Friday, 7 April 2017

Ken Livingstone: a grotesque, offensive disgrace

Question: Why does Ken Livingstone, former mayor of London, former Labour MP, former close ally of Jeremy Corbyn, insist on repeating that Hitler supported Zionism?

Answer 1: Because it's true, and the truth is important to him.

Answer 2: Because he thinks it validates and justifies his own opposition to Zionism. ('If Hitler supported it, it must have been a very bad idea.')

Answer 3: Because he suffers from a Trump-like compulsion to be at the centre of attention regardless of the consequences.

Delete according to taste.

I happen to take the old-fashioned view that truth does still matter -- but on this occasion, motivation matters as well. What's important is not just what he said, but why he said it. Not once, but over and over again. Obsessive, moi?

So first, based on more than 30 years reporting about and from the Middle East, my own background as the child of refugees from Nazi Germany (my maternal grandmother was one of the 6 million victims of the Holocaust), and extensive research undertaken when I was writing my recently-published memoir ('Is Anything Happening?', and if you haven't yet bought it, you can remedy that right now by clicking here), here is my best understanding of the truth of the relationship between Nazis and Zionists in the 1930s.

You probably haven't heard of Leopold von Mildenstein. He was an Austrian-born Nazi official (Adolf Eichmann's boss) who had joined the SS even before Hitler came to power in January 1933. He was so fascinated by Zionism that he visited Palestine in the company of Kurt Tuchler of the Zionist Federation of Germany (their wives went with them), to see the place for himself.

On his return, he wrote a series of articles entitled 'A Nazi travels to Palestine', for Joseph Goebbels' newspaper Der Angriff. In August 1933, Zionists and Nazis signed the Haavara agreement -- in the words of the Jewish Virtual Library, it was 'an instance where the question of Jewish rights, Zionist needs and individual rescue were in deep tension ... The Zionists saw [it] as a way of attracting Jews to Palestine and thus rescuing them from the Nazi universe even if that meant cooperation with Hitler.'

(Incidentally, the story of von Mildenstein and the Tuchlers is told more fully in an award-winning film called The Flat, made by the Tuchlers' grandson and available either on DVD or on Netflix. Bizarrely, the two couples became good friends and remained so, even after the War.)

The aim of the Nazis was to create a Germany that was judenfrei, free of Jews. The aim of the Zionists was to build a Jewish state where all Jews could live in safety. Did their interests coincide? For a time, they did.

None of this is contested. But to suggest that Hitler shared the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland is a grotesque -- and offensive -- distortion of history.
So now we come to the second, more interesting question. Why does Mr Livingstone attach such importance to a relatively minor detail in the history of the slaughter of Europe's Jews?

I'll tell you why: because it is an easy, cheap way of attacking Zionists (of whom the vast majority, of course, are Jews). 'You're a Zionist? You know Hitler supported Zionism, don't you? So what does that make you?' And with one tiny step, we've arrived at 'Zionists are Nazis.' Not that he would ever say it outright -- but where else does the thought process lead?

As David Baddiel put it in his excellent piece in The Guardian: 'This, of course, is the point, the banal, shit point – a way of confirming that Zionism is bad. Through an association with the top bad thing, Hitler.'

Perhaps Mr Livingstone will claim that he is following in a long left-wing tradition of anti-Zionism. Sometimes, anti-Zionism is indeed a cover for anti-Semitism (Stalin's purges are well-documented, even though he was an early supporter of the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine), but it can also stem from a deep tension between two rival ideologies: Zionism, which prioritised the establishment of a new, Jewish state, and Socialism-Communism, which emphasised the need to improve the conditions of the working classes in the lands of their birth.

I write in my book: 'At least some of the political leaders who proclaimed themselves to be enthusiastic pro-Zionists did so because it offered them an opportunity to direct some of the quarter of a million Jews displaced by the Second World War away from their own shores. Support for Zionism could easily become a handy disguise for anti-Semitism, just as, confusingly, what these days is called anti-Zionism can sometimes be used in exactly the same way. (Not all anti-Zionists are anti-Semites, even if some anti-Semites choose to disguise themselves as anti-Zionists.)

'Much of the furore in 2016 over alleged anti-Semitism in the Labour Party stemmed from this blurring of the distinction between Jews and Zionists. Some people openly and deliberately use the word Zionist (or the abbreviation Zio) as an insult, hoping that by calling someone a Zionist instead of a Jew they can avoid being labelled anti-Semitic. It is an easy elision to make, given that for many Jews, being a Zionist is intrinsic to their sense of identity.'

It is now nearly 70 years since the Zionist dream was realised with the establishment of the state of Israel, yet there are still more Jews living outside Israel than in it. (Old joke: What's the definition of an American Zionist? An American Jew who gives money to a second American Jew so that a third Jew can go to live in Israel.)

In the late 1980s, when the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachov allowed Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel, thousands of them took advantage of the offer, only to change direction as soon as they reached Vienna and head for the US instead. By 1989, there were so many that the US had to change the rules to restrict the numbers.

I am not a Zionist. I say in my book: 'The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 may well have been, in retrospect, a mistake ... because, just as the Jewish anti-Zionists of the early twentieth century had feared it would, I fear that it has turned out to be bad both for Jews and for the rest of the world.'

But that does not mean I think Ken Livingstone was justified in saying what he did, or in stubbornly refusing to apologise for the deep hurt he has caused a great many Labour supporters, Jewish and non-Jewish.

Quite the opposite. He has deliberately insulted Zionists by implying that their beliefs were shared by Adolf Hitler, which must be by far the most offensive suggestion it is possible to make. He demonstrates not one jot of shame or contrition; instead, he revels in the publicity and does incalculable harm to the cause he professes to value.

He is, in other words, a disgrace. And so is the Labour party's chronic inability to get rid of him.


Mar Lizaro said...

You say you are not a Zionist. I believe that is a nice way of saying you are anti-Zionist and I gather that by this you mean that the establisment of the state of Israel was a mistake. While this might be so I believe that,to a lot of other people,anti-Zionism' has a very different meaning, namely that the state of Israel should be destroyed (to make room for a Palestinian state) or else to be 'moved to the USA'. This meaning of anti-Zionism is genocidal. This is why if anyone declares himself/herself to be anti-Zionist, it is wise to ask him/her what exactly does he/she means by it.
Livingstone probably thinks he has a receptieve audience and probably he's right. Unfortunately for him, however, this audience is not very large.

Robin Lustig said...

Mar Lizaro: Don't put words into my mouth. I said I am not a Zionist because I am not a Zionist. If I were anti-Zionist, I would have said so. I said I believed the establishment of the state of Israel, in retrospect, may have been a mistake. I did not say, and I do not believe, that the state of Israel should be destroyed. Whether it should remain a 'Jewish' state is another matter. If you are seriously interested in what I think, I would urge you to read my book, where I explain my views in more detail than I can here.

Mar Lizaro said...

Robin , thank you for your reply. I'll read your book as I hope it will help me clarify my thoughts. Meanwhile, can you please read my first comment again, paying a little bit more attention to its content?