Under pressure: Ken Livingstone suspended over allegations of anti-Semitism
There’s that infamous joke about the Jew stopped in Belfast and asked to declare his religion. On hearing his affiliation he’s asked: “Yes, yes, but are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?” I know, it’s a poor joke – and I doubt it was funny first time around.
The Irish think history has been hard on them: political and religious discrimination, the loss of sovereignty with the Act of Union, the famine, civil and political unrest. We warm to a narrative of oppression, and wear the mantle of victimhood easily. Our folk singers embrace the theme, and our bookshelves groan under the weight of countless horrible histories.
But in the list of historic injustices, nothing compares to the suffering of the Jews. Their story is one of trial and endurance – even in the centuries before the birth of Christ. But nothing the Egyptians handed down in Old Testament times was comparable to the excesses suffered during the Christian era – culminating in the horrors of the Holocaust.
Forgetting that Jesus was never a Catholic – he died a Jew – the Church actively supported the persecution of the Jews on the spurious basis that they bore collective responsibility for Jesus’s death. It was a case that all original sins are bad, but some original sins are worse than others. It was only in 2000 that Pope John Paul II made a formal apology to the Jews.
He said: “We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood.”
Throughout the course of history there have been countless crimes against humanity. For many countries, their histories are accounts of murders, massacres and acts of genocide. From the Peloponnesian War – five centuries before the birth of Christ – through to modern day acts of mass slaughter in Bosnia, Rwanda and Sudan, man has been committing acts of inhumanity to man.
Every death is a tragedy, and morally there is no difference between the suffering of a Jew in a Nazi concentration camp or a Bosnian Muslim in Srebrenica.
But it is impossible to view the current row over allegations of anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party, or indeed broader criticism of Israel, without also being conscious of the enormity of the Holocaust. It is also important to recognize that anti-Semitism is not just a problem of the British Left. Two millennia of indoctrination has ensured that anti-Semitism is woven into the fabric of our culture. In trying to deal with the current controversy, I think it is important that we recognize the baggage non-Jews carry into the debate.
That baggage should not stop the legitimate questioning of the Israeli government. Its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should properly be called to account for his policies and the actions of the Israeli security forces, and there is much for Netanyahu to answer to. Nor should it stand in the way of the search for a long-term solution to the establishment of peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
But neither the proper scrutiny of Israeli policy, nor the cause of the Palestinian people, is helped by crass posturing by British politicians more interested (it must be said) in domestic political squabbles than the long-term interests of people living in the Middle East.
I have a bit of time for Ken Livingstone. I like a politician who is prepared to go against the tide and who speaks out against orthodox thinking. But in identifying Hitler – a monster who made an industry out of genocide – with Zionism, Livingstone went too far. He deserves the opprobrium heaped upon him.
In a foolish and hubristic sentence he has undone his political reputation. In the process he has undermined one of his closest political allies and aided those who want to see his party reduced to a footnote in history.
Livingstone’s act of stupidity has exposed the vein of naked intolerance that underpins political discourse – whether that be racism in the debate over immigration; sectarianism in the jostling for position in the Assembly elections; or anti-Semitism in the British Left’s approach to Middle Eastern politics.
While all those –isms remain unchallenged, we are diminished as human beings and we become even more vulnerable to discrimination and intolerance.
So tell me, are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?