A new classic use of the ‘Livingstone Formulation’ – Caroline Lucas of the Green Party

Caroline Lucas, who speaks for the Green Party, writes:

“Financial and moral support from the United States means that Israel has been able to act with relative immunity, hiding behind its incendiary claim that all who criticise its policies are anti Semitic. This does a great disservice to the many Jewish people who support the principle of universal human rights, and who oppose the current policies of the Israeli state.” [via Greens Against the Boycott]

Where? Where does Israel hide behind its incendiary claim that all who criticise its policies are anti Semitic? Can Caroline Lucas give us a reference? A quote? No.

The Livingstone Formulation is named after Ken Livingstone, whose classic formulation was:

“for far too long the accusation of antisemitism has been used against anyone who is critical of the policies of the Israeli government.”

The Livingstone Formulation does two things. Firstly, this formulation denies that there is a distinction between criticism of Israel and demonization of Israel. Criticism of Israeli human rights abuses is not only legitimate, it is entirely appropriate. Demonization, for example, which singles out Israel for unique loathing, or which claims that Israel is apartheid or Nazi or essentially racist, or which characterizes Israel as a child-killing state, or a state which is responsible for wars around the world, or a state which is central to global imperialism, is not the same thing as criticism of Israeli government policies.

Secondly, the Livingstone Formulation does not simply accuse anyone who raises the issue of contemporary antisemitism of being wrong, but it also accuses them of bad faith: ‘the accusation of antisemitism has been used against anyone who is critical…’ [my italics]. Not an honest mistake then, but a secret, common plan to try to de-legitimize criticism with an instrumental use of the charge of antisemitism. Crying wolf. Playing the antisemitism card. The Livingstone Formulation is both a straw-man argument and a charge of ‘Zionist’ conspiracy. It is itself an antisemitic claim. Its regular appearance is also, in itself, evidence that antisemitic ways of thinking are becoming unexceptional in contemporary mainstream discourse.

The Livingstone Formulation has become an absolutely standard response to a charge of antisemitism. It is a rhetorical device which enables the user to refuse to think about antisemitism. It is a mirror which bounces back an accusation, magnified, against anybody who makes it. It sends back a charge of dishonest Jewish conspiracy in answer to a concern about antisemitism.

People like Caroline Lucas should understand by now that if they want to engage with the relationship between antisemitism and hostility to Israel then they have to do more than raise this old and now cliched straw-man argument. The assumption that we haven’t seen this formulation before, and understood why it is problematic, assumes real ignorance on the part of readers. It is time for people like Caroline Lucas to treat her readers with some respect and to formulate her critique with some care. Only then would it be possible seriously to debate with her.

For more on the Livingstone Formulation, as well as a number of classic examples, click here.

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