Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Longest Hatred 24: "The Livingstone Formulation"

[Taken from David Hirsh's piece here]

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'. 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.

Livingstone went on to normalize suicide bombing against Israeli civilians. He was to condemn the suicide attacks on the London transport system of 7 July 2007, but, far away, he found suicide attacks on the Israeli transport system to raise more complex issues. ‘Palestinians don't have jet fighters,' he said, ‘they only have their bodies to use as weapons. In that unfair balance, that's what people use.'

Livingstone does more than ‘criticize the policies of the Israeli government'. For decades, he has been part of a movement in the UK which sees Israel as a pariah state with a menacing and malign influence well beyond its borders. In the 1980s Livingstone was associated with the Workers Revolutionary Party, an extreme anti-Zionist group, and was the editor of one of its front newspapers, Labour Herald. As Mayor, Livingstone treats the antisemitic Muslim cleric Yusef al-Qaradawi as an honoured guest of the city, in spite of his repeated antisemitic statements (for example, Qaradawi praised Mel Gibson's movie ‘The Passion of the Christ' on the basis that it exposed "the Jews' crime of bringing Jesus to the crucifixion").

It is rare that Jewish communal or Israeli spokespeople make the evidently false claim that criticism of Israeli policies is necessarily antisemitic. Neither does anybody serious treat criticism as though it was demonization. The contention that criticism is denounced as antisemitic nearly always functions as a straw-man argument. The difficult arguments that some over-enthusiastic ‘critics' of Israel are reluctant to deal with are that criticism of Israel is often expressed using rhetoric or images which resonate with antisemitism; or that criticism often holds Israel to higher standards than other states, and for no morally or politically relevant reason; or that it often employs conspiracy theory; or that it uses demonizing analogies; or that it casts Jews as oppressors; or that criticism is made in such a way as to pick a fight with the vast majority of Jews; or that the word criticism is really being used to stand for discriminatory practices against Israelis or against Jews, such as ‘boycotts'. These much more serious and realistic charges are too often brushed off by blithely employing the Livingstone Formulation: ‘For far too long the accusation of antisemitism has been used against anyone who is critical of the policies of the Israeli government.'

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