On anti-Semitism in Labour


Over the last few days, claims have arisen over Labour’s antisemitism problem. First came Naz Shah, MP for Bradford West. Prior to her selection as a candidate Shah had shared a Facebook post regarding Israel. The Guardian state:

The allegations centre around a 2014 Facebook post, in which Shah shared a graphic of Israel’s outline superimposed on a map of the US under the headline ‘Solution for Israel-Palestine Conflict – Relocate Israel into United States’, with the comment: ‘Problem solved’.

Shah has since offered a full and frank apology to the Commons. She has also quit her role as parliamentary assistant to John McDonnell and been suspended by the party pending an investigation.

One would imagine that would be the end of the matter but step forward serial wind-up merchant and spotlight grabber, Ken Livingstone. The former Mayor of London took it upon himself to “defend” Shah. His first claim was that he had never heard anyone in the Labour Party say anything antisemitic. This is an argument so ridiculously all encompassing it stretches credulity to breaking point. It is akin to claiming no Ukipper ever said anything racist, no Tory ever sneered at the poor or nobody in the Greens ever said anything just a little too “right on”. Political statements being what they are, the suspension of disbelief and a reliance upon gullibility in the listener are par for the course. Sadly, Livingstone proceeded to argue ‘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’. This led to the following confrontations with John Mann, Labour MP for Bassetlaw:

There is no denying that in 1933 Hitler formed the Haavara Agreement between Nazi Germany and the Zionist Federation of Germany. However, this agreement was criticised at the time by Jewish leaders both inside and outside Zionism and must be weighed against the fact that the Dachau concentration camp was set up by Himmler in the same year. Further, as John Mann rightly pointed out, Mein Kampf – which had been published 8 years previous – was not exactly unclear about Hitler’s view of Jewish people.

Despite Livingstone’s later claim that ‘Hitler wasn’t supporting Zionism, he hated the Jews’, and his argument that he was only pointing to Hitler’s 1933 policy as a fact of history, he is on record as first stating: ‘when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism – this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews’. Even after rolling back his position, claiming it was what he said all along, Livingstone nonetheless continued to link Zionism with the policies of Adolf Hitler. At best, this is a skewed understanding of the Haavara Agreement which fails to weight against his claim the ethnic cleansing policies, the pre-existing anti-Semitism in Mein Kampf and the fact that even the Haavara Agreement involved the surrender of personal belongings that amounted to forced repatriation. Clearly the comments are as inflammatory and offensive an association as you may find and it is hard to see how this can be construed as anything other than anti-Semitic.

Ultimately, however, the question is not whether this is an acceptable reading of history or not. The questions are whether Shah and Livingstone are anti-Semitic and whether or not the Labour Party itself has an anti-Semitism problem. It was interesting to hear Alex Salmond on Question Time claim that Naz Shah – who has offered a full and frank apology, accepting her Facebook post was offensive – should be given some leeway whilst Livingstone, who has refused to apologise, should not. Andy Burnham, as you would expect, argued for an investigation and then the findings to be implemented fully. I do empathise with the audience member who asked ‘I wonder whether Alex and Andy would be so forgiving if these were comments made by a member of UKIP?’ Whilst I am no fan of UKIP, I suspect his inference is correct.

Where Andy Burnham was correct was in his suggestion that we must distinguish between criticism of the State of Israel, which may be legitimate and justified, and anti-Semitism as a hatred of Jewish people. Whilst this is undoubtedly right, the reason it is so hard to pick apart is that although not everyone who criticises Israel is anti-Semitic, it is almost certainly true that everyone who is anti-Semitic is likely to be a vociferous critic of Israel. A slightly more nuanced problem is distinguishing between hatred of a particular group of people and their right to nationhood. To question the legitimacy of state sovereignty is not necessarily tantamount to hatred of the people dwelling in the land but to question state legitimacy on the basis that they are not a real people entitled to self-determination may amount to hatred of the people. For example, is it hatred of the Palestinian people to deny their right to state sovereignty? In my view, not necessarily (though, naturally, if you hated Palestinians you almost certainly would deny them the right to a state). But the same cuts the other way regarding Israel.

Let’s take the less emotive issue of Scottish Nationalism as an example. I don’t know of anyone – including Scottish Nationalists – who really believes that everyone who does not think Scotland should be an independent country therefore hates Scottish people. Nonetheless, it is certainly true that if one hated the Scottish people one would almost certainly not accept their right to nationhood (though it is conceivable one might in a bid to be rid of those you hate). The comparison is by no means perfect because clearly not all the Scottish people feel the same way about nationhood, as the recent independence referendum made clear. Still, denial of state sovereignty does not necessarily imply hatred of people living within the state. Consider the same scenario on any issue of contested sovereignty such as Northern Ireland, the Basque region and Kurdistan as examples. Is it necessarily hatred of the people to reject claims to sovereignty and nationhood? If not, why not? If not here, why not elsewhere?

This is what makes the statement by Naz Shah difficult. Hatred of a people may well manifest as criticism of a state and denial of the legitimacy of the state itself. But it would be untrue to claim it is necessarily anti-Kurd to deny the Kurds their own state. Likewise, it is not necessarily anti-Semitic to deny the legitimacy of Israel just as is it not necessarily anti-English to deny English people (such as they want it) their own sovereign state. The question is whether her statement was symptomatic of underlying anti-Semitism in this particular case. It is why, in Shah’s case, due process is necessary and an investigation as to whether she holds anti-Semitic views needs to be worked out. The answer may well be ‘yes’, in which case she needs to be expelled from the Labour Party. Nonetheless, due process ought to be followed. Certainly, as it stands, it seems unlikely it will be viewed as anything other than anti-Semitic. Her particular post suggested all Jewish people ought to be repatriated to a country not their own. When the BNP seemed to be doing alright a few years ago, they suggested the same thing for “non-whites” and it was seen for what it was. If that was rightly called racist, can this legitimately be viewed otherwise?

As for Ken Livingstone, there is no denying the inflammatory nature of his comments. Even before we begin talking about anti-Semitism per se it is clear that Livingstone is seeking to be as inflammatory as possible. This alone warrants his removal from the National Executive Committee of the party. As for underlying anti-Semitism, certainly it is a claim that has been made with some frequency toward the former Mayor of London. It is also fair to say that Livingstone’s comment that ‘Hitler supported Zionism’ hardly screams love and support for Jewish people. Even if we concede Livingstone’s claim that there is a ‘well-orchestrated campaign by the Israel lobby to smear anybody who criticises Israeli policy as anti-Semitic’, his most recent comments bore no critical reference to the State of Israel itself. It was a pointed comment that the policies of Hitler and the nature of Zionism were tantamount to the same thing. Grossly offensive comments and an unnecessary, unhelpful comparison for sure.

The last word should be left to the Jewish Labour Movement. On their website, in relation to Naz Shah, they state the following:

27 April 2016

Earlier today, JLM National Chair Jeremy Newmark made the following statement about events following the revelation that Naz Shah MP had posted antisemitic statements on Facebook some time before her election as an MP:

“Naz Shah is a politician who is clearly on a political journey, from a Respect firebrand in the choppy waters of local Bradford politics to the Labour Party. She courageously stood up to George Galloway’s bigotry at the General Election. However, her historic remarks and posting were repugnant and completely unacceptable.

Her contrition expressed over the past day seems to be genuine and sincere. This is part of that journey. We are optimistic that she will now take steps to deepen her understanding of Jewish identity. We do not ask or expect her to mute her criticism of the actions and policies of the Israeli government. We do ask and expect her to build upon her apology and contrition with a programme of education and action that includes standing up to anti-Semitism on the left and within the Palestine Solidarity Movement.”

Shortly after this statement was released it was announced that Shah had been suspended.  Jeremy Newmark commented:

“The suspension of Naz Shah by the Labour Party is fair and consistent. I hope it will provide the context for a programme of education as we, at JLM, have set out.”

On Ken Livingston, they have tweeted the following: