Hitler and the Zionists
By TOBY LICHTIG
Amid all the outcry and ill feeling surrounding Ken Livingstone’s Hitler-was-a-Zionist “gaffe”, it’s probably worth referring to a few historical facts. I’m not sure which history book the former London mayor has been reading, but it presumably isn’t Peter Longerich’s Holocaust (2010), in which we can find (on page 67, should Livingstone wish to consult it) a very clear explanation of the Reich’s policy on Palestine:
“on 16 January 1937 [well before Hitler, in Livingstone’s estimation, ‘went mad’] the Reich Minister of the Interior informed the German Foreign Office that it was planning to continue to support the policy of Jewish emigration regardless of the destination countries [including Palestine]. But after it began to emerge in early 1937 that Britain’s Peel Commission might opt for a Jewish state in Palestine, on 1 June the Foreign Minister, Neurath, sent guidelines to the embassies in London and Baghdad and to the Consul General in Jerusalem in which he made it crystal clear that he was against the formulation of a Jewish state or ‘anything resembling that state’”.
In other words, and not surprisingly, the Nazi Party was not happy, in the words of Longerich, with the idea of “an internationally recognized power base for world Jewry”.
It is true that Adolf Eichmann visited Palestine, also in 1937, to promote “Zionist emigration of Jews from Germany”, as well as to keep a close eye on the Zionist organizations in the British Mandate, and perhaps this confused Livingstone, who apparently fails to understand the difference between Hitler’s desire to get rid of his Jewish population as quickly and efficiently as possible and a sincere concern for the desirability for nationhood of a much persecuted ethno-religious group.
Perhaps Livingstone was also thinking about the arguably “fascist” – although certainly not Nazi – elements of certain Zionist factions in the years leading up to the formation of the Jewish State in 1948 and beyond. It is interesting to note, for example, that Benito Mussolini, whose own anti-Semitism was born more of political expediency than ideological fervour, praised Vladimir Jabotinsky – the founder of Revisionist Zionism and the father to today’s Likud Party, currently in power in Israel – as a “Jewish fascist”.
Certainly, there was plenty of talk of Jewish sweat and Jewish soil and Jewish exceptionalism in a specifically Jewish state. Indeed, it would have been surprising if a nationalist movement at that time hadn’t, in its most extreme manifestations, taken on some of the characteristics of the fascism so in vogue. In December 1948, a few months after the formation of the Israeli State, Albert Einstein, who knew a thing or two about the terrible effects of right-wing politics, wrote to the New York Times to complain about one of “the most disturbing political phenomena of our times” – the new Israeli Freedom Party (also the precursor to today’s Likud), which he described as “closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist Parties”. There is a genuine debate to be had about the fascist strains in certain – and I stress certain – elements of early Zionist ideology, even if that ideology was born of the desire to escape oppression. But regardless of the context in which Livingstone was speaking, and apart from anything else about this sorry episode, he does us no favours at all by getting history so badly wrong.
Perhaps the former mayor was also confused by the term “Hitler Zionist” – a pejorative used in the 1950s and 60s by the Zionist pioneers (“Sabras”) who had been in the country for several decades, or were born there, to refer to those who had merely been forced into their “Zionism” by dint of their expulsion by Hitler. If so, he might again wish to consider the difference between ejection and nation-building.
Whatever the case, what no part of Ken Livingstone’s little indiscretion does is encourage people to be clear-headed about the very distinct and salient differences between Zionism in the 1930s; Zionist ideology in the twenty-first century – the original aim of Herzl’s Zionist project having been emphatically attained; and the foreign and domestic policies of the current and recent Israeli governments. Nor, for that matter, does it help us to consider the various differences between Jews of the diaspora, with their multiplicity of views on Israel; Israeli Jews who support a two-state solution; those who support a one-state one; Zionist settlers who believe in a greater Israel; and Israeli Arabs – as opposed to the long-suffering Palestinians of the Occupied Territories – who so often tend to get forgotten in discussions about Israel: which is to say, the Arabs who are represented by a robust, if troubled, democracy, with MPs in the Knesset.
But, then, nuance isn’t one of the most noteworthy features of contemporary discourse on Israel–Palestine, whether or not it is used as a smokescreen for anti-Semitism. We can only hope that the rightful widespread outrage about Ken Livingstone’s foolishness or – possibly – racism does not itself get co-opted to drown out the very many nuances of this most vexed of political issues: an issue whose very vexedness – in comparison to, say, the rather more muted outrage expressed daily at human rights abuses in Sudan or Equatorial Guinea or even that other great Western ally in the region, Saudi Arabia – is itself in danger of transmuting from a justifiable concern for the wellbeing and need for nationhood of the Palestinian people into something far more worrying and obsessional.