Labour Anti-Semitism: Why It Is Harder for Jews to Support Left-Wing Parties

Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone on April 30. Comments Livingstone made about Hitler and Zionism have sparked a row over anti-Semitism in Britain's Labour party. Neil Hall/Reuters

At the height of the recent brouhaha about the U.K. Labour Party's problem with anti-Semitism—it's not entirely finished yet—I got an e-mail from an old friend in South Carolina.

"You got me thinking I am some sort of anti-Semite. I am a somewhat reluctant Zionist. Help me out here, would you?" My friend is an enlightened Southerner who is in no way an anti-Semite. But his question was sincere. So I wrote back:

"It depends on how you define Zionism. Do you define it as the national movement of the Jewish people? Or the Israeli government? Or do you define it as racism or fascism?"

The correct definition is the first. Zionism is the national movement of the Jewish people. All Israeli governments call themselves Zionist in the way that all American governments call themselves democratic—even if the definition has changed since the founding of the state.

The storm that engulfed the Labour Party came about because many on the left in the UK (and in America) buy the third definition. They think Zionism equals racism or fascism. Once you think that, it is an easy rhetorical step to comparing Israel to Nazi Germany. The inference is two-fold: Israel is a fascist state and it was created because of what the Nazis did to European Jews in the Holocaust. It has no legitimacy because it was created by White Europeans out of guilt for what they allowed to happen. It is the last vestige of colonialism and so on.

This is not new thinking on the left. It has been going on for almost half a century, ever since June 1967's Six-Day War when Israel defeated the combined armies of Jordan, Egypt and Syria and acquired the West Bank and Gaza, the Occupied Territories.

Six months later, in November, the UN Security Council passed resolution 242 calling for withdrawal of Israeli troops from the territories and "acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force."

At that point the left was reflexively in favor of national liberation movements. It had been, up to June 1967, broadly supportive of the Jewish national movement. The fact that the young state of Israel was governed by a Labor party and was broadly egalitarian—even socialist—made it easy to support. But the war gave the left a problem. It created a new oppressed group seeking national self-determination: the Palestinians.

The left began supporting the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO rejected 242 and the left followed suit. Demagogic rhetoric was used to denounce Israel with the same intensity used to denounce the US involvement in Vietnam.

"Zionism equals Fascism" became a common phrase. Nazi comparisons bubbled up out of the heated rhetoric. For many Jews on the left this was hurtful and confusing. As a college student in the early 1970s and one with left-leaning sympathies I watched as Jewish friends began to drift away from left-wing politics. There was a split at that moment and it only grew over the years.

The leader of the U.K. Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, came into politics back then. Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London whose comments triggered the global firestorm, did as well. They have over the years been unwavering in their criticisms of Israel. They have expressed support for Palestinian factions including Hamas, dedicated to the destruction of Israel.

Their rhetoric has not mellowed with age. Indeed a new generation of college students in the UK, many of Muslim background, has revived it. Livingstone, a gifted demagogue, touched off the recent firestorm by saying Hitler was in favor of Zionism until he "went mad" and decided to kill all the Jews instead.

The sad thing is that this kind of rhetoric makes legitimate criticism of Israel even more difficult, particularly by Jews of a more liberal bent. Jews ask themselves, "Do I really want to be allied with Livingstone and people who would deny Jews a national homeland? And especially those who think Israel is in any way similar to the Third Reich?"

Anyway, I concluded my note to my old pal in South Carolina, that it is ok to think Benjamin Netanyahu is doing great harm to the long term prospects of the Jewish national movement aka Zionism. It is alright to shake your head in despair at the more rabid anti-Muslim comments of some of his cabinet. That is not being anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic, "that is thinking like many Jews you know."

Sadly, the idiocy of people like Ken Livingstone and his acolytes on the "Left" don't make it easier to argue the case.

Michael Goldfarb's most recent book is "Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance. He has reported on contemporary anti-Semitism in Poland, Ukraine, Hungary and France.