Let’s get the context established quickly. This is, as I have said
, a moral panic. It is not the case that the Labour Party has gone all antisemitic because of the lefties. That is a baseless claim, being extrapolated - completely unjustifiably - from a handful of cases. Anyone trying to claim otherwise has a responsibility to justify that claim with something more than verbal prestidigitation.
Further, in a number of these cases, the allegation of antisemitism confuses criticism of Israel and Zionist politics with racism toward Jews. For example, Tony Greenstein is not an antisemite by any stretch of the imagination. He is a Jewish pro-Palestine activist who has spent a lot of time working to keep antisemitism out of the movement. I remember conversing with him about that during the period in which the SWP was hosting the antisemitic jazz player, Gilad Atzmon. Yet he has been suspended from the Labour Party on account of his propensity to criticise Zionist politics. Malia Bouattia is not a member of the Labour Party, but she has been fiercely and ruthlessly vilified in the national media as an antisemite on the basis of her criticisms of Zionist politics.
Even where there are cases of antisemitism, the way in which this is criticised in the media often tends to conflate antisemitism with anti-Zionism. For example, Naz Shah MP, who replaced George Galloway in Bradford West, was certainly being antisemitic when she said of an online poll back in 2014 (before her candidacy) that “the Jews are rallying”. “The Jews” don’t act in corporate unity, and don’t speak with one voice, and the idea that they do is simply and straightforwardly racist. But the first issue on which she was accused of antisemitism was a frankly trite Facebook meme, which she shared, satirically suggesting that Israel be re-located to the United States. Shah joked that she would tweet the idea to Obama, adding that it would save the US $3bn a year. Our pundits, with a marvellous cynicism matched only by a matchless poker-face, have claimed that this amounted to an ‘endorsement’ of ‘forced transfer’, or something like ethnic cleansing. Given who has actually been subject to ‘forced transfer’ in Israel/Palestine, it must take a lot to keep a straight face while claiming that.
Or, to take another example, Shah was accused of antisemitic provocation for having, in the context of criticising '#ApartheidIsrael', shared a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., which said: "We should never forget that everything Adolph Hitler did in Germany was 'legal'." The full quote goes on: "and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was 'illegal.' It was 'illegal' to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany". In other words, King's statement was a defence of civil disobedience. When the media report this without context along the lines of, "she talked about how everything Hitler did was legal," this makes it sound as though she was endorsing Hitlerian attitudes and actions toward the Jews, rather than Palestinian civil disobedience. In other words, it is a malicious slur.
So this debate, with its rapid-fire denunciations and ex-communications, is already structured in such a way as to inculpate criticism of Israel or of Zionist politics. It is already saturated with mendacity on the part of those wielding the accusations. It is in danger of creating a new situation, wherein all but the most tame of criticisms of Israel are considered unspeakable. And, of course, it is wildly hypocritical. Boris Johnson is mayor of London and a leading member of the Conservative Party after years of racism against black people and Muslims. The Tories are openly using racism against Sadiq Khan, without any visible sign of embarrassment. Repeated Islamophobic provocations from New Labour frontbenchers and backbenchers never resulted in any setbacks in terms of career or party membership. This is not a country in which racism usually bears significant political costs. One case in which it did bear a cost was when Phil Woolas’s crude Islamophobic campaign to keep his parliamentary seat in 2010 went so far that it broke election law and forced a new election - and even then, it was more because he lied about his opponent than because he slandered Muslims.
To reiterate, dishonesty, hypocrisy and malice are structured into this discussion, which is more redolent of a McCarthyite inquisition than a real debate. So, what did Ken Livingstone’s intervention do in this context? It’s obvious what has been done to him, and I will come back to that, but what did he try to do? He, in short, set out to defend Naz Shah MP, and to disentangle antisemitism from critique of Israel. Unfortunately, in attempting the former, he achieved the opposite of the latter. That is, by rationalising and explaining away Shah’s comments - including the indefensible remark about "the Jews" - he ended up saying some stupid things which backfired horribly.
In trying to contextualise Shah’s comments about 'relocating' Israel, he brought up the Haavara agreement between the Third Reich and the Zionist Federation of Germany, which enjoined the Nazis to support the ‘transfer’ of Jews to Palestine. The point being, I suppose, that Zionist politics is not historically innocent of ‘relocation’. This, he added, was before Hitler “went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”. Later, in trying to defend the space for legitimate criticism of Israel, he referred to the ‘Israel lobby’, a concept popularised about a decade ago by Mearsheimer and Waltz. Well, in itself, there’s nothing wrong with raising the real, historical collusion between Zionist and antisemitic politics, which continues to this day with the Christian Right. It's not quite correct to say that Hitler was "supporting Zionism," of course: the alliance was a temporary expedience for Hitler, who was more interested in achieving a frictionless ethnic cleansing. But this is crude phrasing, not antisemitism. Likewise, the stuff about Hitler 'going mad' repeats a banal cliche about the Nazi holocaust being an outburst of insanity, and is inaccurate, but it isn't antisemitism. Nor is the concept of the ‘Israel lobby’ antisemitic (it can be in some usages, no doubt). Moreover, given how often Livingstone has been falsely and maliciously accused of being antisemitic, he has a right to be suspicious of how Israel’s apologists work. And if this was all that Livingstone had said — and it is this for which he has been vilified in the media, and denounced by the meathead John Mann MP as a “Nazi apologist” — then at worst he made a clumsy attempt to say something that is true.
He then went on to suggest in passing, though - and this may have been a slip, as it appears to be a non-sequitur in the context of the transcript and isn’t followed up on (but if so, what an interesting slip) - that antisemitism and racism are not quite the same thing. Such a distinction would be at best scholastic, and it’s not clear what purpose it would be intended to serve. He never elaborated on it, so we’re none-the-wiser. Let’s say that it opens the door for some very uncharitable interpretations - some people no doubt think that Livingstone meant to reduce the severity of antisemitism, to minimise its seriousness by treating it as something separate from racism.
Then, in the context of somehow trying to rationalise Shah’s comment about “the Jews,” he said that a true antisemite is not someone who just hates Israeli Jews, but someone who hates all Jews. Well, that’s crap. First of all, because antisemites don't have to hate 'all' Jews, and often profess to love certain Jews. Racism is not about 'hate', and the idea that it is about 'hate' is one of the stupidities of the dominant ideology. Second, because even if it were true, there would still be something to say about 'hating' all Israeli Jews - whether one calls it antisemitism or not, it doesn't seem to me that you'd want to defend that. It's not clear that Livingstone was trying to 'defend that', of course, but the point is that it sounded as though he could be doing so, or at least minimising it, and anyone who wanted to impugn him for antisemitism would leap on something like that. In toto, Livingstone’s comments look like a series of accumulating hostages to fortune.
Now, many of the accusations against Livingstone are ill-informed or tendentious. It appears that, like John Mann MP, many pundits think Livingstone was making it up as he went along when he referred to Nazi collusion with the Zionist movement. Others are content to engage in eyebrow-raising, along the lines of: “ah, so you think Hitler wasn’t mad before the judeocide? Apologist!” Which is pathetic. But Livingstone’s attempts to define antisemitism in order to separate it from anti-Zionism are also preposterous and ill-considered. They achieve the exact opposite of what he set out to do. So, his intervention today was a blunder — with predictably awful consequences. And it would still be a good thing for him to ‘clarify’ his comments.
Still, while I can sympathise to an extent with some of those on the Left who were cringing about Livingstone’s comments, and have been exasperated with his ‘loose cannon’ tendencies, it is a grave mistake for anyone to either quietly condone the suspension out of a misguided sense of realpolitik (he’s strategically unsound, better off without him, etc) or vocally support the suspension in the vain hope that throwing one more carcass into the ravening maw of the right-wing mob will placate it. The mob will not be placated. If you rebuke someone, they’ll demand suspension; if you suspend them, they’ll demand expulsion; if you expel them, they’ll wonder why it took you so long to get round to expelling antisemites and why they seem so drawn to your party in the first place.
You cannot win by obeying this logic. And the logic which has been used to condemn Livingstone — which, to stress, includes not just legitimate criticism but also pointedly ignorant and malicious mischaracterisation — will soon enough be turned on others. Corbyn, for example. If Greenstein can be suspended for criticising Zionists, if Bouattia can be vilified for the same, and if Livingstone can be monstered as a “Nazi apologist” for referencing actual historical facts, then how long before another round of demonisation of Corbyn on the basis of his supposed ‘connections’ to extremists, or his purported love for the dear old comrades in Hamas etc etc? Pusillanimity in the face of this kind of inquisition is its own kind of liability.
The more you concede, the more you are obliged to concede. And they’re going all the way if they can, right to the top. Alan Johnson, doyen of the 'antitotalitarian left' (a few dozen academics and journalists) as well as a senior research fellow at the pro-Israel lobby, BICOM, has stated the case very clearly: “Save your pitch fork for Corbyn”.