A version of this post first appeared on the Facebook page.
Racial politics are complex, and it’s nearly impossible to discuss racially charged issues without causing offence, even when both the speaker and listener are both open-minded and acting in good faith. When we get into using terminology that means different things to different people, and which have evolved over time, there’s an increased possibility for misunderstanding and deliberate misuse of terms.
Zionist is a term which originally referred to the idea that Jews of the world should leave behind the various countries which had persecuted them, and gather together as a nation. This is obviously a purely theoretical position – supporting the right of Israel to exist.
Zionism is also used to describe supporters of modern day Israel, and the decisions the nation has made in the practical, non-theoretical world we inhabit. This is more controversial – for example, the 50-day war with Gaza in summer 2014 is estimated to have cost 2139 Gazan lives and only 70 Israeli lives, for instance, suggesting a gross imbalance of power. Anti-Zionism, in this definition, is a perfectly reasonable position.
Zionist is also a term used by conspiracy theorists who falsely claim that Jews secretly control the world, a claim that can be easily taken apart.
In 19th century America, there were campaigners (both abolitionists and racists) who supported the idea of sending black slaves to Liberia, rather than trying to integrate them into American society. Supporters of the construction of Liberia had motives across the spectrum, from those who felt America owed black slaves a debt to those who wanted rid of them.
There is a claim that some German Zionists in the 1930s co-operated with the Nazi Party in their early days in power. The idea is that the Nazi Party simply wanted rid of the German Jews, and were willing to help build Israel to achieve this. It’s possible that this was a Nazi deception, which German Zionists fell for, as many other German citizens certainly did.
We are unsure how much historical truth there is to the latter claim, and how far the idea is built on counter-factual conspiracy theories. But it is, at the very least, a plausible lie, and it wouldn’t necessarily reflect badly on the German Zionists of the 1930s if they had been among the many groups fooled by Hitler.
And if it is untrue, it doesn’t necessarily reflect badly on contemporary people who believe it. There is nothing inherently hateful or anti-semitic in believing that 1930s German Zionists were among the groups in German society who were deceived by the Nazi Party, just as there is nothing inherently anti-black in acknowledging that there were a range of people in 19th century America who believed that it was best to segregrate all black people into their own country.
[edit, April 29 – since writing this post it’s been pointed out to us that the supposed agreement between the Nazi Party and German Zionists, the ‘Havaara Agreement’ would almost certainly count as being agreed under duress in any half fair legal system, which is another point for critics of Israel to consider.]
Having said all that, it was idiotic of Ken Livingstone to engage with this idea today, with Labour already in the midst of accusations of anti-semitism and an election just a week away. Jeremy Corbyn is unfortunate to have such a self-indulgent supporter.
Livingstone’s comments of course come only a few days after Facebook comments by the MP Naz Shah came to light, in which she suggested that the Middle-East conflict could be solved by relocating Israel to North America.
Suggesting the mass transportation of millions of Israelis (presumably in some cases against their will) is unbelievably tone deaf, but is not a hateful idea. Unbelievably stupid and potentially hurtful, but not hateful.
shah also shared a poll asking if Israel has committed war crimes. Various pressure groups have presented the case that they have, so there is nothing unreasonable in Shah being a critic of Israel as a state.
Shah made her comments, was selected as a candidate, and elected into Parliament, under the Jewish leader Ed Miliband, while Jeremy Corbyn was a backbencher. The idea that Corbyn has any link to Shah’s comments is completely ridiculous.
Shah nominated Yvette Cooper in the leadership contest, so isn’t closely associated with Corbyn or the Labour left.
All of which underlines what a mess the current situation really is, and how much irrationality and stupidity there currently is in British politics.