William Holman Hunt: The Scapegoat, 1854.Ken Livingstone has paid a price paid by others before him, because he has broken the rule that you can not draw links between Zionism and Hitler.  Sometimes such links really should not be drawn, as when people say that what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is just the same as what Nazi Germany did to the Jews.  This is patently absurd, and it is not helpful to the Palestinians, who desperately need their dire plight to be known and understood in an accurate way, not in some infantile caricature which flattens out all differences.  Obviously there is some overlap, in that a whole people is being victimised on the basis of their racial origin, but the differences are immense – the scale of the oppression and the killing was massively worse by many orders of magnitude in Nazi occupied Europe.  This should not give rise to complacency, as the sufferings of the Palestinians are taking place right now, those of the European Jews were stopped over 70 years ago, but nor should the differences be ignored.

The question on the current occasion is this: was Ken Livingstone right to make connections between Hitler and the ideology of Zionism?  The answer in terms of politics is easy: he was right to defend Naz Shah, who had been attacked merely for retweeting an image from Jewish academic Norman Finkelstein’s blog.  Should he have used the language he did?  No, as an experienced politician he really should have known better.  With print, television and radio media keen both to damage the Labour Party and to see anti-semitism as the motivation for every criticism of Israel (there is now a long, long list of Jews who are said to be “anti-semitic”, and Finkelstein is on that list), he should have chosen his words much more carefully.  As an individual interested in history, he had the right to say all that he did, and people who have actually read his words and checked them against the facts have not been able to contradict him.

In his 1981 novel The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H., French Jewish writer George Steiner examined the issue of the ideological connections between Nazism and Zionism, through the mouth of Hitler himself.  The plot concerns the attempt of holocaust survivors to bring Hitler, who has been found alive and living in South America, back to Israel to stand trial.  When this proves not to be possible they try him in situ in the Amazon jungle.  He presents the defence himself, part of which is that the doctrine of the Master Race is taken from the idea of the Chosen People, and that the Promised Land inspired the idea of Lebensraum.  He also says that the Jews should thank him for his actions leading to the establishment of Zion.  As Hitler is given a lot of room to outline his defence there was obviously some shock when the book was published, including the predictable accusations of anti-semitism.  But to many critics, both Jewish and non-Jewish, it was seen as an important attempt to examine this sensitive issue.


It would not have been possible, or even perhaps right, for the book to have been written by a non-Jew, and it strikes me that, even with a Jewish author, the book would be almost impossible to publish if it appeared for the first time now.  It is strange to be living in a time in which freedom of speech is seen as such a central part of the dominant culture, and yet there are so many taboos around what may be said, and one of these is that it is forbidden to explore the genealogy of Zionism.  In Leviticus, the scapegoat was appointed to remove the sins of the whole people.  By banishing the goat, the sins were also removed.  Europe and its child America had committed a grave sin by its inhumane treatment of the Jews over many centuries, culminating in the horror of the attempted Final Solution, and in 1948 Palestine was officially chosen to be the scapegoat.  Like the goats of ancient times it was a completely innocent party.  Now we have moved into a new phase: the guilt is now about what we have allowed to happen to the Palestinians in the intervening years.  This is something we can not look at squarely – we can only deal with it by pretending that the Palestinians are the guilty party.  The Palestinian goat has to carry all the blame, and we can not allow it back from the desert.  So how do we deal with feeling guilty about a scapegoat?  We have decided to designate a new series of scapegoats, made up of everyone who tries to point to the truth of the situation.  They will also be sent out into the desert with the label “anti-semitic”.  Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone are just the latest scapegoats: they surely will not be the last.