Ken Livingstone, formerly mayor of London, presently a member in very bad standing of the British Labour Party, can be thanked for this much: He has provided a painful moment of clarity in the debate over whether anti-Zionism is, at least sometimes, anti-Semitism.
The answer is yes. For instance, when one says that when Hitler came to power “in 1932 [sic], he was supporting Zionism,” as Livingston recently did, or when one says that not hating all Jews, just Jews in Israel, is not an anti-Semite, as he subsequently did.
This bears explanation. But first comes some context, and dispensing with certain reflexive objections. So let's start here: Last week, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn suspended MP Naz Shah, a rising political star, from the party under heavy pressure from party colleagues after a series of her Facebook posts reached the public eye. In one, Shah suggested transferring Israel—by which she presumably meant the Jewish majority, not the Arab minority—to the United States. In another, she implied similarity between Israel and Nazi Germany. The list quickly grew.
Perhaps suspending Shah pending further investigation, and her own strong apology, could have succeeded as damage control. But then Livingstone, phoned by a BBC radio show for comment, made his Hitler remark. From there, the furor mushroomed. Sadiq Khan, the Labour candidate for mayor of London in Thursday’s election, said that Livingstone has “got to be kicked out” of the party. Again under pressure, Corbyn suspended Livingstone, his long-time political ally.
Next to be suspended were three local politicians, including one who'd tweeted to an Israeli soccer star, “you and your country doing the same thing that hitler did to ur race in ww2.” By this week, the Telegraph reported that quietly, over the last two months, a Labour body had suspended 50 members for anti-Semitism and racism. That can be read as confirmation that Labour has a problem bigger than Livingstone, or that it's intent on eradicating the problem.
The debate continues. So I'll leave aside insider British politics to get back the larger philosophical question.
First, it's a given that criticizing Israel does not in itself constitute anti-Semitism. As a frustrated Jewish Labourite told me on the phone from Northwest London this week, “I'm quite unhappy about what the state of Britain does and I'll criticize it fiercely but no one can accuse me, with any degree of sense, of prejudice against the English, the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish.” In Israel's case, the ongoing occupation, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policies in particular, provide much reason for legitimate and necessary opposition. But if treating all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism is a tactic for avoiding questions or debate, it is also intellectually dishonest to dismiss the very possibility that some political attacks on Israel might reflect a particular antipathy toward Jews.
Second, it doesn't much matter if, say, Ken Livingstone doesn't think of himself as an anti-Semite, any more than it matters whether Donald Trump thinks his way of talking about women is misogynist. The measure of bigotry is in the words, actions and context, not in the possible bigot's self-evaluation.
Third, it may indeed be unfair to devote so much attention to possible anti-Semitism on the left. It occurs so much more explicitly and viciously on the right. But, yes, I hold the left to a higher standard. Had I lived my life in London rather than Jerusalem, I imagine I would prefer that my right hand wither rather than use it to vote Tory. The foundation of progressive politics is the equal value of all human beings and their inherent responsibility to each other. Anti-Semitism, like any bigotry, betrays that principle.
Fourth, Corbyn's supporters are right that his opponents within Labour are exploiting the controversy, as are the Conservatives. But Corbyn is also particularly vulnerable. As a backbencher, he exhibited what can most charitably be called obliviousness to the character of groups he endorsed for their opposition to Israel.
In 2012 Corbyn invited Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the extreme wing of the Islamic Movement in Israel, to Parliament, described him as “a very honored citizen,” and said, “I look forward to giving you tea on the terrace, because you deserve it.” Salah's record included endorsing the conspiracy theory about Jews being warned not to come to work at the Twin Towers on September 11, and a 2007 sermon in which he repeated the medieval European blood libel that Jews use the blood of gentile children to make “holy bread,” meaning matzo, for Passover. In another incident, Corbyn said he looked forward to hosting “our friends from Hezbollah” at an event at Parliament, and described that group and Hamas as being “dedicated toward bringing long-term peace in the entire region.”
Beyond Corbyn's strange endorsement of socially reactionary groups, there are many people in Lebanon and Syria who would question Hezbollah's dedication to peace. As for its strategy toward Israel, French scholar Augustus Richard Norton writes in his meticulous Hezbollah: A Short History that the organization's original programmatic statement called for Israel's “final obliteration from existence.” Any possible claim that this is only enmity toward Israel, not toward Jews more generally, was destroyed in its 1994 bombing of a Jewish community building in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people were killed.
And besides all that, Corbyn was the man who, as the BBC put it, brought Ken Livingstone “back into the spotlight” in Labour.
So how does all this fit with progressive politics? Logically, not at all. Historically, says Nottingham University political scientist Steven Fielding, an expert on the Labour Party, “the problem for Livingstone ... and for Corbyn too is that they've lived and operated” within the far left of the Labour Party. Those circles fit world affairs into a dichotomy of imperialism and its opponents, and Israel belongs to the former as the agent of America. In a podcast on the current storm in Labour, Fielding added that the Israeli-Palestinian story “is a very difficult and tricky issue ... but the likes of Livingstone and Corbyn and others see in simple stark terms in which Israel is the deepest darkest villain.”
But when you pick a small country, which happens to be Jewish, as the embodiment of all you think is evil, as the prime agent of destructive forces, then you have strayed out of the realm of politics, certainly of progressive politics. You have stumbled into an older universe of European mythology, in which Jews are not only the ultimate Other, but also the obstinate rejecters of whatever right-thinking people believe, and whose role and power is dramatically exaggerated.
From the vantage point of America, it may be difficult to remember how deeply this way of thinking is engraved into European history, how basic it was to how Christian Europe thought about Jews. It has, most fortunately, faded. But it is a habit of thinking that has not disappeared, any more than racism has vanished from America. It comes out in unexpected places.
This history poses a further problem for people who have too neatly reduced progressive thinking to categories of imperialist Western oppressors and their victims. It's unavoidable that Europe's persecution of Jews was one of the driving forces that created Zionism. So while you're trying to fit Israel into the role of the West's agent, it is also a product of the West's oppression.
The solution to this conundrum is sometimes to reverse responsibility—to blame the victim. You assert that Israel is acting like the Nazis. Or that Hitler, as Livingstone would have it, started out as a Zionist. You see, the Jews have the Zionists to blame, which is only one polite millimeter from saying, themselves to blame.
Yes, this kind of thinking does pass the line between opposing Israeli polices into irrational antipathy toward Jews—which is to say anti-Semitism.
I've listened to many conflicting views of how this will play out in British politics. But I do know how it plays in Israeli politics: Ken Livingstone and his ilk are a great gift to the political right. They divert attention from reasoned, necessary opposition to the government's actions. They make it easier to dismiss the objections of friendly European governments. They help Netanyahu stay in power, and to keep the occupation intact. And this, too, I find unforgiveable.