OPINION: Ken Livingstone – a controversial legacy examined

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OPINION: Ken Livingstone – a controversial legacy examined

Historian Derek Taylor looks back on Ken Livingstone's chequered relations with the Jewish community as it's revealed the former London mayor is living with Alzheimer's.

Ken Livingstone at Church House, Westminster, London, for his disciplinary hearing where he faced a charge of engaging in conduct that was grossly detrimental to the party following his controversial comments about Adolf Hitler.
Ken Livingstone at Church House, Westminster, London, for his disciplinary hearing where he faced a charge of engaging in conduct that was grossly detrimental to the party following his controversial comments about Adolf Hitler.

Ken Livingstone is 78 and has Alzheimer’s. It brings an end to a political career which has included being Mayor of London and an MP. He resigned from the Labour Party which he has supported all his life in 2018, and he has been accused of being an antisemite on several occasions, including being found not guilty in court. 

Livingstone was the MP for Brent East from 1987-2001 and I talked to the former mayor of Brent about him. The Jewish mayor considered Livingstone one of his friends and certainly not antisemitic. He had visited him in hospital and taken part in demonstrations against antisemitism in the district.

Livingstone is, however, very much against the behaviour of the Israeli government towards the Arabs in its country. From our point of view it is easy to turn that into antisemitism. History will distinguish between the two. Is it possible to be anti-Israel but not antisemitic?

If you set out to join the two, you can certainly label Livingstone antisemitic. You can take his comments and twist them to support your case. For instance, when he said that the Nazis cooperated with the Jewish community in Germany before the war. Doesn’t that make him antisemitic?

The fact is that the Haavara agreement was reached with the Nazis in 1933. It allowed Jews to emigrate to Palestine, so long as they left the vast majority of their assets in Germany to be looted by the Nazis.

Over 50,000 German Jews escaped the coming Holocaust in the next few years in that way. That is the fact.

You can somehow turn this – as Livingstone did – into a belief that Hitler supported Zionism, but it simply isn’t true. The German Jewish community suffered this persecution from the Nazis and lost their assets. It, or something similar, has happened countless times over the centuries.

Ken Livingstone has been a thorn in the flesh of his opponents for years and years. These have included both Conservative and Labour members. We’re not discussing politics though. We’re considering the evidence advanced for the accusation that Livingstone is an antisemite. He once compared a journalist, who happened to be Jewish, to a concentration camp guard. In court it was not considered an antisemitic remark. You’d have to label the magistrate antisemitic to query this decision and nobody has done that.

There was that demonstration in Brent against antisemitism while Livingstone was an MP. Livingstone joined the demonstrators. He has denounced anti-semitism many times. He says that in 47 years  in the Labour Party, he never heard an antisemitic remark. In any British political party, this would be difficult to believe.

What would be justifiable, is to say that antisemites are a very small percentage of the population. Any number of carefully organised reports have confirmed this. Many French are coming to live in Britain because of antisemitism in France. British Jews have no such justifiable concerns. We may have to give King Charles a new yarmulke, rather than that of the Prince of Wales, but no doubt the original will fit Prince William.

In the future political leaders will have to continue to balance Israel as a Western supporting nation in the Middle East, with the need to come to a peace agreement with the Arabs.

Community leaders are now condemning the Israeli government for reducing the power of the Israeli judges. The views of our community will have no effect on the final decision because we don’t have a vote; the Israelis who do must come to their own conclusions.

In the years to come, Ken Livingstone will only be a footnote in our political history. Who remembers Ramsay Macdonald, Herbert Morrison and Stafford Cripps? Ken Livingstone doesn’t leave us with an innovation like Aneurin Bevan’s National Health Service.

We do, however, need a steady stream of politicians devoting their lives to trying to improve the state of the nation and that commendation certainly belongs to Ken Livingstone.

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