Britain is currently enmeshed in a scandal over members of the Labour Party making anti-Semitic comments. It’s a very complicated flap with a lot of characters and subplots. The following is an attempt to untangle the strands.
Why are we here?
A Labour MP has been suspended from the party for comments that have been interpreted as anti-Semitic. This comes on the heels of a series of miniature crises over the issue of anti-Semitism that has wracked the party for the last month or so.
You said, “have been interpreted.” Does that mean you don’t think the comments were anti-Semitic?
No. I think they were.
OK, who said what when?
Well a lot of people said a lot of things at a lot of different times. But the MP who was suspended was Naseem “Naz” Shah. Her offending statements, made on Facebook, were ostensibly a critique of Israel but could also very easily be read as anti-Semitic.
What did she post?
In 2014, Shah posted a meme on her Facebook wall with a map of Israel superimposed on a map of the United States labeled “Solution for the Israel-Palestine Conflict.” Under the map was the solution: “Relocate Israel into the United States.” Shah’s accompanying message said “problem solved.” She also compared Israel to Nazi Germany, posting a meme with the quote “never forget that everything that Hitler did in Germany was legal” alongside the message “Apartheid Israel.”
What’s wrong with that?
Please don’t make me explain.
OK, fine. Has she apologized yet?
So that’s it then?
No, no, no. Another Labour member stepped in to defend Shah, and made things much worse.
Agh, who is this “Another Labor member” and what did he say?
Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a longtime friend and ally of the current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was recently brought back into the party fold by Corbyn. He too was suspended from the party after saying this: “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 six million Jews.”
OK, seriously this time: What’s wrong with what he said? Isn’t that just, like, historical fact?
Uh, no. Saying that Hitler only went into an insane anti-Semitic fury after 1932 ignores Mein Kampf, and the Beer Hall Putsch, and basically many years spent espousing rabid anti-Semitism. In 1925’s Mein Kampf, in fact, Hitler wrote of his genocidal desires.
Also, Livingstone’s statement that Hitler was “supporting Zionism,” which Livingstone has defended as merely citing “facts,” is very factually wrong. According to an article Yale history professor Timothy Snyder wrote for the BBC, “[Hitler believed] that Zionism was one of many deliberately deceptive labels that Jews placed upon what he believed to be their endless striving for global power and the extermination of the human species.” So, nope, he was not a supporter of Zionism.
Where did Livingstone get that stuff from, then?
The premise of Livingstone’s myth seems to be based on a thing that actually happened, which was called the Transfer Agreement. That was a 1933 pact that allowed for certain types of emigration by Jews from Nazi Germany to British Palestine. The actual number of Jews that made it out of Germany as a result of the agreement is uncertain. Either way, Hitler’s feelings about the agreement were apparently mixed and the regime only viewed it as a way to try to negotiate the end to a Jewish boycott of the Nazi state that they feared would hurt their already fragile economy. And, anyway, there were other emigration plans for German Jews considered and approved by the Nazi regime, including one for immigration to Madagascar, but that doesn’t mean Hitler wasn’t a genocidal maniac and rabid anti-Semite from very early on who was actually secretly a Madagascan Zionist.
Good point. So: You said there were other incidents of recent Labour Party anti-Semitism? What were some of those?
Oy. Where to begin. Last month, a party official named Vicki Kirby was suspended after it was discovered that she had tweeted that Jews “have big noses” and “slaughter the oppressed.” (This, after she had been reinstated to the party, having been previously suspended in 2014 for suggesting that Hitler was a “Zionist God” and that ISIS should attack Israel.) Shortly after Kirby’s latest suspension, a Labour councilor and the former lord mayor of Bradford, Khadim Hussain, was suspended from the party after sharing a Facebook post that said “[y]our school education system only tells you about Anne Frank and the six million Zionists that were killed by Hitler.” Also, earlier in the month, prominent members of the party accused it of burying an investigation into anti-Semitism at Oxford University’s Labour Party group. And last year, a Labour Party councilor was suspended after accusing Israel of supporting ISIS. I think that’s it but could totally be missing something, because there’s a lot!
Yikes. Where is Corbyn in all of this?
Corbyn is facing an early leadership crisis and accusations that he has handled everything very poorly, especially ahead of crucial local elections for the Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly, and more than 2,000 local council seats to be held on Thursday. He has, however, seemed to regain his footing by enacting the suspensions and announcing an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism within the party. Still, Labor is expected to do badly in the Scottish election, while likely winning a crucial mayoral election in London.
And the British people?
Anti-Semitism is not just a Labour problem. It’s a national problem, with anti-Semitic incidents on the rise in recent years. And in a 2015 YouGov survey, nearly 50 percent of respondents agreed with at least one of four anti-Semitic statements they were asked about. One in four polled said that Jews chased money more than other people, while 1 in 5 said British Jews weren’t as loyal to the U.K. because of their loyalty to Israel.
Ugh. So what’s going to happen to Livingstone, Shah, and Corbyn?
It’s uncertain. Corbyn, who won a surprise election as the leader of Britain’s main opposition party last year in a Bernie Sanders–style insurgency, has been battered in the British press and among members of his own party for failing to do enough to act against anti-Semitism. He will likely continue to face pressure to do more on the issue, but he’s got four years till he is scheduled to challenge current Prime Minister David Cameron in an election, barring a vote of no confidence or some other exceptional circumstance, so he may have some time to get his stuff together. If the party does poorly in the upcoming local elections, though, there’s speculation that he might face a party coup.
Corbyn’s friend, Livingstone, is probably reaching the end of his short-lived political comeback, considering he was only holding a party position and not elected office. Shah, meanwhile, issued multiple apologies saying she made the posts during the 2014 conflict between Israel and Gaza “when emotions were running high,” and that the language she used was “wrong” and “hurtful.” But the pressure on Corbyn, who was heavily criticized for initially failing to act against Shah, to keep her out of the party will be great. Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who holds one of the top positions in the opposition party, had called on members of the party who have expressed anti-Semitic views to be banned for life. This was prior to the Shah incident, though, and ironically she had been serving as a parliamentary private secretary to him before being forced to resign from that post for this latest controversy.
Anyways, that’s all I’ve got. Hope it was helpful. And happy Passover!