It’s good the former London mayor has not been expelled from Labour, but he ought to have avoided a sorry affair which hasn’t helped Corbyn, says DAVID ROSENBERG
ON THE recent St Patrick’s Day parade in London, one banner proclaimed: “More Blacks! More dogs! More Irish!” It mocked the daily racism of the 1960s when people looking for homes were confronted by openly discriminatory window signs.
The Race Relations Act of 1968 outlawed such signs but it took another 20 years of grassroots campaigns led by victims of racism, ultimately aided by another layer of government — the Greater London Council (GLC) — to normalise anti-racism and explicitly promote multiculturalism.
Under Ken Livingstone’s visionary leadership from 1981, the GLC railed against both discriminatory practices and the mindset supporting them — racist, sexist, homophobic and disablist. Its generous grants programme gave grassroots campaigners from minority backgrounds the resources to make their voices heard.
I was appointed as co-ordinator of the Jewish Cultural and Anti-Racist Project, a Jewish Socialists’ Group (JSG) initiative funded by the GLC.
The right-wing press denounced the GLC’s policies as “loony left.” Feeling threatened by this powerful equalities agenda, Margaret Thatcher simply closed down the GLC.
How is it possible that, three decades on, the person who played such a pivotal role in these fights for equality is facing demands for expulsion by the Labour Party after making dubious comments about Hitler and zionism, and defending another MP’s comments about Jews, which she herself apologised for?
Many leftwingers, tired of false and distorted accusations of anti-semitism have leapt to his defence. Others, myself included, are more reticent.
Livingstone claims that he is threatened with expulsion for supporting Palestine and Jeremy Corbyn. I believe that his controversial and completely unnecessary intervention has undermined Corbyn, been detrimental to the Palestinian cause, and handed a free gift to Labour and Tory rightwingers, and to pro-zionist, pro-Conservative Jewish “leaders” determined to do down both Labour and Corbyn.
They have denounced Labour for not expelling him, saying that Labour’s disciplinary process has let down the Jewish community and that the Labour Party is not serious about tackling anti-semitism.
Why pro-Conservative elements such as Jewish Board of Deputies president Jonathan Arkush or Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis feel entitled to comment on Labour’s internal disciplinary processes is beyond me.
Arkush, after all, rushed to congratulate Donald Trump on winning the US election, and Rabbi Mirvis penned a vicious attack on Labour on the front page of the Daily Telegraph the day before London’s mayoral election, which made no comment on the Tories’ openly Islamophobic campaign against Sadiq Khan.
Those of us in the left of the Labour Party have both the right and every reason to be cynical about Tony Blair’s appointees, who still dominate the bodies enacting Labour’s disciplinary procedures. They will act against loose cannons such as Livingstone but ignore Labour rightwingers who harm the party on a daily basis by repeatedly insulting, demeaning and seeking to undermine a Labour leader overwhelmingly elected twice by the members. And they often take to the columns of the anti-Labour right-wing press to do so.
Surely it is the likes of Blair, Peter Mandelson, Wes Streeting and Ruth Smeeth who should be facing charges of bringing the party into disrepute. In that context, I am glad Livingstone has not been expelled.
The bad blood between Livingstone and self-proclaimed Jewish leaders, however, goes back to 1981 and initially had nothing to do with Israel, Palestine or the nazis.
Livingstone gained power in the GLC at the same time as the Jewish Board of Deputies (BoD) was ingratiating itself with Thatcher’s government. Although Thatcher was extremely hostile to the GLC’s antiracist agenda, the BoD initially cooperated with the GLC’s Ethnic Minorities Unit.
As Livingstone democratised and revolutionised the GLC’s grants procedures, a range of politically independent Jewish groups, secular and religious, received funding for their projects. The BoD wrote to Livingstone insisting on its right to vet any applications by Jewish groups seeking GLC funding. Livingstone refused and was never forgiven.
Whenever the BoD heard that any Jewish group was applying for funds, it sent in unsolicited “references” to try to dissuade Livingstone’s GLC from funding them as it undermined their control of all Jewish institutions.
I saw the unsolicited “reference” on the JSG. It was full of lies and unfounded smears and allegations linking us to organisations described as “terrorist.” Fortunately the GLC disregarded it, but it revealed the BoD’s methods.
In 1983, the BoD suspended its co-operation with the GLC’s Ethnic Minorities Unit, an entity that was developing an imaginative, inclusive agenda for tackling all forms of racism, including anti-semitism, in London and actively promoting multiculturalism.
A leaked copy of minutes from the BoD’s Defence Committee sets out five charges against the GLC, including: “The use of County Hall by pro-Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) factions and by terrorist representative groups.” In 1983 the GLC’s County Hall hosted the first public meeting in Britain in which an Israeli peace activist, Uri Avnery, shared a platform with a leading PLO representative, Issam Sartawi.
Also, in the early 1980s, the GLC hosted Sinn Fein members accused of IRA links.
However, the leaked minutes confirm that the BoD’s decision to break off relations with the GLC Ethnic Minorities Unit was taken specifically because of “a grant to the Jewish Socialists’ Group, against the advice of the Board.”
The initial skirmishes between the GLC and the BoD were about the latter’s interference with the GLC’s grants programme. Later clashes related also to Livingstone’s pro-Palestinian views. In that early period, Livingstone had made a serious error of judgement which does link directly to recent controversies.
He co-edited a left-wing newspaper called Labour Herald, which published crude denunciations of Israel and cartoons of prime minister Menachem Begin dressed in nazi uniform, drawing accusations of anti-semitism. It also carried a review by Harry Mullin of three publications alleging zionist-nazi collaboration, which crossed a line from anti-zionism to anti-semitism.
A letter from the JSG criticised this review for diminishing nazi responsibility for the Holocaust and demanded that Labour Herald apologise for publishing it.
Our letter was published but no apology was made.
In private correspondence, Livingstone described Mullin as a respected labour movement writer, but a few years down the line Mullin found a more natural home for his Holocaust revisionism in the fascist British National Party.
When Livingstone was pressed by the Evening Standard for the source of his recent claims that Hitler “was supporting zionism… before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews,” he referenced an “academic book” called Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, written in the early 1980s by Lenni Brenner, an US freelance journalist.
Brenner makes crude allegations of zionist-nazi collaboration, treats the actions of some zionists as representing all zionists, and utterly distorts the power relations between zionists and nazis.
There were attempts by some zionist Jews in Germany in 1933 to make deals with the nazi dictatorship that was repressive towards all Jews. They were criticised by other Jews, including many zionists, for doing so. Further attempts to make deals with nazi rulers were made by other Jews in nazi-occupied Europe, but these attempts do not break down on simple zionist/anti-zionist lines, and many left-wing zionists participated heroically in the anti-nazi resistance, especially in the ghettoes.
Whatever deals were made in Germany in 1933, Hitler had already elaborated his poisonous hatred towards all Jews when he published Mein Kampf in 1925.
Brenner came to London in 1983 to promote his book. The Jewish Socialists’ Group was unimpressed with the publicity but nevertheless invited him to speak about it.
He was terrible. He gave an extremely crude analysis which tried to make facts fit very thin preordained theories.
When any of our members challenged his simplistic analysis, he reacted with aggression. When audience members labelled some of his comments anti-semitic, he shouted back that he could not be racist or antisemitic because his wife was Black. Sadly, that is the calibre of Livingstone’s prime source.
The willingness of zionists to seek deals with the most reactionary regimes towards its goals has a pedigree that goes back to Theodor Herzl’s 1903 meeting with Vyacheslav von Plehve, a minister in tsarist Russia, a representative of the murderous oppressors of Jews, radicals and revolutionaries.
Without any authority to do so, Herzl promised Plehve that Jewish revolutionaries would cease their struggles against tsarism for 15 years if he would grant a charter for Palestine. Nothing came of it, but not for want of trying. However, this whole effort to dig out evidence of zionists behaving badly in the 1930s in order to expose the way zionism behaves today is such a shoddy way of supporting the just demands of Palestinians and rests on crude generalisations.
You do not have to go back to the fraught conditions of Hitler’s Germany in order to challenge zionism’s current oppression of Palestinians.
As Shami Chakrabarti so rightly pointed out in her Inquiry Report last June, critics of Israeli policy could “use the modern universal language of human rights, be it of dispossession, discrimination, segregation, occupation, persecution and … leave Hitler, the nazis and the Holocaust out of it.”
The case against Israel’s occupation and ill-treatment of the Palestinians is unanswerable.
Resting that case on what some zionists did in 1930s Germany risks charges of anti-semitism, and lets both the Israeli government and the zionist movement in 2017 off the hook.
Livingstone was also apprehended for defending tweets made by Bradford Labour MP Naz Shah, which the BoD described as offensive.
The BoD apparently believes it has the sole right to define, on behalf of the whole Jewish community, what is offensive to all Jews. It does not have that right.
One of Shah’s tweets recycled an innocuous old joke suggesting that Israel should solve its problems by relocating to the United States.
It pokes fun at the mutually sycophantic relationship between Israeli and US governments over the last few decades in which Israel has served the interests of that superpower very well.
My friend, the Jewish comedian Ivor Dembina, pokes fun similarly when he says: “I think Israel should give back the Occupied Territories… but keep New York!” Edgy, but not anti-semitic.
Shah’s only offensive tweet concerned an online poll regarding Israel’s war on Gaza in 2014. She implored followers to participate, tweeting that “the Jews are rallying.” Not “zionists,” not “supporters of Israel,” but “Jews.” That is anti-semitic, and she rightly apologised.
The day after her apology, Livingstone appeared on Vanessa Feltz’s radio show, of his own volition, to discuss this matter.
The timing is crucial and again reveals Livingstone’s lack of judgement and desire for notoriety, without considering the impact on those he claims to support.
The London mayoral elections were approaching and the Tories were running an Islamophobic campaign against Sadiq Khan.
Livingstone should simply have noted Shah’s acknowledgement that she had crossed a line into antisemitism, welcomed her apology and then used all the weight of his anti-racist background in London to lambast the Tories for their disgraceful racist campaign against Khan.
That could, and should, have been the story.
Instead he tried to excuse Shah’s tweets as “completely over the top but … not anti-semitic” and then made his infamous remarks about Hitler and zionism.
Livingstone’s claims that he is being targeted because he supports Jeremy Corbyn don’t stack up. Corbyn faced immense pressure on this issue from an alliance of Blairites, the mainstream media, Jewish community “leaders” and Tories.
I do not believe Livingstone is antisemitic. Nor do I believe that right-wing Jews, who the mainstream media treats as spokespersons, have any right to define what is offensive to all Jews.
I respect the integrity of longstanding Jewish Labour activists who gave supportive testimony at Livingstone’s hearing, several of whom I know personally.
But Livingstone deliberately invites controversy and notoriety. His judgement on these issues is very poor.
He has set back the Palestinian cause by his utterances, and made life more difficult for the embattled leftwing Labour leadership.
David Rosenberg is a writer, lecturer, East End tour guide and a national committee member of the Jewish Socialists’ Group. A longer version of this article originally appeared on David’s blog: rebellion602.wordpress.com.