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Left anti-Semitism - how did we get here?

Ken Livingstone (Image: World Economic Forum/Annette Boutellier)

Progressive discourse too easily lends itself to conspiracy theory

How did we get to the point where we’re debating whether or not Hitler was a supporter of Zionism?

With Ken Livingstone, it seems merely a natural conclusion: after years of weird digs at Jewish individuals (likening a Jewish Evening Standard reporter to a concentration camp guard, telling property developers the Reuben brothers to "go back to Iran and see if they can do better under the ayatollahs”) and Jews as a collective (commenting that Jews were unlikely to vote Labour because they were all rich), it seems he’s just ramping up his game. His idiotic, ahistoric claim that Hitler supported the creation of a Jewish state was based on a deliberate misrepresentation of history that Livingstone had found in one widely-derided book.  

Livingstone went on LBC radio, claiming that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had made a speech just two days previously to the World Zionist Congress which completely backed up his point, and had not been remarked upon at all. In fact, Netanyahu’s idiotic speech, in which he claimed the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem had advised Hitler to “burn” Jewish people rather than risk them moving to Palestine, was widely reported and criticised when it was delivered in October 2015 (including this article by Daniella Peled for Little Atoms). When you finds yourself using Benjamin Netanyahu to back up your arguments, you should probably think again. But introspection and reflection have never been Livingstone’s strong points, and he has refused to apologise for stating what he claims to believe is fact.

It’s hard not to agree with Lord Sugar, who pointed out that Livingstone has always been weirdly obsessed with Jews, concentration camps and Hitler.

But what does this tell us about the Labour movement and the broader left? Is it rippled with anti-Semitism, as some would suggest?

Up to a point, Lord Copper. I don’t believe the majority of UK Labour members, the people stoically tweeting about the fantastic reception they’re getting on the #labourdoorstep while Livingstone traipses from studio to studio digging an ever-deepening hole, really think much about Jews and Israel, beyond some vague commitment to a two-state solution. To characterise Labour as essentially prejudiced against Jews would be wrong.

The trouble comes from two places: the old-time hard left associates such as Livingstone, and the web warriors who have signed up to Corbynism rather than Labour, who see themselves as defending this lovely old gentleman and the lovely, if vague, things he stands for from attacks on all sides.

Before the current debacle, there was the issue of Gerry Downing, a Trotskyist from west Cork, steeped in anti-Semitic conspiracism, who was mystifyingly allowed into the Labour party before being kicked out again. It was not just Downing’s views that should have barred him from Labour membership, but his group Socialist Fight’s avowed commitment to entryism, very much against party rules.

Downing came from the same milieu as that which Livingstone and the shadow chancellor moved in in the early 80s  the vicious paranoid rape cult of the Trotskyist Workers Revolutionary Party, once the largest far-left group in the country. Like all cults, Gerry Healy’s WRP encouraged conspiracist thinking, the easier to control members with a them-and-us mentality. Healy and his cronies took money from the Libyan and Iraqi governments to fund their efforts, and also printed the Labour Herald, with which Livingstone was heavily involved.

The Workers Revolutionary Party, inevitably, split in an an extraordinarily acrimonious fashion, a split Livingstone claimed had been engineered by the secret services (a claim even brainwashed cult members thought a bit much).

Paranoia and conspiracism are almost inevitable on the far left: they are the best explanation for why one’s correct Marxist analysis has not been just accepted and adopted by everyone. Interpretations of the Marxist concept of false consciousness has been extraordinarily damaging for the left: cohering to the idea that certain forces are conspiring to obscure the truth from the masses can lead to dark places, but places more comfortable than the idea that you could just be wrong. Once one starts down the road of suggesting that people’s view of the world is being skewed by a particular group, one must then start asking “who”? And Jewish conspiracies, for some, answer that question.

A similar problem appears in modern, post-financial crash activism. The narrative of the “one per cent” who control the world’s money and resources is an easy recognisable shorthand, but it is a dangerous one, in that it can all too easily personalise what is really a systemic problem. Who is a member of the “one per cent”? Do they know each other? Do they meet up to make their plans? In a Prague graveyard at midnight perhaps? It’s not difficult to get from critique to conspiracy theory.

The problem has been confounded by the series of unlikely events that has rocked the British left in the past 12 months. In April 2015, many of us believed, and the polls suggested strongly, that then-Labour leader Ed Miliband would be in a strong enough position to start thinking about the soft furnishing in 10 Downing Street. Instead his party suffered a near-fatal collapse.

Then, when it came time for Labour to elect a new leader, few people believed Corbyn would win the race, right up until he did.

It’s not terribly difficult to start thinking that we really can’t believe anything we read or hear. But if someone’s lying to us, who are they? And why? Again, once one starts thinking like this, there is a ready-made answer we’ve had for centuries now, even if we’ve changed the language slightly: we no longer say “the Jews”. We say “the Zionists”, “the banking elite”, “the globalists” and the like.

This is before we’ve even got to the distorting effect of the far left’s weird focus on the state of Israel itself, the criticism of which is so often a proxy for other issues.

The scary thing about the past week has been watching seemingly intelligent people either straightforwardly endorse the utterances of Livingstone, or perform spectacular intellectual gymnastics to avoid the obvious truth that he has been shockingly inaccurate in his history and spectacularly offensive to many Jewish people. It is disheartening and depressing, and also deeply worrying. If we’re willing to brush off this incident, to justify it, or even claim it is being orchestrated by outside forces (the Blairites, the Zionist media), what else will we tolerate?

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms. He is Director of Editorial at 89up and has written and ghostwritten for The Evening Standard, The Guardian, The Observer, The Irish Times, The Daily Telegraph, The New Statesman, The Sun, and The Irish Post.