Ken Livingstone and anti-semitism

Submitted by Matthew on 28 March, 2012 - 10:47

A letter from prominent Jewish Labour Party supporters to party leader Ed Miliband, leaked to the press around 21 March, has expressed some profound concerns following a 1 March meeting between party activists and London mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone.

The letter’s authors are by no means left-wingers. They criticise Livingstone for being too stridently hostile to what he considers “bourgeois” elements (if only!) and characterise his politics as “infantile far-left”. But one does not have to endorse the wider politics of the authors to conclude that most of their criticisms of Livingstone’s attitudes on Jews and anti-semitism ring true.

The authors point out: “At various points in the discussion Ken used the words Zionist, Jewish and Israeli, interchangeably, as if they meant the same, and did so in a pejorative manner. These words are not interchangeable and to do so is highly offensive, particularly when repeated over and again as was done. For example, when discussing Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s extreme views on homosexuality, Ken said ‘one would expect the same views on homosexuality from extreme Christians, Muslims and Israelis’, and used the word ‘Zionist’ as an adjectival negative to criticise much more widely than what can be attributed to the ideology of Zionism.”

At the meeting Livingstone also reportedly defended his links to Iranian state broadcaster Press TV and his historical support for al-Qaradawi and other Islamists. Livingstone is also alleged to have said that he did not expect many Jews to vote for him anyway, as London’s Jews are generally wealthy and Labour’s votes are inversely proportional to wealth levels.

The meeting was not officially minuted or recorded, so there is no formal record against which one could verify the criticisms. But it requires no leap of imagination to think them true. In the 1980s Livingstone was a fellow traveller of Gerry Healy’s Workers’ Revolutionary Party, which raged against a supposed worldwide “Zionist connection”, and as late as 1994, when Healy had long been widely dismissed on the left as shady and crazy, Livingstone wrote a puff for an adulatory biography of Healy.

The letter makes an astute point about Jewish cultural identity which many on the left refuse to accept: “It is not an uncontroversial thing to say that for the vast majority of British Jews, Israel plays an important part in their core identity, in the same way that family, language and cultural ties continue to bind BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) communities with India, Pakistan etc. […] In the same way that Black, Irish, Women and LGBT groups are afforded the right to determine their own identity, many of us feel that Ken doesn’t afford Jews that right. Just as we do not have a right to tell Ken what he thinks about Israel despite our many disagreements, Ken doesn’t have the right to define who we believe we are.”

Workers’ Liberty does not “endorse” the ethno-cultural affinity many diaspora Jews feel with the state of Israel. We are revolutionary socialist internationalists and secularists; we think the state of Israel should be an expression of the national self-determination of the Israeli-Jews who live there, not the national entity of all Jews everywhere. But at the same time, we are materialists who understand how the historical experience of oppression, persecution and attempted genocide has embedded the state of Israel in Jewish identity. Jewish people — either in Britain or in Israel — will not be won to socialist internationalism by exceptionalising their cultural nationalism as uniquely worse than that of any other cultural or national group.

“Anti-Zionism” as a political point-of-departure, as a distinct political category separate from working-class, internationalist opposition to all nationalisms, and as something more expansive than revolutionary hostility to the ruling class of the state of Israel, has dangerous anti-Semitic implications. Ken Livingstone, in his crude interchanging of “Jewish”, “Zionist” and “Israeli”, exemplifies them well.

So what conclusions should we draw from the episode? Should we refuse to back Ken Livingstone in the election?

In a way — yes. We do not “back Ken Livingstone”; we want a Labour victory. We call for a vote for Livingstone only because the party he represents is the only significant force in electoral politics with a structural link to organised labour and therefore more potentially susceptible to working-class pressure and subversion than other parties. Preferring a Labour mayor to a Tory one does not imply any positive endorsement of the individual Labour candidate or any obligation to censor our criticisms of his political record.

The fact that the Labour candidate for London mayor manages to combine the worst of New Labour (acquiescence to the business community and slavish devotion to serving the interests of the City) with the worst of crank-left “anti-Zionism” is a further reminder of how much work there is to do to make our movement politically fit for purpose.

* See the protest letter here and Livingstone’s 1994 preface here.