Does the British left have a problem with anti-Semitism?

The World
Former London mayor Ken Livingstone speaks to the media in London on April 30, 2016.

Former London mayor Ken Livingstone speaks to the media in London on April 30, 2016. 

Neil Hall/Reuters 

This political scandal started with a Facebook post. 

Naz Shah, a member of parliament from the Labour Party, published something in 2014 about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that said, “Relocate Israel into United States.” 

The post included an image with the outline of the state of Israel superimposed over a map of the US, and a comments from Shah saying, “Problem solved,” and “Save them some pocket money?” 

The Guido Fawkes blog published the post on April 27. Other posts from Shah followed and she quickly faced criticism from the ruling Conservative Party, including from Prime Minister David Cameron. 

Shah went to the floor of the House of Commons later that same day to apologize. 

“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,” Shah said.   

After that, things might have simmered down had it not been for comments by Ken Livingstone, a former London mayor and top official with the Labour Party. He spoke to the BBC to defend Shah and added fuel to the political fire. 

“She’s not anti-Semitic,” Livingstone said. “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 before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews.” 

To many people listening, especially British Jews, Livingstone was crossing a line in that comment by drawing a parallel between Hitler and Zionism. He has refused to walk back from the statement.  

Now, both Livingstone and Naz Shah have been suspended by the Labour Party. Several other suspensions followed, after more anti-Semitic comments from party members were revealed. The Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn has launched an internal investigation into anti-Semitism and racism in the party rank and file. 

Livingstone is a senior figure in left-wing British politics. And he insists this is all a political tempest in a teapot. 

“The simple fact is that I’ve been a Labour Party member for 47 years, I’ve never heard anyone say something anti-Semitic,” he told the BBC in a more recent interview. 

And here’s the real problem, says David Baddiel, a British writer and comedian whose Twitter bio simply says, “Jew.” 

“The bigger issue here is the left does have an issue with Jews,” Baddiel said to BBC’s Today program. “If Ken hasn’t heard anything anti-Semitic in 47 years, he hasn’t heard himself speak."
 
“The left portrays itself as the champion of the oppressed. That’s its basic identity. But there’s such a big hangover for them that the Jews are, of course, not that. That they are rich and powerful and controlling, and that therefore they don’t fit into the category of the oppressed, particularly with their version of Israel as the oppressor.” 

Baddiel added that, “The left does not extend to Jews the same protections that it extends to other minorities.” 

Attitudes on the political left in Britain — and much of Europe — toward Israel, Zionism and the Palestinians are very different than those in the US, says Jonathan Freedland, a columnist with The Guardian newspaper, in London. 

“It was noticeable here that, for example, Bernie Sanders, who was hailed as breaking lots of taboos by speaking up for the Palestinians in the United States, prefaced his remarks by saying, ‘I’m 100 percent supportive of Israel,’” Freedland says. “I don’t think there are many figures on the left who would dare say that here [in Britain].”

Freedland says a minority of British left-wing politicians even question the right of Israel to exist. And sometimes that criticism of Israel and Zionism can tip over into classic anti-Jewish bigotry. He says challenging Israeli policy and its treatment of the Palestinians is fine. He does so often. 

But there is a point, Freedland says, where legitimate criticism ends and anti-Semitism begins. 

“If somebody says the United States has no right to exist, because of the fate of Native Americans and says the same of Australia — and New Zealand — and Argentina — and Chile,” Freedland says, “then, fine.”

"But if they’re only saying that about Israel and they’re making an exception that every other people in the world has a right to exist and a right to self-determination except the Jews, then you wonder. It’s that kind of exceptionalism that I think is a useful guide [for understanding where the line is],” Freedland says. 

Clearing the air on the issue of anti-Semitism in British politics might be a good thing, Freedland says, if it leads to a re-examination of some of these attitudes. That’s not going to happen before Thursday’s local elections, however. 

“I care deeply about the future of the Labour Party,” says former party spokesman Lance Price. “And I worry enormously about what this row says about what the Labour Party stands for, and our values, and who we seek to represent.” 

“The leadership of the party has failed to get a grip on it,” Price says. Religious affiliation in the party was never an issue in the past, he says. “Suddenly it has become an issue, and that cancer cannot be allowed to grow.”