One of yesterday’s news headlines was titled “MP Naz Shah suspended from Labour” and one of today’s was titled “Ken Livingstone suspended by Labour Party in ‘anti-Semitism’ row”. The common factor is the Labour Party suspending two members over alleged anti-semitic comments and the link between the two, given what prompted the second suspension was Ken Livingstone’s defence of Naz Shah.
It would be tempting to analyse the two stories and comment on whether Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone were right to make the comments they did make and whether the Labour Party was right to take the actions they did or if it was merely to demonstrate they were tough on anti-Semitism, but I will refrain. This is for three reasons: even though some of the comments these two made are clearly wrong, I need to reflect more on what they did say in order to come to a rounded view (for example, I would want to study exactly what was said in context, along with later retractions), I have no doubt the good and the great will be wading in with their opinions and I felt I would best contribute by giving a personal perspective.
As for the implications all this has on the Labour Party, this is yet another discussion that may need to be had as it seeks to regain political power and rid itself of any taint of anti-Semitism. While they may end up disowning Ken, something they could and maybe should have done a long while ago, they should not gloss over the fact that the behaviour of the member who attacked him was loutish and brought the party into disrepute, where discipline is also called for. It is regrettable that so much attention is being paid to this story, especially given next weeks elections (and one wonders if one can detect a conspiracy here), where there should be more focus on some of the many shortcomings of the Conservative Party.
The longer I live, the more I see perspective as important, and increasingly I find the need to understand those of others. I am pretty sure that if we all can do this the effects will be positive. People see things differently and it is why they say and do the things they say and do and, because we fail to understand where others come from, conflicts arise, although that should not let wrongdoing from being dealt with. One example, pertinent to these stories, is concerning Labour MP, John Mann, who today angrily and publicly accused Ken Livingstone of being a Nazi apologist. While I am not a big fan of some of the things Red Ken has said and done, and his wackiness aside (after his Hitler example while having a grain of truth was in my view wholly inappropriate), I would rather first analyse what he did say on this occasion and the context in which he said it before coming to a view. If it were me, and at risk of a civil war, I might well have expelled Ken long ago and confronted some of the excesses of those who think like him, but at least in this instance he is entitled to a fair trial.
Before moving on, I would like to make the point that defining terms is important and often conflict arises when people have different understandings over what various terms mean. Two terms relevant to this discussion are “anti-Semitism” and “anti-Zionism”. “Anti-semitism is prejudice against, hatred of, or discrimination against Jews as an ethnic, religious, or racial group. Anti-Zionism is the opposition to the ethnonationalist and political movement of Jews and Jewish culture that supports the establishment of a Jewish state as a Jewish homeland in the territory defined as the historic Land of Israel” (Google search).
As far as I am concerned, the jury is out on whether or to what extent Naz or Ken is anti-semitic but I am pretty sure both are anti-Zionist, as are a good number of my Facebook friends as it happens. Most will agree anti-semitism is a bad thing and history is littered with examples of anti-semitism with terrible consequences, in particular the six million Holocaust victims under Nazism. Sad to say, my own country does not have a good record in this regard. My own mother, who grew up in the East End of London before the War, used to relate awful instances on anti-semitism that were plainly wrong. I suspect one reason why this is a sensitive subject is we do not wish to repeat the past. As for anti-Zionism, some will liken this to being anti-apartheid given the injustices perpetrated toward the Israel Palestinians by the Israel Jews.
While it is unclear if this is the case here, there has been a tendency in the past to confuse anti-Zionism with anti-Semiticism. If I were to cite a single text to decry racism of any sort, it will be from the Jewish Bible: “But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself” Leviticus 19:24. Any other response is sin. For stranger you can read immigrant, foreigner or someone who is ethnically different. This has all sorts of implications, but given the context of this blog it requires us to be welcoming to Jews and other Semites, doing them good and not doing them harm, and that applies to all BME groups.
I would like to round off with two anecdotes, one from last week and one from five years ago. Last week I attended a presentation by the organization “Hope not Hate” who is helping to argue the case to allow into the UK Syrian Sanctuary Seekers who are largely Muslim (another subject for another day). I asked the question why it was putting so much effort into taking the likes of UKIP to task for not practicing Hope not Hate. Part of the response was that they were doing so even handedly, including exposing anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Further discussion included its support for the pro-choice lobby in the abortion debate. My retort was by doing so the message of Hope not Hate was not being applied to the unborn child. We respectfully agreed to disagree but agreed that we would work together when there was common ground.
Five years ago, I was organizing a diversity event for an organisation called Community-in-Harmony. The idea was to bring together different sections of the community in a spirit of friendship and trying to better understand one another. This included Jews and Muslims, both of which were actively involved. At the end of the event, I received a complaint from a Jewish friend that someone from the Muslim stall had made comments that were not only anti-Zionist but anti-Semitic also. I arranged a meeting to discuss the complaint and invited a Muslim friend along, one of the leaders of the local mosque. We had an amicable discussion and while regretting the incident was able to resolve differences. At that same event, we arranged a football competition and this included a game between a team of Jewish boys and a team of Muslim boys. I say this by way of an example of trying to reconcile differing perspectives.
I have strayed a long way from what many would see as the need to draw lessons from the two stories we began with. Nevertheless, throughout this discussion I have argued that Anti-Semitism, as with all racism, is unacceptable, although there may be a case for anti-Zionism. I have also argued the need for proportionality and balance when it comes to judging Naz and Ken. I suspect there is a lot I will disagree with them both on, including Jewish related matters, but without all facts to hand I will reserve judgment.