The continuing battle over Ken Livingstone’s Labour Party membership has shown how the issue of anti-Semitism has become an important part of the party’s internal struggle. With Jeremy Corbyn appearing to retreat under the pressure this could be an important turning point.
For some time, part of the anti-Corbyn campaign has been regular allegations, mostly made by the Labour right wing, that there is growing anti-Semitism within the Party, especially among Corbyn supporters, and that Corbyn has failed to act decisively against it.
This charge has been repeated again and again by an alliance of the Labour right wing, the Tories, the mass media and their supporters among Jewish leaders and spokespeople as part of an orchestrated and cynical campaign to use any means to undermine Corbyn.
Naturally this campaign strengthens fears among Jews that anti-Semitism is increasing, something reinforced by recent jihadist terror attacks.
The long history of persecution of Jews – above all the Nazis’ Holocaust, but also the legacy of oppression in other countries, such as Tsarist Russia – has left a brutal mark and fear of oppression.
English history is not exempt from this, with murderous attacks on Jews in the Middle Ages being followed by their legal exclusion from England between 1290 and 1656.
The plight of the Palestinians following the 1948 establishment of Israel and especially the occupation and steady colonisation of the West Bank following the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, has enormously embittered relations between Israelis and Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian.
It has also strengthened hostility towards Jews in general among significant numbers of Muslims worldwide.
Along with a recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents, this has increased fears of attack among some Jews internationally – fears which are being exploited in this campaign against Corbyn.
The Socialist Party stands opposed to all forms of racism, anti-Semitism and oppression of working people.
In the Middle East the Socialist Party, along with its worldwide co-thinkers in the Committee for a Workers’ International, has always argued for a socialist solution in the interests of all working people, the poor and oppressed in that region.
The Socialist Party’s forerunners agreed with Trotsky’s warnings in the 1930s that the setting up of a specifically Jewish state on territory already lived in by non-Jews would produce a trap for the Jews who moved there.
This was why they opposed the creation of Israel and the policy, most crudely expressed by the so-called ‘Revisionist’ Zionist leaders, of driving the Palestinians out of Palestine. Subsequently, however, we recognised that over decades since 1948 an Israeli nation had developed.
This meant that, while constantly fighting for the full rights of Palestinians, the social and national questions facing the newly formed Israeli working class would also have to be addressed by socialists.
But this has not been the position of much of the left inside the Labour Party which, in general, has not argued for socialist solutions.
Instead there is support for proposals based on the continuation of capitalism which do not resolve the national and social questions facing both Palestinians and Israelis nor, at the same time, answer the fears of most Israelis.
Ken Livingstone, while generally on the left, has never had a coherent, socialist, rounded out programme or orientation to building a working class movement.
More recently just before his Labour Party disciplinary hearing Livingstone tried to mollify the right by outrageously attacking the Socialist Party, saying on BBC radio that we were “a bizarre little sect” that was “virulently bad on issues like the equality of women, racism and homophobia.”
Indeed our sticking to a clear programme was one of his objections to the policies of the Socialist Party and its forerunner, Militant.
While he often cooperated with Militant supporters during the 1970s and early 1980s, he started to back away as the crunch approached in the mid-1980s battle of Labour-led councils with the Thatcher government.
Livingstone, unlike the Militant-led Liverpool city council, was not prepared to actually confront, rather than merely argue with, Thatcher.
Militant’s call for steadfast opposition by Labour councils was one reason why he worked from 1984 to remove Militant supporters from positions within the leadership of the Labour Party in London. His zigzags continued for years, with him generally moving rightwards.
One of the most shameful episodes was in June 2004 when Livingstone, then the London mayor, urged RMT members not take part in an official strike and instead cross their own union’s picket lines; an action that led Bob Crow, the late RMT leader, to publically call him a “scab”.
Nevertheless Livingstone continued to be widely seen as broadly on the left and, in this respect, remained a target for the right.
Unfortunately Livingstone’s lack of socialist theory and programme has repeatedly made it easier for the ruling class and Labour right wing to find and exploit easy targets in his positions and then utilise them in more generalised criticisms of the left.
This has again been seen once in the controversy that started with his April 2016 radio interview when he tried to answer the developing campaign to link Corbyn supporters with anti-Semitism.
In that interview Livingstone said “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.”
As is often the case Livingstone’s exact details were wrong, eg Hitler did not win either of Germany’s two elections in 1932, he did not explicitly “support” Zionism and Israel did not exist then. Livingstone’s approach gave the right a weapon to use.
But he could not be accused of being a “Nazi apologist” as right-wing Labour MP John Mann did when he ambushed Livingstone in front of TV cameras, an example of Mann’s loudmouth phrase mongering.
Mann is not neutral, he is a seasoned fighter for the Labour right wing; he demanded in the middle of the 2015 Labour leadership election that the contest should be halted because it was “totally out of control”.
As Professor Stephen Rose argued in a letter to the Guardian “Ken Livingstone may be tactless and self-indulgent, but the facts of the collaboration between the Zionist leadership and the Nazis are well established” (6 April, 2017).
Recent confirmation of this is contained in Final Solution, the 2016 book written by the late David Cesarani, the historical adviser to the British government’s Holocaust Commission.
Cesarani explains how, in the early days of their rule, the Nazis supported the Zionists against what they called the “assimilationist camp”, meaning those Jews who wanted to continue living in Germany.
He quotes a 1934 Gestapo report that “the efforts of the Gestapo are orientating to promoting Zionism as much as possible and lending support to further emigration… In place of a rushed and poorly prepared emigration in 1933, we now have well-regulated emigration whose sole destination is Palestine” (page 96).
This policy was actually formally agreed with part of the Zionist movement in the 1933 Ha’avara agreement which also led to supporters of this deal arguing against the international boycott of German goods that had started after the Nazis came to power.
Cesarani’s history has added weight because, as he was also the author of the Jewish Chronicle newspaper’s official history, he can hardly be called an anti-Semite.
Indeed, when he died in 2015 the Board of Deputies of British Jews said: “He was a giant in his field, producing ground-breaking work on Jewish history and the Holocaust.”
This did not prevent the Board of Deputies’ pro-capitalist leaders joining in the attack on Livingstone condemning Labour’s failure to expel him on the basis of his “shameless, disgraceful and tendentious attempts to link Zionism to Nazism” (4 April, 2017).
Of course the Nazis were duplicitous gangsters. They did not support the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, as an official statement made clear in 1937. But this did not prevent them having policy zigzags, including later the murderous turn to mass annihilation of Jews along with Romani and others.
The Socialist Party does not always agree with Livingstone but that does not mean joining in this campaign, led by the Labour right, to exploit his weaknesses in order to fight more generally against the left within Labour and undermine Corbyn.
But to effectively reply to this campaign a clear, socialist answer is needed, otherwise there is the danger that opposition to Zionism is equated with anti-Semitism.
Shamefully one small left group, the AWL, has put forward seeming ‘left’ arguments to justify the Labour right wing-led campaign against Livingstone.
When this issue first broke out last year their founder wrote: “Whatever their motives, those who cry out against Livingstone’s vicious nonsense about Hitler supporting Zionism and wanting to send Jews to Israel in 1932 (he said Israel, not Palestine) are right to do so…
“The Labour leadership had a right to suspend Livingstone and open an investigation, and they were right to exercise it. The alternative would have been to show themselves numb, indifferent, or collusive to anti-semitism and the anti-semites” (“Livingstone, Labour and Anti-Semitism”, 4 May, 2016).
This article ends with the justification that, on the left, “the dividing line is between those who want to change and reform Israel, and have an independent Palestinian state side by side with Israel – and those who deny Israel’s right to exist at all, who see Israel as an illegitimate political formation, a mistake, a crime of history that must be undone by the elimination of the whole Israeli polity. Everything anti-semitic specific to the left is rooted in that divide.”
As we have argued before, the AWL believes the ongoing crisis in Israel/Palestine can be solved without ending capitalism simply through the creation of two states on a capitalist basis.
But the Socialist Party and the Socialist Struggle Movement, our co-thinkers in Israel/Palestine itself, say a “combined call for both nationalities to have the right to their own states on a socialist basis, with full rights for any minorities within them, is central.
“On the one hand, it is a clear rejection of the coercion of either Palestinians or Israelis. At the same time, it argues for the overthrowing of capitalism that would open up the road to raising the living standards of all.
“Moreover, while it cannot be ruled out that a common struggle of Palestinians and Israelis could lead to the creation of one state carrying through a socialist transformation, to get there it would be first necessary to recognise the rights of the two peoples” (“Anti-Semitism, Labour and Momentum”, Socialism Today, Issue 203, November 2016).
With such an approach it would be possible both to answer the arguments that the left ignores the Israeli working class and poor and to argue against illusions that this conflict can be resolved on the basis of capitalism.
Unfortunately the combination of Livingstone’s weak and false programme alongside his flippancy has given ammunition to the right.
Nevertheless this attempt to smear the left as ‘anti-Semitic’ must be resisted, but it can only be done successfully with clear socialist ideas and a determination to build the movements of working people that are necessary to put them into effect.