Originally written for Smoke Magazine, June 2017
On March 30, the former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, insisted (again) that “Hitler supported Zionism”, and that there was “real co-operation” between the fuehrer and attempts to establish a Jewish state. Livingstone contends that Zionist groups (who were calling, in desperation and fear, for Jews to leave a continent which had routinely attacked and murdered them for 1000 years) were supported by the emerging fuhrer. He claims, then, that the political movement responsible for Israel’s creation was once supported by the ultimate villain – Hitler – and thus, by implication, that same movement must also be suspect.
We have seen outcry, and outrage, and calls for Livingston’s expulsion from the Labour party, but this response is not universal. Many socially conscious members of the British left have rallied to defend the former mayor, arguing that he was just stating a fact.
Let us, for the moment, set aside how absurd the idea of Hitler supporting a Jewish state is. Let us also disregard the blatant perversion of history (in truth, Hitler encouraged the deportation of Jews to Palestine as a means to get them out of his country, and when that didn’t work fast enough, he gassed them). Let us focus, instead, on the fact that this story is not new.
Last year Malia Bouattia was elected NUS President. She had called Birmingham University a “Zionist outpost” and, speaking at a conference on “Gaza and the Palestinian Revolution”, had claimed that “mainstream Zionist-led media outlets” were falsely portraying “resistance… as an act of terrorism”. When Jewish students objected, Bouattia refused to apologise, saying “that for me to take issue with Zionist politics is not me taking issue with being Jewish.”
Let’s ignore, for now, how precisely the descriptions of “Zionist-led media” echo claims of a grand Jewish conspiracy. Let’s forget, also, how that legitimate “resistance” includes enough suicide bombings to have a wikipedia page dedicated to them. And let’s return, again, to how this story is not new.
A 2016 report by the AMCHA Initiative found nearly 100 more antisemitic incidents on American college campuses than in 2015. Meanwhile, in Australia, the NSW Young Greens are boycotting the nation’s largest Jewish student organisation (AUJS), on the grounds that it supports Israel.
Let’s gloss over how AUJS is an explicitly Jewish (not “Zionist”) organisation which continues to proudly advocate for a two state solution. Let’s brush aside a footnote from that AMCHA report which informs us that rising antisemitism correlates directly with “anti-Zionist” activity on campus – and let us be reminded, as we seem so prone to forget, that this story is not new.
It is here that an obvious qualifier is needed. Israel is not perfect. There are too many instances of Israeli authorities abusing Palestinians; of its government flouting international decrees on settlements; of conservative politicians refusing to even consider negotiation. All without mentioning Hafrada – the forced separation of Palestinian and Israeli populations in the occupied territories.
Neither is Israel evil incarnate. It is the most liberal, democratic nation in the Middle East. Israeli forces have a historical goal of ending violence (because they fight for their right to exist). By contrast, their enemies’ goal remains destabilisation, and, as a result, terrorist tactics are frequently employed. Finally, even policies like Hafrada are complex – it is responsible for a substantial drop in fatal terrorist attacks.
The point here is that the Israel/Palestine conflict is a complex one. A simple narrative of innocent victims and evil Zionists doesn’t cut it. Yet the left (supposedly the more nuanced side of politics) frequently, happily, returns to this image. And, in turn, this obsessively simple vision bleeds into plain old antisemitism.
It takes many forms, this antisemitism. It hides in the carelessly loaded language which you just wouldn’t use with other minorities. It clothes itself in the lies and fraudulent history used to justify hating Israel. It’s at its most open when Jewish students across the world are made to feel unsafe by leftists who call them Zionist pigs and write declarations of war signed “love, Hamas”.
It’s hard to overstate how much of Western history is tied up with hating Jews. The Catholic Church did not absolve the Jewish people of the collective crime of deicide (killing Christ) until 1964. Martin Luther wrote fervently and frequently on the vileness of the Jewish soul. The Holocaust was only new in that it industrialised what was previously the domain of a few dozen peasants armed with pitchforks. The Western response to it marks the first time the governments of Europe came even close to squaring with their history of antisemitism. That it took six million deaths to achieve this should give us pause.
Critiquing Israel does not require antisemitism. But too often, in too many spaces – the Labour party; university campuses; even the NUS – it excuses it. If the left is serious about its doctrine of “privilege” – that the consequences of past sins reverberate through the modern day – then surely on this, of all topics, a tad more awareness of the ground on which they tread (and the words they speak while there) would be advised. Then, maybe, this oldest and saddest of stories would begin, at last, to end.