An edited version of this piece, by David Hirsh, appears on the JC blog here
Ken Livingstone has been suspended from the Labour Party today. He has been a significant figure as leader of the Greater London Council, a Member of Parliament, and the Mayor of London, for decades.
He is famous for the Livingstone Formulation: the insistence that Jews raise the issue of antisemitism dishonestly in order to silence criticism of Israel; that they don’t even believe it themselves. Talk of antisemitism on the left is a conspiracy to mobilize Jewish victim power against the Palestinians.
Last month Livingstone said that in his 45 years in the Labour Party he had never once seen any antisemitism. On that occasion he was jumping to the defence of Labour in the wake of accusations against Gerry Downing, a Labour Party member who wanted to ‘re-open the Jewish Question’ and Vicki Kirby, a member who tweeted about the Jews that the Brits ‘invented Israel when saving them from Hitler, who now seems to be their teacher’. He was also trying to douse the scandal at Oxford University Labour Club after its Chair resigned, saying that members seemed to have ‘some kind of a problem with Jews’. These were the students who taunted Jewish members calling them ‘Zios’ with the song: ‘Bombs over Tel Aviv‘.
There is no kind of hostility to Israel which Livingstone would recognize as antisemitic. Not even if somebody called for the forcible ‘transport’ of every Israeli Jew to Nebraska, as Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West did; Livingstone would say it was criticism of the Israel. Of course, he would not have the same leniency with Jews who call for the transport of Palestinians out of the West Bank; that he would rightly characterise as racist.
Today Livingstone said that Hitler supported Zionism. Most people know that Zionism was a response to antisemitism; most people know that Hitler wasn’t in the business of responding to antisemitism but was himself the greatest antisemite of all time. Livingstone smears Jews, at least those who refuse to identify as anti-Zionist, by saying that they are like Nazis. He encourages people on the left and in the student movement to relate to Jews as though they were Nazis; unless they disavow Israel. Antisemitism? No, just criticism.
These latest comments came when he was trying to jump to Naz Shah’s defence. Shah had published an image on facebook which portrayed ‘Apartheid’ Israel as being similar to ‘Hitler’. She had warned that ‘The Jews’ were ‘rallying’ against a claim that Israel was committing war crimes. And she had published on facebook a plan to ethnically cleanse all the Jews from Israel and send them to Nebraska, complete with an estimate of ‘transportation’ costs. Naz Shah had also tweeted her warm congratulations to Malia Bouattia, the New President of the National Union of Students, who had warned of ‘mainstream Zionist-led media outlets’ as she supported violence against Jews in Israel.
In fact Naz Shah went public with what may have been a genuine and thoughtful apology for the antisemitic things she had been responsible for.
But this was not good enough for Livingstone. He appeared on the radio to deny that anything Shah had said was antisemitic.
The Livingstone Formulation is named after Ken Livingstone. Back in 2006 Livingstone got into an argument with a Jewish journalist, Oliver Feingold. Feingold asked Livingstone for a comment about a birthday party from which he had just emerged. Livingstone got angry and Feingold responded that he was ‘only doing his job’. Livingstone latched onto this phrase, replying that Feingold was like a Nazi war criminal for using that defence. Feingold told him that he was Jewish and he objected to that. Livingstone told the journalist that his paper was ‘was a load of scumbags and reactionary bigots’ and that it had a record of supporting Fascism.
In this ostensibly embarrassing and inconsequential dialogue, Livingstone spotted a political opportunity. He wrote an article in The Guardian criticising the occupation of the West Bank in which he wrote: ‘For far too long the accusation of antisemitism has been used against anyone who is critical of the policies of the Israeli government, as I have been’ (Livingstone 2006).
This Livingstone Formulation is a response to a charge of antisemitism. It is a rhetorical device which enables the user to refuse to engage with the charge made. It is a mirror which bounces back onto an accuser a counter-charge of dishonest Jewish (or ‘Zionist’) conspiracy.
Firstly, the Livingstone Formulation conflates anything allegedly antisemitic, in this case repeatedly insulting a Jewish reporter by comparing him to a Nazi, into the category of legitimate criticism of Israel. Secondly, it goes further than accusing people who raise the issue of antisemitism of being wrong; it accuses them of being wrong on purpose; of crying wolf, of playing the antisemitism card. It alleges an intent, often a collective intent and so a conspiracy, to mobilize Jewish victim-power for illegitimate purposes.
Ken Livingstone was neither the first nor the only one to respond to a person, typically a Jew raising a concern about antisemitism, with an angry counter-accusation of ‘Zionist’! ‘Protector of Israel, oppressor of Palestinians!’ The function of this response is to evade a reasoned discussion of the issue and instead to place the person who wants to discuss it outside of the democratic community.
So what did Livingstone say after Naz Shah was called on her antisemitic posts on social media? She apologized. But Livingstone said that she was a victim of a “well-orchestrated campaign by Israel lobby”.
Shah apologized, but Livingstone went on to defend her in yet another way. She proposed to ‘transport’ the Jews of Israel to America. His defence? ‘It’s a bit of criticism of Israel and Israel supporters. Let’s not forget that in that horrendous conflict for every Israeli that was killed, 60 Palestinians were killed and an awful lot of innocent men, women an children.’ Imagine Livingstone proposing ethnic cleansing as a solution to some other social problem or some other perceived injustice.
Livingstone’s antisemitism problem goes back decades, but he has only been suspended today. In 1981, when he was already leader of the Greater London Council, Livingstone was made the figurehead editor of a Newspaper called Labour Herald. The WRP was an antisemitic Trotskyist group which eventually broke apart when it became clear that its leadership was guilty of routine and serial rape of younger members. Labour Herald was also financed by the WRP, which was in turn financed by Colonel Gadafi and other Arab Nationalist dictators; the WRP spied on Arab dissidents in London too, reporting back to the murderous regimes in the Middle East. Already in the 80s, Livingstone’s paper was running cartoons depicting the Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, wearing a Nazi uniform and doing a straight arm salute. Portraying the Jews as Nazis is deep in Livingstone.
When Livingstone was the Mayor of London he hosted Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi at City Hall. He is pictured cuddling up to the Islamist ideologue. Livingstone insisted that Qaradawi was ‘one of the leading progressive voices in the Muslim world’. Qaradawi is the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is the Palestinian affiliate. Qaradawi speaks in favour of wife-beating, Female Genital Mutilation and the execution of gay people. He says that Hitler put the Jews in their place; he described the Holocaust as both exaggerated and also as divine punishment.
In 2006, while discussing regeneration plans, Ken Livingstone said the following about Simon and David Reuben, property developers involved in the project: ‘If they’re not happy here, they can go back to Iran and try their luck with the ayatollahs, if they don’t like the planning regime or my approach.’ The Reuben brothers are from India and are of Iraqi Jewish descent. Livingstone has been immersed in anti-racist politics for his entire adult life. Why did he use one of the oldest and most cliched racist put-downs in existence against these two ‘foreigners’?
On March 21 2012, a group of life-long Jewish Labour supporters sat down with Livingstone to try and come to some agreement so that they could back him in the Mayoral election. They reported that at ‘various points in the discussion Ken used the words Zionist, Jewish and Israeli, interchangeably, as if they meant the same, and did so in a pejorative manner.’ They also raised the issue of Livingstone having taken money for fronting a programme on the antisemitic Iranian propaganda channel Press TV. Livingstone told the group that Jews are rich and so are not likely anyway to vote Labour.
In his absurd spat with Oliver Feingold Livingstone had asked him if he had thought of ‘having treatment.’ In 2015 he turned on Kevan Jones, a man who had talked publicly about his mental health difficulties, and who was currently questioning the appropriateness of asking Livingstone to conduct Labour’s defence review. Livingstone said: ‘I think [Jones] might need some psychiatric help. He’s obviously very depressed and disturbed. He should pop off and see his GP before he makes these offensive comments.
Ken Livingstone says antisemitic things; he leaps to the defence of antisemites and antisemitic movements; he supports the positions of political antisemitism; he gave his name to a particular variant of antisemitic conspiracy theory whereby those who stand up against antisemitism are accused of doing so in bad faith; he recycles antisemitic tropes. He loves getting into a fight with the Jews. He crosses the street to pile in. He’s hungry for the spotlight in this fight.
Ken Livingstone and a significant minority of people in the UK still do not see that there is a problem of antisemitism.
They see a right wing Zionist witch-hunt against good people who oppose austerity, imperialism, the Israeli occupation and Islamophobia. They are enraged by the injustice of the antisemitism smear. They are entrenched in their position that the influence of Israel, and the Jews who support it, is toxic. They are worried how this influence seems to seep into the dominant ideology of the ruling class and the mainstream media. Their blood boils more and more intensely about Israel, its human rights abuses, its vulgarity, and the racism that is to be found there; their anger is mixed with shame at this European Colonial outpost, created under British rule. They see Islamophobia, imported from Israel and America, as the poison of the post national Europe hope. They feel that everybody has learnt the lessons of the Holocaust except for the Zionists, who, having rejected Christian forgiveness and love, find themselves stuck more and more in the Nazi era.
In spite of the fact that these people oppose Nazis and skinheads with all their hearts, and in spite of the fact that they stand in the tradition of Cable Street, these people are antisemites. But they think they are opponents of antisemitism.
I spoke to a Labour activist earlier, somebody who has been fighting antisemitism in the party for decades. She was absolutely jubilant: ‘We’ve been after the bastard for 30 years. We finally got him’.
Footage was going round the internet today of John Mann MP, longtime opponent of antisemitism on the left, challenging Livingstone in a corridor and on a staircase, jabbing his finger in the direction of the now un-masked Livingstone: ‘You’ve lost it mate. Facutally wrong. Racist remarks. You have lost it. You read the Nazi history. What did Mein Kampf say about Zionism?’
And what will the Labour leadership do? Jeremy Corbyn shares many of the same core values as Livingstone regarding Israel and the Jews who are held to support it. Corbyn also supports Hamas and Hezbollah; Corbyn has also fronted for Press TV; Corbyn has also jumped to the defence of antisemites.
But at the moment, Corbyn isn’t jumping to the defence of Livingstone.
An edited version of this piece appears on the JC blog here.
April 28, 2016 at 5:33 pm
Brilliant article. I have heard Ken with my own ears saying in that confiding tone he has when talking to his followers, that “the establishment of Israel was a mistake”. He, like the rest of his kind, deliberately ignore history and think that the British, having carved up the Middle East with the French under the Sykes-Picot agreement, then went on to hand over Mandate Palestine to the Jews. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. I bet if you asked Ken about it he would confirm this extraordinary distortion of history instead of admitting that the British vicariously fought the Jews through the Jordanian Arab Legion in 1948 and handed over the Governor’s Palace (later the UNTSO building) in Jerusalem, in its strategic position, to the Arabs hoping it would settle the battle for Jerusalem. It did. Jerusalem was Jordanian until 1967. And by the way, when Stephen Sackur accuses the Jerusalem Mayor of Jerusalem still being split down the middle, the correct answer to that is “Oj, you mean, like Belfast?”
April 28, 2016 at 7:22 pm
Thanks for putting this all together
April 28, 2016 at 10:29 pm
I would urge others to email their support to John Mann (as I have done) at firstname.lastname@example.org, especially as he has been, apparently, summoned to answer for his berating of Livingstone. He may well need all the outside support he can get, especially if he is your constituency MP. I do urge everyone to watch the exchange (actually, it’s rather one-sided) between Mann & Livingstone, in which Ken appears unable to either get a word in edgeways or, possibly, has no answer. Either of these is an unusual situation for Livingstone find himself in.
I’m also with the Labour activist David cites, even though I’ve not been “after him” for anything like as long.
April 29, 2016 at 10:35 am
Actually the e-mail address is email@example.com You may like to “like” the comment by JohnMannWasRight
What about a counter-petition?
April 29, 2016 at 10:46 pm
Thanks for the correction: slip of the fingers on the keyboard.
April 29, 2016 at 4:16 am
One of the reasons the “Livingstone Formula” has failed to rescue Livingstone is that UK Jews have developed some chutzpah and are now speaking up for themselves. At least, that how it looks to me as an American Jew. Despite the view of so many Brits that Jews are always crying antisemitism. When the Board of British Jewish Deputees [did I get the name right?] tried to tell Bevin that Jews were being murdered by Nazis, Bevin said, “Oh you Jews are always wailing about something.” So good for us, I say keep wailing away.” It turned out that Bevin was lying and already what was really happening.
Strange how no one ever denies America’s right to exist even after what we did to the Native Americans and Black Americans, and the Japanese Americans during WWII.
April 30, 2016 at 11:49 pm
Board of Deputies of British Jews…so not that far out, Susan 🙂
April 29, 2016 at 9:33 am
The American historian Timothy Snyder places Livingstone’s views within Nazi ideology:
“Before, during and after 1932, Hitler referred to the Jews as a problem for the entire world, not simply for Germany.
When the Holocaust took place, the vast majority of Jews killed were people who lived beyond Germany.
Both in theory and in practice, Hitler’s extermination of Jews was international, applied to millions of people. For this reason as well, it is logically inconceivable that his ideas could ever have been limited to sending German Jews to Palestine.
Well before 1932, in his book Mein Kampf, Hitler had made clear that the Jews were, in his view, a “spiritual pestilence” that had to be removed from the face of the earth in order to rescue the human species, the natural order of the planet, and God’s creation….”
To those of us familiar with the history of the Third Reich these view seem obvious, however we live in ignorant time (when it comes to history) hence I hope Snyder’s views become well known.
April 29, 2016 at 10:05 am
You might like to read (and “like”) the comment by JohnMannWasRight at
April 30, 2016 at 4:49 pm
This post, by the so-called “Jewish Socialists’ Group”
sees “the current fearmongering about antisemitism in the Labour Party for what it is – a conscious and concerted effort by right-wing political forces to undermine the growing support among Jews and non-Jews alike for the Labour Party leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and a measure of the desperation of his opponents.”
It was put out on 28 April — presumably just after, and as a response to, the events involving Ken Livingstone and John Mann earlier on that day. Yet, not only does it not take a position on whether or not it had been right to suspend Ken Livingstone or on whether or not they support the disciplining of John Mann, it does not even mention either of these names!
The same is true of the letter to the Guardian
with 80 odd “Jewish members of the Labour party” as signatories.
Meanwhile if this “gossip column” article in the New Statesman
can be believed, “Corbyn’s office had wanted to go further and suspend Mann – a demand flatly rejected by the whips.”
Sadly, it looks like the Labour Party still has got a long way to go!
May 1, 2016 at 12:07 am
It is important to bring into focus a comment by Livingstone during the “Daily Politics” show hosted by Andrew Neil on 28 April, Livingstone on screen from minute 7 to minute 29 (viewable on BBC iplayer for the next 25 days). He says, flat out (not the exact quote) that it is not antisemitic to hate the Jews of Israel. Antisemitism is hating your Jewish neighbour in Golders Green…
It appears to escape his attention (but it would, wouldn’t it) that he has made an outright antisemitic comment: that it is not antisemitic to hate the Jews of Israel. He does not say, the State of Israel, or the policies of the Israeli government, or Benjamin Netanyahu and all members of Likud, but “the Jews of Israel”.
Would he say that it is not racist to hate the Muslims of Saudi Arabia, but it is to hate the Muslim living next door?
Surprisingly, Neil didn’t haul him up on this. Pity. Or is it? It’s on the record (literally) and Livingstone cannot now unsay it.
May 1, 2016 at 8:39 pm
Just checked back and found the quote: as above, from 09.12-09.20 (it’s amazing what can be said in 8 seconds): Livingstone’s exact words were “a real antisemite doesn’t just hate the Jews in Israel, they hate the Jews in Golders Green…”
So, anyone (like Ken Livingstone, presumably) who _only_ hates the Jews in Israel isn’t, therefore, a “real antisemite”, only one who criticises Israel. And the next statement along these lines from someone like this, when accused, accurately – because if this isn’t by definition an antisemitic statement, then the whole language has lost all meaning – of being an antisemite, would be the classic Livingstone Formulation response.
Thanks, K. Livingstone, for providing us with a classic example of the Livingstone Formulation.
I know it’s unkind, but I’m going to enjoy the sight of either him being left to slowly twist in the wind or the Party I used to not only belong to but continued (until now) to support disintegrate if they don’t act and act fast.
Actually, that could be selective: our current (and very new) Labour MP has massively and very publicly distanced herself from (firstly) Gerald Kauffman and now Livingstone.
May 1, 2016 at 11:01 pm
[…] Engage Online (h/t Brian Goldfarb) has the story of how the Livingstone Formulation failed to save Livingstone: […]
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[…] variant of what Jews call the “Livingstone formulation”. Allow me to explain. Just as it is commonplace in the right-wing press to say that […]