Why a British Fight Over Israel and Anti-Semitism Matters to the Rest of Us

Is all criticism of Israel's policies, and even its right to exist, racist?

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 28:  Ken Livingstone speaks to reporters as he leaves Milbank Studios on April 28, 2016 in London, England. Mr Livingstone has been suspended from Labour Party for comments made while defending Naz Shah, the Labour MP suspended over 'anti-Semitic' comments. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 28: Ken Livingstone speaks to reporters as he leaves Milbank Studios on April 28, 2016 in London, England. Mr Livingstone has been suspended from Labour Party for comments made while defending Naz Shah, the Labour MP suspended over 'anti-Semitic' comments. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images) Photo: Rob Stothard/Getty Images

Updated | May 1, 2:14 p.m.

At first glance, the heated argument two members of the British Labour Party conducted in front of reporters’ iPhones on Thursday, sparked by accusations that one of their colleagues posted anti-Semitic comments on Facebook, seems like a story of interest mainly to political junkies in London.

When the debate is unpacked, however, it becomes clear that what’s at stake is something much broader: whether critics of Israel, who question its government’s policies or its right to exist as a Jewish state, are engaged in a form of coded anti-Semitism. That matters because attempts to disqualify all critics of Israel as racists are widespread across the globe.

In the United States, for instance, supporters of a movement to boycott Israel until it grants Palestinians full civil rights have recently been condemned as anti-Semites by Hillary Clinton; last month, the University of California adopted a policy on discrimination that implies anti-Semitism is behind opposition to Zionism, the political ideology asserting that the Jewish people have a right to a nation-state in historic Palestine.

But how did this issue come to dominate the political debate in Britain, a week before important local elections?

The uproar began on Tuesday, when Paul Staines, a right-wing political blogger who writes as Guido Fawkes, reported that a Labour member of Parliament, Naseem Shah, had shared a Facebook meme in 2014 suggesting that Israelis should “relocate” en masse to the United States.

As Shah scrambled to explain and apologize, pointing out that she endorsed the meme “before I was elected as an MP” and “at the height of the Gaza conflict in 2014, when emotions were running high,” Staines uncovered two more anti-Israel comments she posted on Facebook that same summer.

One of Shah’s Facebook posts, from late July 2014, pointed to an article by a former deputy prime minister, John Prescott, who argued that Israeli air strikes on Gaza that month were “so brutally disproportionate and so grossly indiscriminate” as to constitute “war crimes.” At the time, Shah urged her Facebook followers to voice their agreement with Prescott in an online poll at the foot of the page because, she said, “The Jews are rallying to the poll at the bottom and there is now 87% disagreeing.”

In another Facebook update discovered by Staines, Shah had added the comment #APARTHEID ISRAEL to a repurposed meme created by an American Tea Party group. The meme displays a mugshot of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taken after his arrest during the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott above a quote from his 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” The words are part of King’s justification for breaking unjust laws through civil disobedience: “Never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal.'”

The meme, clearly intended in its original form to equate Obama to Hitler — and so justify disobeying American laws considered tyrannical by the far right — was used by Shah to suggest something else: that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is akin to the way Nazi Germany treated its Jewish population and Apartheid-era South Africa subjugated black Africans. (The meme also omits what comes next in King’s letter: “It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.”)

Staines, who functions like an opposition researcher for conservative causes, correctly reported that Shah had compared Israel to Hitler’s Germany. But as the story spread across the British press, several journalists mistakenly referred to the meme as evidence Shah had claimed Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was not objectionable because it was legal.

In the context of British politics, the timing could not have been worse for the Labour Party, coming just a week before local elections and amid an investigation into allegations that Oxford University’s student Labour club had supported Israeli Apartheid Week on campus because of what one former member called “some kind of problem with Jews.”

As some observers, including Mehdi Hasan of Al Jazeera, noted, claims that the party was a haven for anti-Semites seemed at odds with the fact that, at the time Shah made her comments and was then chosen to run for Parliament, Labour’s leader was Ed Miliband, the son of Jewish refugees who had experienced Hitler’s persecution firsthand.

One Labour activist, Jon Lansman, told the BBC that he suspected Conservative opposition researchers had been “trawling Twitter feeds and Facebook pages looking for evidence which has been stored until a week before the local elections and the London mayor elections.”

Shah, who is of Pakistani Muslim origin, apologized at greater length on Wednesday, in print and in the House of Commons, acknowledging that “referring to Israel and Hitler as I did is deeply offensive to Jewish people.” She was also suspended by the party. Still, some of her colleagues continued to defend her.

Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, denied that Shah’s posts were anti-Semitic in a BBC radio interview on Thursday. “She’s a deep critic of Israel and its policies,” Livingstone said. “Her remarks were over the top, but her remarks were not anti-Semitic.”

Livingstone, whose far-left politics and affection for his pet newts have made him a figure of ridicule for the right-leaning press for decades, added that he was defending his colleague because of a wider principle. “There’s been a very well-orchestrated campaign by the Israel lobby to smear anybody who criticizes Israeli policy as anti-Semitic,” he told the BBC. “I had to put up with 35 years of this.”

But when he was asked why Shah’s use of the meme about Hitler was not anti-Semitic, Livingstone veered off-topic, into an over-simplified and misleading account of German history that enraged many of his own colleagues. “Let’s remember, when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel — he was supporting Zionism,” Livingstone claimed. “This was before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews.”

Within minutes, as Livingstone’s comments were reported in shorthand by the right-wing press as “Hitler was a Zionist,” senior members of his party, including Sadiq Khan, Labour’s candidate in next week’s London elections who is also the son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants, called for him to be expelled for what sounded like an absurd attempt to smear Israel by numbering history’s most infamous anti-Semite among the ranks of its supporters.

Then, as he was walking along the street and conducting another radio interview by phone, Livingstone was suddenly confronted by John Mann, a Labour MP who has been lauded by the American Jewish Committee for his leadership of a parliamentary group fighting anti-Semitism.

That exchange, which made for riveting viewing, started with Mann calling his colleague “a disgusting Nazi apologist,” for suggesting that Hitler had supported efforts to establish a Jewish state in Palestine during his 1932 election campaign. As Mann stressed, Hitler had, in fact, derided Zionists as charlatans in his 1925 memoir, Mein Kampfarguing that a Palestinian Jewish state would be just a haven for criminals bent on world domination.

Livingstone, for his part, acknowledged that “Hitler was a mad anti-Zionist, he wanted to kill all Jews,” but insisted that “his policy in ’32, when he won that election, was to deport Germany’s Jews to Israel, and the Zionist movement had secret meetings with his administration talking about that.” Mann, Livingstone said, should “check your history.”

Although the expulsion of German Jews to Palestine was certainly a trope of Nazi literature, Hitler was not, of course, elected in 1932 because he promised to move Jews to Israel, a state that would not exist until 16 years later and be populated, in part, by survivors of the Holocaust.

The vile things the Nazis were actually saying about the Jews that year are captured in a chilling propaganda pamphlet produced by Goebbels, which called for “a solution to the Jewish question,” through “the systematic elimination of foreign racial elements from public life in every area.” A Nazi government, the platform said, would introduce “a sanitary separation between Germans and non-Germans on racial grounds exclusively, not on nationality or even religious belief.” There was no endorsement of the Zionist project or plan to expel German Jews there.

So what was Livingstone talking about? He appears to have been using “Hitler” as shorthand for the Nazi government and referring to a real instance of cooperation between Germany and the Zionist movement that began in 1933 — an episode Livingstone discussed at length in his 2011 memoir, You Can’t Say That. Just months after Hitler came to power, in 1933, the Zionist-led Jewish Agency in British-administered Palestine did strike an agreement with the Nazis to facilitate the emigration of about 20,000 German Jews to Palestine over the next decade. As the Israeli historian Tom Segev described it in his book The Seventh Million:

The haavara (“transfer”) agreement — the Hebrew term was used in the Nazi documents as well — was based on the complementary interests of the German government and the Zionist movement: the Nazis wanted the Jews out of Germany; the Zionists wanted them to come to Palestine.

Segev notes that the agreement, which remained in force until the middle of World War II, was a point of contention between the Zionist leadership in Tel Aviv and Jewish leaders in the United States, who still hoped in 1933 that an international economic and diplomatic boycott of Germany could “force the Nazis to halt their persecution, so that Jews could continue to live in Germany.”

(Given the current furor in London, it is interesting to note that Segev presents evidence in another book, One Palestine, Complete, that the senior British officials who committed their government to the creation of a Jewish homeland in 1917 were, “in many cases, anti-Semitic.” Those officials, Segev argued, agreed to help the Zionists because they had embraced anti-Semitic conspiracy theories so fully that “they believed the Jews controlled the world.”)

In his book, Livingstone recounts learning of this history from Zionism in the Age of Dictators, by the Jewish American activist and writer Lenni Brenner. That book, which was published in Britain because Brenner could not find an American imprint, also described a 1937 visit to Palestine by a Nazi official, Adolf Eichmann, when the SS briefly considered and then rejected the idea of deporting Germany’s Jews there. “Brenner’s book helped form my view of Zionism and its history,” Livingstone wrote, “and so I was not going to be silenced by smears of anti-Semitism wherever I criticized Israeli government policies.”

In a phone interview on Friday, Brenner told The Intercept that he has been friends with Livingstone since a U.K. book tour in 1983. He added that he was certain that when the former mayor said Hitler “was supporting Zionism,” that was “shorthand for ‘the Nazis supported'” the Zionist project in 1933 through the haavara agreement, which also permitted the transfer of some Jewish wealth to Palestine. “A German Jew would give money to the Nazi government,” Brenner explained, “the Nazi government would then send German goods to Palestine, where the Zionists would sell them, then give most of the money to the German Jew when he arrived in Palestine.”

“Hitler had to know some of that,” Brenner argued. “You don’t do things like that in a dictatorship without the dictator knowing — and on so central an issue to them as the Jews.”

Needless to say, it would take a remarkably selective reading of history to argue that the Nazis were “supporting Zionism” by allowing 20,000 Jews to emigrate to Palestine, in the decade before they murdered 6 million more.

In subsequent television interviews on Thursday, Livingstone tried to avoid questions about Hitler and return to his argument that Shah’s criticism of Israel was not anti-Semitic.

“We can’t confuse criticizing the government of Israel with anti-Semitism,” he told the BBC. “If you’re anti-Semitic, you hate Jews — not just the ones in Israel, you hate your neighbor in Golder’s Green, or your neighbor in Stoke Newington. It’s a deep personal loathing, like racism. And one of my worries is that this confusion of anti-Semitism with criticizing Israeli government policy undermines the importance of tackling real anti-Semitism — the attacks that are made on Jews.”

After that interview, as he made his way out of the BBC’s Milbank Studios in London, Livingstone was surrounded by reporters, including the BBC’s John Sweeney, demanding to know why he brought up Hitler in the first place.

It seemed like a fair question, but Livingstone, who was suspended by his party later in the day, tried to dodge it by claiming that he was just responding to a question about Shah’s Facebook post. In reality, it seems fair to say that Livingstone was trying to discredit Zionism as a form of extreme nationalism by reminding listeners that its leaders had once cooperated with Hitler’s government. After all, as an ardent defender of Palestinian rights, Livingstone comes from a part of the British left that supported the effort to have Zionism condemned “as a movement based on racial superiority” at a United Nations conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.

While that language was never adopted, thanks in part to pressure from the United States and Israel, in Britain today there is still sympathy for the position that Zionism is a racist ideology, since it underpins laws that deny Palestinians civil and political rights on the basis of their ethnicity. According to Jim Waterson, BuzzFeed U.K.’s politics editor, on Thursday night, the top comments on the Facebook pages of almost every major British news organization were “very, very strongly pro-Ken.”


As Livingstone’s defenders were quick to point out, Hitler is also regularly used by Israeli officials in rhetorical attacks on their enemies.

Just five months ago, for instance, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu baffled historians when he claimed that, as late as November 1941, when the Nazi leader met with an anti-Semitic Palestinian official, “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews.” Netanyahu went on to claim, despite a total lack of evidence, that it was Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, who convinced Hitler to “burn” rather than simply expel the German Reich’s Jewish population, out of fear that they would emigrate en masse to Palestine.

Like Livingstone, Netanyahu brought up Hitler, or a fictional version of Hitler, as part of an attempt to smear his ideological opponents. In Netanyahu’s case, it was in support of the claim, regularly put forth by his government, that Palestinian hatred and violence are in no way a reaction to any Israeli action, but simply an expression of a pathological hatred of Jews by Muslim fanatics equal to if not greater than that of the Nazis and their European collaborators.

In response to Netanyahu’s bizarre “fairytale about Hitler,” which strangely dovetails with Livingstone’s, Tom Segev observed in The Guardian that the actual history of the period is more complex, and reflects badly on extremists of all sides:

The mufti’s support for Nazi Germany definitely demonstrated the evils of extremist nationalism. However, the Arabs were not the only ones who were seeking a deal with the Nazis. At the end of 1940 and again at the end of 1941, before the Holocaust reached its height in the extermination camps, a small Zionist terrorist organization – Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, also known as the Stern Gang – made contact with Nazi representatives in Beirut, hoping for support for the struggle against the British. One of the Sternists, in a British jail at the time, was Yitzhak Shamir, a future Israeli prime minister.

Shamir, who had emigrated from Poland to Palestine two years after Hitler came to power in Germany, was Israel’s prime minister in 1991, when he asked a newly elected member of his Likud party, Benjamin Netanyahu, to work in his office as an aide.

In processing this history, and what it might say about the argument that anti-Semitism lurks behind all criticism of Israel, including its self-definition as a nation-state for Jews, it seems worth recalling what a contemporary critic of the Zionist movement, Hannah Arendt, wrote at the time.

Having fled Nazi Germany for New York, Arendt wrote skeptically about Zionism as a form of extreme nationalism in columns for the German-language newspaper Aufbau throughout the 1940s. In 1944, she argued that a binational federation of Arabs and Jews was the only hope for a future Palestine that would not be defined by ongoing war or totalitarian rule, and observed that even though Zionism was originally a reaction to the anti-Semitism of European nationalists, its underpinning ideology was “nothing else than the uncritical acceptance of German-inspired nationalism.”

In the crucial year of 1948, Arendt railed against attacks on Arab civilians by Zionist “terrorist groups,” like the Stern Gang and the Irgun — whose leaders went on to found the Likud party — and despaired at the growing acceptance by American Jews of what she called a “traditionally Zionist feeling … the cynical and deep-rooted conviction that all gentiles are anti-Semitic, and everybody and everything is against the Jews, that, in the words of Herzl, the world can be divided into verschämte und unverschämte Antisemiten,” or, coy and brazen anti-Semites.

That worldview, Arendt argued, “is plain racist chauvinism.”

Later that year, when Menachem Begin, the leader of the Irgun who would later become the first Likud prime minister of Israel, visited the United States to rally support for his new political party, Arendt drafted a letter to the editors of the New York Times signed by prominent Jewish refugees, including Albert Einstein, “urging all concerned not to support this latest manifestation of fascism.” Decrying the massacre of Arab civilians that year in the village of Deir Yassin, Arendt and the other signatories warned the American public not to support a party “closely akin … to the Nazi and Fascist parties,” which “preached an admixture of ultranationalism, religious mysticism, and racial superiority.”

Top photo: Ken Livingstone was surrounded by reporters on Thursday as he left a BBC studio in London.

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