I believe that right-wing Jews whom the media treats as spokespersons, should define what is offensive to all Jews. I don’t support calls to expel Livingstone. However, I do believe that he deliberately invites controversy and notoriety, and that his poor judgment has set back the Palestinian cause, and made life more difficult for the embattled left-wing Labour leadership, that is seeking to combat all racism including anti-semitism.
• David Rosenberg is a Tufnell Park resident, Labour Party member and member of the Jewish Socialists’ Group. He is the author of Rebel Footprints: a guide to uncovering London’s radical history