Global Independent Analytics
Max J. Schindler
Max J. Schindler

Location: Palestine-Israel

Specialization: Politics

Why controversial Ken Livingstone may have a point

During the past week, more than a dozen local councilors have been suspended over allegations of making anti-Semitic remarks via social media.

It’s been rough going for Labour party stalwarts in the United Kingdom. 

Into the midst strolls former London mayor Ken Livingstone, a left-wing iconoclast who’s not known for his political correctness. (In 2006, Livingstone told a hankering Jewish reporter that he was a concentration camp guard.)

Last week, Livingstone claimed; “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews."

His remarks whipped critics into a frenzy, with one Labour MP accusing Livingstone of being a “Nazi apologist.”

So why should this hubbub about anti-Semitism and Zionism and Nazis matter, especially in 2016?  Why are reactions so extreme?

While Livingstone’s statement lacked the precision and nuance of an ivory tower academic, his assertion is a suitable topic of historical debate. And given the legacy of anti-Semitism in helping to propel the establishment of Israel – at the expense of 600,000 Palestinian refugees – Holocaust arguments affect facts on the ground in the Middle East.

As leftist historian and controversial Holocaust expert Norman Finkelstein summarized from the Livingstone saga, “Hitler wasn’t wholly hostile to the Zionist project at the outset.” But a few years after Gleichschaltung, Hitler “came to fear that a Jewish state” would strengthen the alleged nemesis of “international Jewry.” All in all, the Führer did consider resettlement in the 1930s.

“Livingstone is more or less accurate about this,” says Finkelstein, “or as accurate as might be expected from a politician speaking off the cuff. “

At times, Nazi officials and Zionist leaders in mandatory Palestine did collaborate on a few economic and material issues. But that did not mean that Hitler supported Zionism, the belief in Jewish self-determination. Or that Hitler was not “mad” before the last free German election in September 1932.

Regarding Livingstone’s remark that, according to Hitler, “Jews should be moved to Israel,” the record is murkier. Prior to the launch of the Final Solution in 1941 – or the systematic destruction of European Jewry –the Nazi party’s policy on the so-called “Jewish Question” did shift from denaturalization and emigration to extermination.

Many of those migratory and resettlement plans would have confined European Jews to perilous humanitarian conditions, consigning the scheme to fantasy.

In terms of German-Jewish immigration to Palestine, Nazi officials did collaborate with Zionist leaders in expediting their exodus. With the “transfer agreement,” or “ha’avara” in Hebrew, the German economics ministry decided to cooperate with both the Jewish Agency for Palestine and the German Zionist Federation.

The JA and the GZF facilitated the emigration of German Jews to Palestine starting a few months after Hitler ascended to the chancellery in 1933. In return, emigrating German Jews who were selling their property could use the proceeds to purchase German goods for export.

The Yishuv, the Jewish proto-government in Palestine, would redeem the German exports in Palestine’s local currency, then the Palestine pound.

The agreement brought badly needed currency into Yishuv coffers, assisting efforts of Zionist leaders to settle and develop a society with European-level standards of living.  The agreement would bring some 140 million German marks (or more than $880 million in 2007 dollars.)

Despite the large influx of capital, Zionist leaders knew of the publicity risks and until 1935, they concealed the deal as an “economic agreement between private parties.”

At the time, Jews outside of Germany called to boycott German goods in protest against Nazi anti-Semitic policy.  The Transfer Agreement struck at the heart of such international sanctions, undermining the boycott effort.

Within Jewish circles a firestorm brewed over the agreement. Any negotiation between Zionist leaders and German officials were seen as legitimizing Nazi rule. At the time in 1933, few could have predicted the gravity of such collaboration, as the Holocaust was more than a half-decade away.

A year after the signing of the transfer agreement, a Nazi delegation visited Palestine to determine the logistics of repatriating German Jews en masse to the land. The visit’s coordinator was Kurt Tuchler, head of the German Zionist Federation, who showed his Nazi guests around.

(Tuchler’s grandson Arnon Goldfinger made a Tribeca award-winning documentary, “The Flat,” about this Nazi-Zionist rendezvous. I highly recommend the film.)

Aside from coinciding material interests, Nazi and Zionist thinkers often conceptualized Jerwry from a similar framework. (It’s akin to the horseshoe theory of political science, that political extremes resemble each other more so than the mean.)

As Finkelstein aptly puts it, when the Balfour declaration legitimizing Jewish self-determination in Palestine was published, “anti-Semites and Zionists agreed: could a Jew be an Englishman?”

Vociferous opposition to Balfour came not from anti-Semites but rather, from middle-class Anglo-Jews who worried that such a declaration could endanger their assimilated existence and engender questions of dual loyalty.

Without equating the two – an exterminationist race theory versus Jewish self-determination – both Nazi and Zionist leaders classified Jews not as religious adherents but as members of a race, a nation.

Even today, Israel’s immigration policy – which permits the immigration of any person who possesses 1 Jewish grandparent – reflects the Nazi Nuremberg Laws, which initially outlined who was Jewish based on ethnic lineage.

So yes, Livingstone’s comments were grounded in documented events. But the moral of the story is: avoid invoking Nazi metaphors when discussing Israel/Palestine. Otherwise, be precise and know exactly what you are talking about.

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