British politicians, Jewish groups and Israel’s ambassador weighed in Thursday to a growing row over anti-Semitic comments by UK Labour Party members, most notably former London mayor Ken Livingstone, who was suspended earlier in the day for incendiary remarks including the claim that Hitler was initially a supporter of Zionism.
“If anyone has gone mad, it is Ken Livingstone,” said Rabbi Danny Rich, the chief executive of Liberal Judaism in Britain. “Claiming Hitler was a Zionist is not only a huge historical perversion, but it directly equates Nazism and Zionism. It suggests they share objectives and values; it is guilt by association. It is hard to think of a more offensive linkage,” said Rich in a statement Thursday on Liberal Judaism’s website.
Defending a Labour MP, Naz Shah, who was suspended Wednesday by the party for a Facebook post saying Israel should “relocate” to America, and other anti-Semitic posts, Livingstone said in a BBC interview Thursday morning: “Let’s remember 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.” He also claimed “the Israel lobby” in the UK tries to smear all critics of Israel as anti-Semites.
Labour later suspended Livingstone for bringing the party into disrepute.
British Prime Minister David Cameron also responded to the row, declaring that anti-Semitism was “unacceptable in a modern political party.”
Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, denounced Livingstone’s comments in a Twitter post. “Not sure which is worse, deliberately distorting Hitler’s goals or accusing his Jewish victims of being his partners,” Regev wrote.
Livingstone was suspended from the Labour Party hours after he made some of the comments during a BBC interview.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews said Livingstone should be expelled from the party altogether. Board of Deputies President Jonathan Arkush said: “Ken Livingston’s comments were abhorrent and beyond disgraceful. His latest comments combine Holocaust revisionism with antisemitism denial, when the evidence is there for all to see. He lacks any sense of decency. He must now be expelled from the Labour Party.”
Not sure which is worse, deliberately distorting Hitler’s goals or accusing his Jewish victims of being his partners. #BothareantiSemitism
— Mark Regev (@MarkRegev) April 28, 2016
The head of the pro-Israel organization BICOM said the comments show “a fundamental misunderstanding of what Zionism is,” and blasted the “violent language” used by Livingstone.
“Anti-Zionists deny the Jewish people their right to national self-determination, seek to portray the very existence of Israel as a crime and indulge dangerous fantasies about the country no longer existing,” said BICOM CEO James Sorene.
“Criticism of the Israeli government is of course entirely legitimate, as it is against any government. But when that criticism is expressed in violent language, directed at its people in racist terms or uses references to Hitler and Nazism, it is anti-Semitic and deeply offensive. If the only country in the world that you want to disappear is the Jewish one then you are in very bad company, on the wrong side of history,” he added.
The chairman of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, Paul Charney, issued a statement calling Livingstone a failed politician who frequently denied problems of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, blaming the “Israel lobby.”
“For years, there has been a prejudiced stereotype that supporters of Israel used the claim of anti-Semitism as a smear. Anyone who raised any concern about Jew hatred – especially on the left – will have been confronted with the accusation that they were doing so in bad faith. This rhetorical move is so common, it even received a name – the Livingstone Formulation,” said Charney.
“When you’ve convinced yourself that all anti-Semitism is a smokescreen, then nothing is ant-Semitic any more. If you’ve convinced yourself that Zionism is evil, then obviously you’d see no problem with calling Hitler a Zionist,” Charney added.
Livingstone also said Thursday that there was an organized attempt to silence critics of Israel and that he has been a victim of this campaign for over three decades.
“There’s been a very well-orchestrated campaign by the Israel lobby to smear anybody who criticizes Israeli policy as anti-Semitic. I had to put up with 35 years of this,” he told BBC London.
“Frankly,” Livingstone also said, according to the Guardian, “there’s been an attempt to smear [Labour leader] Jeremy Corbyn and his associates as anti-Semitic from the moment he became leader. The simple fact is we have the right to criticize what is one of the most brutal regimes going in the way it treats the Palestinians.”
The comments were roundly condemned by several Labour Party members, most harshly by Labour colleague John Mann who confronted Livingstone in an extraordinary face-off caught on video to call him “a Nazi apologist,” a “fucking disgrace,” and a “disgusting racist” who was rewriting history.
Mann, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism, told Livingstone he “should read ‘Mein Kampf’” and would learn that Hitler was opposed to a Jewish state, since he thought that it would create a Jewish power base. “I think you’ve lost it, Mr. Livingstone,” stormed Mann. “What are you on at the moment?”
“I am appalled by Ken Livingstone’s despicable comments. There is no place in our party for racism, bigotry or intolerance of any sort,” tweeted Labour MP David Lammy.
This is a very sad day for the Labour Party. I simply cannot reconcile being in the same Party as someone with these views
— David Lammy (@DavidLammy) April 28, 2016
Labour MP Chris Bryant joined the Board of Deputies in calling for Livingstone to be ousted from the party altogether.
“It’s right Ken Livingstone is suspended. As I said this am [sic] he’s been explaining away anti-Semitism for far too long. I hope he’s expelled,” Bryant tweeted.
It's right Ken livingstone is suspended. As I said this am he's been explaining away anti-Semitism for far too long. I hope he's expelled.
— Chris Bryant (@RhonddaBryant) April 28, 2016
Sadiq Khan, Labour’s candidate in the current race for the London mayoralty, called Livingstone’s remarks “appalling and inexcusable,” adding that there was no place for such views in the party.
Ken Livingstone's comments are appalling and inexcusable. There must be no place for this in our Party.
— Sadiq Khan (@SadiqKhan) April 28, 2016
Livingstone’s suspension came a day after MP Shah was suspended for calling for the dismantling of the State of Israel in a 2014 Facebook post, made before she became a parliament member. Shah has since apologized.
For some in the Twitterverse, the series of offensive, anti-Semitic comments by Labour Party members came as no surprise while others made fun of the number of suspensions.
Amazing that it's taken this long for Labour's antisemitism problem to bite them. Has been bubbling in the background for years.
— Benji Lanyado (@benjilanyado) April 28, 2016
— Robert Funk (@FunkofChile) April 28, 2016
Across the pond, prominent journalist Jeffery Goldberg of The Atlantic quipped on Twitter: “It might be easier at this point to make a list of Labour Party leaders who don’t loathe Jews.”