Sunday, March 15, 2009

Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Decoding the Relationship

In an excerpt from his paper Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitian Reflections, David Hirsh lays bare the "Livingstone Formulation."

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.

Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, wrote: 'for far too long the accusation of antisemitism has been used against anyone who is critical of the policies of the Israeli government'.1 The Livingstone Formulation does two things.

Firstly, it 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.

In February 2005, Ken Livingstone became embroiled in an apparently trivial late night argument with a reporter, Oliver Finegold, after a party at City Hall. Finegold asked him how the party was. Livingstone became angry because he felt Finegold was intruding. After a little banter to and fro, he asked Finegold whether he had been a 'German war criminal' before becoming a reporter. Finegold replied that he hadn't, and that he was Jewish, and that he was offended by the suggestion. Livingstone went on to insist that Finegold was behaving just like a 'German war criminal', that his paper the Evening Standard 'was a load of scumbags and reactionary bigots' and that it has a record of supporting Fascism.2

What would Livingstone have said had he been speaking with a black journalist? 'What did you do before, were you a plantation owner?' 'No, I'm black, I wasn't a plantation owner, and I'm quite offended by that.' 'Well you might be black but actually you're just like a plantation owner...'

Instead of apologizing for his mildly offensive behaviour and moving on, Livingstone chose over the next few days to treat the publication of this exchange as a political opportunity rather than a gaffe. He wrote an article criticizing Ariel Sharon in which he included the following formulation: '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.'

The Livingstone Formulation alleges that Zionists cry 'antisemitism' when people criticize Israel. In response to the Finegold incident, Livingstone cried 'Israel' when being accused of antisemitism. His insults towards Finegold were connected to Israel or to its human rights abuses only inside his own mind.

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