Sparking a huge dispute in a party already deeply mired in allegations of anti-Semitism, the Labour Party’s former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, claimed Thursday that Adolf Hitler was initially a supporter of Zionism “before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews,” and charged that for decades in the UK there has been a “well-orchestrated campaign by the Israel lobby to smear anybody who criticizes Israel policy as anti-Semitic.”
The comments by Livingstone, a veteran far-left politician who sits on Labour’s national executive and heads the opposition party’s international policy commission, prompted outraged calls, including by many of his colleagues, for his removal from the party, and intensified a crisis in Labour over anti-Semitism within its ranks.
Sadiq Khan, Labour’s candidate in the current campaign for the London mayoralty, called Livingstone’s remarks “appalling and inexcusable.”
Labour colleague John Mann MP 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?”
The controversy erupted a day after Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a bitter critic of Israel who has referred to Hamas and Hezbollah representatives as “friends,” reluctantly suspended an MP, Naz Shah, who had called for the dismantling of Israel and compared Israelis to Hitler.
Livingstone gave an interview Thursday morning in which he attempted to defend Shah. He told BBC London, “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.”
“Frankly,” Livingstone also said, according to the Guardian, “there’s been an attempt to smear 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.”
Relating to Shah’s Facebook post calling for Israel to be “relocated” to America, Livingstone brought Hitler into the conversation, saying: “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.”
Defending Shah, Livingstone said: “She’s a deep critic of Israel and its policies. Her remarks were over the top but she’s not anti-Semitic. I’ve been in the Labour Party for 47 years; I’ve never heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic. I’ve heard a lot of criticism of the State of Israel and its abuse of Palestinians but I’ve never heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic.It’s completely over the top but it’s not anti-Semitic.”
Politicians across the spectrum rounded on Livingstone, with a growing number of the party’s own MPs urging that he be removed or suspended from the party.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews said he should be kicked out of Labour altogether. Board 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.”
Corbyn suspended Shah on Wednesday afternoon, after initially standing by her.
Also Wednesday, fellow Labour MP Wes Streeting told The Times of Israel in an interview that his party’s response to anti-Semitism has thus far been “flat-footed and ineffective” and that “now there is media scrutiny in light of Jeremy Corbyn’s election. It’s a bit like lifting up a stone and having insects crawl out from under it.” (On Thursday, Streeting added his voice to those calling for Livingstone to be “suspended immediately,” saying he had a track record of anti-Semitism.)
Battling the storm over her stance on Israel, Shah on Wednesday afternoon issued a personal apology in the House of Commons for her remarks, which she stressed she had made before she became an MP, and vowed to build better relations with Jews and all others. “I hope you will allow me to say that I fully acknowledge that I have made a mistake and I wholeheartedly apologize to this house for the words I used before I became a member,” said Shah. “I accept and understand that the words I used caused upset and hurt to the Jewish community and I deeply regret that. Anti-Semitism is racism, full stop. As an MP I will do everything in my power to build relations between Muslims, Jews and people of different faiths and none.”
But Corbyn, having initially accepted her apology, suspended her a short time later. Prime Minister David Cameron had earlier called it “quite extraordinary” that Labour had not suspended Shah. The Guardian quoted an aide to the prime minister saying, “If the Labour party had a shred of decency she would be immediately suspended … Jeremy Corbyn should be ashamed of himself.”
A senior Labour MP, Lisa Nandy, had publicly urged that Shah be suspended. Labour should “suspend anybody who makes anti-Semitic comments, in line with our policy, and investigate it,” said Nandy.
But Corbyn initially said Shah had “issued a fulsome apology,” which he accepted. “She does not hold these views and accepts she was completely wrong to have made these posts,” Corbyn said. His spokesman, while acknowledging her comments had been anti-Semitic, said the MP had “shocked herself” and did not mean what she said, and therefore she could not be described as anti-Semitic, the Guardian reported.
Earlier Wednesday, leading Conservative MP Sir Eric Pickles, who also serves as Britain’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues, demanded that Shah be booted from a parliamentary panel that is investigating the rise of anti-Semitism in the UK. The only contact Shah should have with the Home Affairs Select Committee looking into anti-Semitism, said Pickles, should be as a witness testifying before it.
That call was echoed by Labour MP Kate Hoey, who said Shah should quit the panel “right away.”
Shah on Tuesday had resigned her senior position as an aide to the shadow chancellor.
Shah’s Facebook post was publicized on Monday, though it was originally shared online by Shah in 2014. It drew angry responses from Jewish community leaders, who called for an “urgent” clarification.
Shah, a lawmaker from Bradford West, located in Yorkshire in northern England, had shared a post of a graphic in which a small silhouette of the map of Israel is laid inside the map of the United States under a headline which reads “Solution for Israel-Palestine Conflict – Relocate Israel into United States.”
The graphic adds that: “America has plenty of land to accommodate a 51st state”; “the transportation cost will be less than 3 years of defense spending,” and “Palestinians will get their land and life back.” It also says that: “Middle East will again be peaceful without foreign interference;” and “Oil prices will go down, inflation will go down, whole world will be happy.”
Shah, who is Muslim, added a comment: “Problem solved and save u bank charges for 3 billion pounds you transfer yearly.”
The post was shared in 2014, before Shah was elected to Parliament. It was first publicized on Monday on the Guido Fawkes British politics website. All of Shah’s Facebook posts from 2014 have since been deleted.
Shah released a statement Tuesday which said: “This post from two years ago was made before I was an MP, does not reflect my views and I apologize for any offense it has caused.”
She also posted an apology on Twitter in which she announced she was stepping down from her position as parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to John McDonnell.
In an apology published by London’s Jewish News, Shah said: “I understand that referring to Israel and Hitler as I did is deeply offensive to Jewish people for which I apologize.”
On Wednesday, reports emerged that Shah employed an aide who posted anti-Semitic tweets, called Israel a genocidal, terror state, and blogged that Russian Orthodox Jews are involved in the sex-trafficking trade and that many ultra-Orthodox Jews are regular clients of brothels.
Corbyn, who was elected Labour leader in September, told the BBC on April 11 that anyone making anti-Semitic statements “is auto-excluded from the party.” This policy was announced amid intense media scrutiny of Labour in connection with several incidents of hate speech against Jews, which some critics trace back to Corbyn’s past support for enemies of Israel, including Hamas and Hezbollah.
Jonathan Arkush, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, recently said these cases, along with Corbyn’s perceived inaction and his failure to distance himself from Hamas and Hezbollah, mean that most British Jews distrust Labour.