If there is a distinction to be made between British Labour and Australian Labor, it can be seen no more clearly than in the pallid discipline imposed by the British upon Ken Livingstone for transparently anti-Semitic comments. The Guardian itself has editorialised against Mr Livingstone’s comments, recognising them for the offensive mistruths they are.
Ken Livingstone is, by any measure, a distinguished senior figure in British politics. But he seems, over the long course of his public life, neither to have forgotten, nor to have learned anything.
Citing Lenni Brenner’s highly controversial 1983 book Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, Livingstone has claimed that there was a notable and clear collaboration between German Zionists and the Nazi regime until “(Hitler) went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”. In his comments expanding upon this assertion, he also praised the Nuremberg Laws for their insistence that Jews could fly “the Jewish flag”.
His historical distortions and errors are egregious and have been the subject of much commentary.
What is less clear is the necessity for making them at all. They initially emerged in his response to the disciplining of the Labour MP Naz Shah in June 2016 for unwise and, confessedly, anti-Semitic comments made on her Facebook page. Shah herself owned up, admitted the anti-Semitism of her comments, apologised and accepted the discipline of her party. The matter could have ended there. But then Livingstone chose to pour petrol on the dying embers of the controversy, and in a way that was not actually responsive to the issue.
Rather than condemn anti-Semitism generally Livingstone set his own controversy in motion by initial remarks asserting a general collaboration between Nazis and Zionists before the outbreak of the war. That was last year. Since then, he has continued to repeat and embellish upon his comments.
Livingstone is not just some batty old leftie. He is, arguably, the most successful politician from the British Left in the modern era. Lord Mayor of London twice, a commentator in the Murdoch (!) press, and even once a television co-presenter, he is smart, articulate and knows the media. So when he makes comments that equate German Jews (not “Zionists” – many of them weren’t) with Nazi collaborators, he knows exactly what he is saying and what he is doing.
Livingstone is careful not to be an out-and-out Holocaust denier. He knows that is the road to complete discredit. He has taken a different road instead. It is the road of the (since rescinded) UN General Assembly resolution 3379 that equates Zionism with racism.
Again, Livingstone is careful not to say this explicitly, but it is the same twisted logic at work. He makes a series of apparently natural equations in the assumptions built into his claims. The first is the bait –apparently the most reasonable – which is the identification of German Jews as Zionists. Many were not. Many were proud Germans who thought that Hitler was an ugly little cloud that would soon pass.
But the casual listener, having accepted this first false equation is then invited into the second: that Zionists collaborated with Nazis. Some did, of course, in order to get out of Germany. Hitler’s style of statist anti-Semitism was exactly the kind of thing that Theodor Herzl devised Zionism to counter.
Having made these two false equations, Livingstone invites his audience to a third: that Nazis and Zionists (read German Jews) had the same objectives and therefore were indistinguishable from one another.
Looked at objectively, these equations are logically incoherent and historically lazy. It is the consequence of Livingstone using a book that he likes as his most authoritative source for history rather than one that is actually based on a library of primary and empirically tested, peer-reviewed, secondary evidence.
Such is the preferred technique of demagogues and ignorance-peddlers everywhere. Livingstone’s version is sophistical and sophisticated. It entices the incautious into anti-Semitism and adds fresh fuel to the cause of Holocaust deniers.
Moreover, and with more sinister intent, it links the foundation of Israel with Nazism in a way that is counter-factual and morally loathsome, arguing, in effect, that the state of Israel would have been something that Hitler would himself have supported. As ahistorical as this is, it is an inexorable inference from Livingstone’s claims. It is in this way that Livingstone buys into the old rhetoric equating Zionism with racism and, all too often Nazism.
Livingstone claims that he is not anti-Semitic – indeed, that he has many Jewish friends (where have we heard that before). The evidence is to the contrary. The evidence is to the contrary. But British Labour, dominated by the doctrinaire apparatchiks of Jeremy Corbyn has done nothing more than extend Livingstone’s suspension by another year. Wet lettuces hurt more.
Fortunately, Australian Labor is a broader and a wiser beast than its British cousin. Libels of this kind do not flourish here. But that does not always have to be the case. For Australian Labor to retain its soul (let alone its electability), it needs to continue to attract and promote people of goodwill who will support genuine democracy, wherever it may be found, and oppose the propagation of ancient and bitter prejudice.
Dr Bill Leadbetter is a Western Australian Labour Legislative Councillor, a Cathedral Scholar at St George’s Cathedral, Perth and an Adjunct Associate Professor in History at the University of Notre Dame, Fremantle.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.