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What is the case against Ken Livingstone?

In March we reprinted David Wolchover’s earlier contribution to the debate David Wolchover blogs in The Times of Israel/Jewish News in defence of Ken Livingstone. As the day of judgment for Ken approaches, he argues again how ill-founded the original accusation was.

David Wolchover is a Barrister and author of Culprits of Lockerbie. This article is reprinted with the author’s permission.

Ken Livingstone. Photo: Labourlist

Ken’s Zionist remarks were correct, in context 

David Wolchover, Times of Israel/Jewish News
10 May  2018

Instead of advisedly keeping his own counsel, I fear Ken Livingstone did himself few favours in telling LBC last week that the anti-Semitism row in the Labour Party was a “complete diversion”.

Whether it warrants his ultimate expulsion from the party between now and July will be for others to judge. But as someone who, along with the mainstream of our community, is ardently committed to Israel, I would nonetheless argue that on a careful scrutiny, his remarks in that notorious BBC radio interview with Vanessa Feltz two years ago do not deserve the obloquy that has been heaped upon his head. Although he perhaps only has himself to blame for not being clearer, it may be that the episode ought not to be included in the “indictment”.

Feltz had asked him about Labour MP Naz Shah’s retweeting of anti-Israel sentiments and the graphic that postulated Israel’s “relocation” to America. Insisting that they were not anti-Semitic but merely “over the top”, he then uttered the two sentences that have hung around his neck like a millstone ever since: “Let’s remember, when Hitler won his election in 1932 his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel [ie Palestine]. He was supporting Zionism [until] he went mad and end[ed] up killing six million Jews.”

After this excursus into history hit the headlines, we read column after column of condemnation based on the assumption that Livingstone had intentionally cast an irredeemable slur on Zionism and Jewry. But apart from what I wrote in two Jewish News columns and a law journal article, no one has tried to comprehend the exact point he was trying to make.

Context is all. The relocation graphic was originally got up to recycle a facetious old joke popular among American Jews. It was a satirical absurdity and Livingstone was evidently saying in effect (but perhaps rather too telegraphically) that if you need an actual example of racist banishment, look no further than Hitler’s early policy, before he turned to genocide.

Fair enough, it may be said. But did Livingstone really need to mention the Zionist movement’s dark chapter? Surely he could have contrasted the joke and an historical truth without gratuitously bringing up the painful memory of collaboration between certain Zionist agencies and the Nazis.

This is the crunch point. The spoof is about a fantasy agreement for population transfer between Israel and America. So it was logical enough to contrast it with the well-documented fact of Zionist/Nazi scheming to get Germany’s Jews into Palestine (which Hitler hoped would make trouble for the British). Otherwise, it was a complete non sequitur.

But why say that Hitler – who obviously abhorred the very idea of a Jewish state – “was supporting” Zionism? The short answer, I would suggest, is that Livingstone was instinctively looking for a less pejorative-laden verb than “collaborated” in order to signify Hitler’s tactical backing of Zionist migratory operations and, speaking off the cuff, simply chose the wrong word. How often have I done so – on my feet in court.

Yet before casting Livingstone into the abyss, we should hesitate to apply Freudian parapraxis in imputing base motives.

If he were the master of language he is sometimes painted, he would hardly be in his present pickle.

We may utterly deprecate talk of diversions and smears, but in his Holocaust Memorial Day participation in an Iranian Press TV discussion, he rounded angrily on a Judeo-phobic caller and reacted to the Holocaust-denying moderator with the abrupt insistence that there was “no credible alternative to six million”.

Screen Shot of comments on this article on Times of Israel/Jewish News blog at 21.43.04 on 2018-05-12

10 comments to What is the case against Ken Livingstone?

  • Dave

    If Ken gets slung out it will be for bringing Labour into disrepute, not anti-semitism.

    Also, a point about Israel’s “relocation” to America – that was satire circulated by Norman Finkelstein at the height of the Gaza bombing, which we know killed and injured many children. We can’t pretend there isn’t conflict there.

  • Naomi Wayne

    For the avoidance of doubt – I am not commenting below on whether Livingstone ought to have been charged by the Labour Party, nor on the merits of the charges, nor the procedures the Party has adopted to date. Nevertheless I write this in some fear that the fires of hell will descend on me for daring to suggest that Ken Livingstone’s behaviour does not help either the Palestinian cause or those Jews who support that cause or who are engaged in trying to fight against the way antisemitism has been weaponised to undermine us.

    Livingstone uses loose, careless and plain nasty language, when it is quite unnecessary. To call a Jewish journalist a ‘Nazi’ was indefensible, no matter how unpleasant the journalist might have been. If Livingstone doesnt know by now why the word ‘Nazi’ should only be used for Nazis, then he is a very slow learner. And his describing Hitler as ‘going mad’ utterly misrepresents the deliberate and planned industrialised murder of 6m Jews during the Holocaust. I am sure he didnt intend to do that – so why convey that message?

    If Livingstone were a political neophyte, or had articulacy problems, then perhaps such carelessness could be put down to lack of experience! But this is clearly not the case. He has over half a century of political campaigning under his belt and he knows he is a high profile and newsworthy individual. He is also – when he thinks about it – witty, perceptive and a highly effective communicator. So when he pronounces about anything which relates even tangentially to Palestine, he should be doubly careful with his language and his ‘facts’. Because he has not been, we have repeatedly ended up with a story which is about him, and not about the Palestinians about whom he is supposed to care.

    Livingstone has also shown himself completely incapable of apologising when he gets it wrong – that ‘Nazi’ story about the journalist keeps resurfacing precisely because Livingstone couldnt say ‘Sorry’ as soon as he was challenged. He would have been entitled to describe any offensive behaviour of the journalist, any harassment the journalist had perpetrated, any lies he had told. But Livingstone should have known not to use the term ‘Nazi’, and why not to use it – and once he had done so, he should have withdrawn it at the first opportunity.

    I am well aware that charging Livingstone is another example of right-wing Labour double standards. From watching the behaviour of many Labour MPs, with their constant outrageous attempts to destabilise and destroy their democratically elected party leader, it is clear that in a fair world many of them would be ‘on trial’ for bringing their party into disrepute. But Livingstone ought to have known – it isnt a fair world. Give your opponents an open goal and they wont fail to land the ball in the net.

    Whatever the outcome of Livingstone’s case – and, to underline, I am NOT here pronouncing on the fairness or merits of the charges – from his behaviour over the last few years, it seems a once proud political career has reached its natural end.

    • Jaye

      Naomi, that is an excruciating explanation but unfortunately the truth is simple in this case. Ken Livingstone is simply an anti-semite and somewhat nastier and more aggressive than most. It’s not Jew hatred in passing, it’s real intended hurt.

  • I think Naomi’s comments above are spot-on. If only Ken was that articulate and that measured in his use of words. But he isn’t. And I get the uneasy feeling that however many times we mobilise in Ken’s defence, there will always be a ‘next time’…

  • richard harris

    The case against Livingstone profits from the Labour right-wing collaborating with those who would wish to undermine the party … for a variety of reasons. If not for their active involvement this would have died a natural death long ago.

    Those on the centre-left of the party (Chakrabarti et al) obviously believe that, by sacrificing Livingstone, they can relieve the pressure on Corbyn. They are mistaken … it will simply embolden those who would prevent a socialist Labour government which would call Israel out for what it is.

  • Evan Pritchard

    Ken Livingstone has been utterly irresponsible. He is intelligent and media savvy enough to know that when anyone like himself starts talking about nazis and Jews, unless it is put in very simple language it will not only be open to misinterpretation, but will be deliberately spun to create the worst impression.

    The unspeakable crimes of the holocaust are clear, and so is the injustice against the Palestinians. And what is also clear is that the holocaust does not justify the oppression of the Palestinians and the oppression of the Palestinians does not justify anti-semitism.

    That may all come across as elementary school politics, without taking into account the complexities, but while the devil’s in the detail, so is the scope for falsification.

    And to be equally clear, I do think that Livingstone was by and large historically correct and I’ve read the Lennie Brenner pamphlet which strikes me as well researched and honest.

    But on one level, so what?

    When you have all manner of people with a malicious agenda, (one of whom is shown remarkable tolerance on this site btw), ready to stick the boot into the most progressive mass party that Labour has ever had the potential to be, using whatever means they can, it’s the basic stuff that matters, not the complexities of the relations between different sections of the Jewish community in Germany in the 20s and 30s or of the attitudes of any of them to the nazis or vice versa.

    It’s the basic stuff that will get us a progressive left government. For the many not the few, defending the NHS, for an anti war government etc.

  • Naomi Wayne

    I dont know if Livingstone is antisemitic – I have read his words over and over, trying to decide. I certainly reject the idea that he sets out to be antisemitic. At most, he has absorbed certain deeply embedded ideas about Jews – but actually I doubt even that. And the same seems to be the case for the NEC of the Labour Party, which, as I understand it, has not charged him with antisemitism, but rather under that dangerous ‘disrepute’ clause.

    The key point is that a man of long political experience has been nasty, and carelessly and unnecessarily provocative and succeeded in creating entire narrative about himself, which suggests huge self absorption. And – he is incapable of apologising when he gets it wrong. Which is a very dangerous political quality – and makes him endlessly dangerous as it means there is no check on his irresponsibility.

    But, as he has been charged, he deserves a fair hearing – not helped by Chakrabarti’s unnecessary, inappropriate, disappointing, unfair and most unlawyerly intervention. And after receiving a fair decision, even if he is exonerated, he should retire for good and concentrate on natural history.

  • frank

    The transfer agreement by edwin black.

  • Andrew Wade

    We’re having a seminar on anti semitism organised by the Jewish Labour Movement shortly: what should we be asking them about their assumptions.

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