The controversy over widespread anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party widened on Thursday when Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and an ally of the leftist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, made remarks on the subject which got him suspended “for bringing the party into disrepute.”
Jumping to the defense of Naz Shah, a Labour lawmaker who on Wednesday had apologized for an anti-Israel Facebook post, Livingstone alleged a “well-orchestrated campaign by the Israel lobby to smear anybody who criticizes Israeli policy as anti-Semitic.”
In a BBC interview, Livingstone claimed Shah had said nothing that amounted to anti-Semitism, although her remarks were “over the top”. Shah was suspended on Wednesday for promoting a Facebook post in 2014 in which it was suggested that Israelis should be deported to America and for talking about “the Jews rallying” to support a poll about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
During the interview, Livingstone said Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler had been a supporter of Zionism during the 1930s, “before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” He also claimed that in 47 years of being a Labour member, he had never heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic.
A series of Labour politicians, including the party’s mayoral candidate in London Sadiq Khan, immediately called for Livingstone to be expelled or suspended from the party. Labour lawmaker John Mann, the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Anti-Semitism, confronted the former London mayor on the street and called Livingstone a “disgusting Nazi apologist”. The Jewish comedian David Baddiel said: “If Ken hasn’t heard anything anti-Semitic in 47 years, he hasn’t heard himself speak.”
A few hours later, the Labour Party said that Livingstone had been suspended from the party pending an investigation. Livingstone said he was not suggesting Hitler was a Zionist and that Nazi leader had been “a monster from start to finish”, but added he had simply been quoting historical “facts”.
Naz Shah, who is of Pakistani origin, offered a “profound apology” for her 2014 Facebook posts. She said she had “made these posts at the height of the Gaza conflict in 2014, when emotions were running high around the Middle East conflict. But that is not excuse for the oofense I have given, for which I unreservedly apologize.”
Corbyn, who has himself been under fire in recent weeks for rising anti-Semitism in his party, called the posts “offensive and unacceptable” but only suspended Shah after pressure from party members.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews said Shah’s comments were “simply appalling” and called for an urgent meeting “for clarification of her views on Israel and the UK Jewish community.”
Board President Jonathan Arkush on Thursday accused Jeremy Corbyn of lacking the will to tackle “Labour’s anti-Semitic demons.” Arkush said if someone made similar comments about the “transportation of black people back to Africa” they would be kicked out of the party in a “split second”.
Earlier, a Jewish Labour member of the House of Lords said anti-Semitism had become “a plague” in the party.
Jonathan Sacerdoti from the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism welcomed Ken Livingstone’s suspension but called for his expulsion from the Labour Party. He told the BBC that Livingstone had “something of a track record of upsetting the Jewish community, whether we look back to the time that he told a Jewish reporter that he was like a concentration camp guard or when he told the Reuben brothers, Jewish businessmen, that they should leave the country and go back to the Shahs in Iran, when they’re actually Jewish Iraqi origin”.
Sacerdoti added: “He [Livingstone] complains that people say that they are experiencing anti-Semitism because they’re trying to hush up discussion of politics in Israel but, in actual fact, the only person who seems to be confusing these two things is Ken Livingstone. There’s no need to start evoking Hitler on BBC radio when you’re discuss the anti-Semitic ramblings of another Labour MP on social media yesterday.”