The problem with Thursday’s performance by former London Mayor Ken Livingstone — in which he insisted that Hitler was a Zionist and denied there was antisemitism in the Labour party — is that many people on the Left genuinely do not believe they are antisemitic, even though they hold opinions that effectively are just that.
The Left needs to get to grips with its antisemitism — which it currently brushes off by insisting that criticising Israel (or “anti-Zionism”) — is not the same thing as antisemitism.
The difficulty here is that this formulation, “anti-Zionism is not antisemitism,” is technically true but in practice has the opposite consequence.
The European Left has a disproportionate obsession with Israel: its default position is against Israel; its default sympathy is often with Israel’s declared enemies. This unbalanced focus on Israel is itself an example of antisemitism. There are dozens of brutal dictatorships to choose from. Saudi Arabia. Iran. Islamic State. Russia. China. Eritrea. North Korea. Cuba. Yet the Left expends extra time and resources on its critiques of Israel, which is a democracy.
That just isn’t fair, and that’s why it looks like antisemitism.
Then there is the Left’s lack of interest in the faults of the Arab and Muslim dictatorships who want Israel wiped off the map. This comes from the Left’s natural sympathy with the oppressed, and specifically the Palestinians. But the organisations that “represent” those oppressed peoples are often deeply conservative and have far worse policies than anything coming out of Israel. Both Hamas and Hezbollah, for instance, have called for the destruction of Israel. It has been in their official manifestoes and charters.
Who would sit down and talk to someone whose official position is the annihilation of an entire country?
Well … Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, for one. He gave this detailed set of answers to the Jewish Chronicle last year to address allegations of antisemitism in his politics. Specifically, he was asked, Why do you associate with Hamas and Hezbollah and refer to them as your “friends”? He answered:
The term ‘friends’ was used purely as diplomatic language in the context of dialogue, not an endorsement of a particular set of views. In the difficult quest of establishing a peace, it is common for the term “friend” to be used as part of the process. “Friend” in this case becomes a term of diplomacy as an aid to dialogue between disparate groups rather than a description of a relationship or an endorsement of a set of views.
Again, technically, nothing antisemitic there. Corbyn’s actual policy on Israel is to ban arms sales to the country. “Does questioning the behaviour of the Israeli state towards Palestinians lead to anti-Semitism? No, it mustn’t and shouldn’t,” he said just before he won the leadership.
That’s a variation on the “anti-Zionism is not antisemitism” theme.
And when you’re Jewish, you look at these things and ask, why is the Left failing to criticise “friends” who want to destroy an entire country, but insisting on sanctions against one of the few democracies in the Middle East?
This cognitive dissonance comes up time and time again:
- No doubt Labour MP Naz Shah doesn’t literally hate Jewish people, she simply regarded herself as a critic of the Israeli government’s sometimes harsh policies in its occupied territories. But then she wrote a Facebook post that suggested Israel should be relocated to the US to end “foreign interference” in the Middle East, “Problem solved.”
- No doubt NUS president Malia Bouattia doesn’t literally hate the Jews. But somehow she suggested that the Jews control the media.
- No doubt Ken Livingstone doesn’t literally hate Jewish people, either. But he somehow managed to equate Hitler with the only country on the planet that Jews call home.
This stuff goes down to the party level. Here is a Labour activist who was suspended from the party because he wrote a Facebook post arguing that the Holocaust was somehow advantageous to the Jews. (“The Holocaust has been the most useful political tool of the Zionist government in Israel to establish a financial racket in the West, whereby Israel receives an unlimited sum for the duration of its existence,” he said.)
These incidents add up, and they have one thing in common: An unbalanced, disproportionate level of criticism against one small country, coupled with a complete lack of criticism of the many larger non-Jewish regimes who do far worse things. You don’t have to be a huge champion of Israel to realise that this just isn’t fair.
When you treat one group of people, or their country, differently than another, that’s discrimination. And that’s why the Left’s “anti-Zionism” so often functions effectively as the antisemitism it claims not to be.