Livingstone’s understanding of Nazi-era history is flawed, but it is hardly an apology for Nazism. After Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January 1933, Jewish organizations around the world, including in the U.S., called for a boycott of German products. Germany sought to break the boycott. The Palestinian Zionist leadership wanted to bring German Jews and their substantial wealth to Palestine. In August 1933, Zionist and Nazi officials concluded the Transfer (Ha‘avara) Agreement, which allowed German Jews to buy German products that were exported to Palestine and resold. About 60,000 German Jews and about $40 million (in 1939 values) were “transferred” to Palestine before Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Many Jews, including Zionists, opposed the Transfer Agreement. The most vociferous among them was Vladimir Jabotinsky, the leader of Betar, a precursor of Israel’s present-day Likud. The views of Hitler and other leading Nazis about the Transfer Agreement were mixed and changed over time. Hitler did support the agreement from 1937 to 1939. The Virtual Jewish Library, a website sponsored by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, notes that “For a time the Nazi program of making Germany Judenrein [free of Jews[ and the Zionist policy of seeking olim [immigrants to Palestine] coincided.” That is not quite the same as Hitler supporting Zionism. Corbyn’s opponents within the Labour Party have been sniping at him continually since his election as leader. They, along with the Conservative Party and the press, have been using Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone’s words to discredit Corbyn and the Labour left. Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership brought many new members into the party, among them left sectarians who have never had much regard for precision or modulation of their political rhetoric. Some imams and Muslims in the Palestine solidarity movement promote Holocaust denial and repeat the calumny that Jews kill Chrisitian children to use their blood in religious rituals. Some Palestine solidarity activists do not distinguish carefully between Zionists and Jews in criticizing Israel’s policies. Such expressions, whether motivated by ignorance, muddle-headedness, or outright antipathy to Jews, are unequivocally racist. They are not necessarily irredeemable. Accusations of anti-Semitism against opponents of Zionism have a history in the Labour Party. Richard Crossman, a member of Parliament who became an avid Zionist when he served on the Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry Regarding the Problems of European Jewry and Palestine in 1946, denounced his own leader, Prime Minister Clement Attlee, and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin as anti-Semites because they did not support the partition of Palestine in 1947 and the creation of a Jewish state. Crossman later told his biographer that if he had been foreign secretary at the time he would not “have flagrantly taken the Israeli side, [and] threatened our contacts with the Arabs” but would have followed a policy of appeasement. Equating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism has long been a weapon in the toolkit of “defenders of Israel.” They have become more sensationalist as the campaign for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel has gained more visibility and some significant successes. Paradoxically, those who insist that there is no distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism actually promote anti-Semitism. If there is no distinction between Zionism and Jewishness, and the prime minister of Israel claims to speak as ”a representative of the entire Jewish people,” then ignorant or malicious people have a free pass to consider all Jews responsible for Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people. And what about the Nazis and the Holocaust? On May 4, the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, the Israel Defense Forces’ deputy chief of general staff, delivered an astonishing address worth quoting at length:
The Holocaust, in my opinion … must lead us to a deep reflection on the responsibilities of leadership, and on the quality of society. It must lead us to think thoroughly about how we — here and now — treat the foreigner, the widow and the orphan, and those similar to them. The Holocaust must lead us to think about our public life, and even more so, it must lead all those who can — not just those who want — to bear public responsibility. Because if there is something that scares us about the memory of the Holocaust, it is identifying nauseating processes that occurred in Europe in general and Germany in particular, 70, 80 and 90 years ago, and finding evidence of their presence here among us, today, in 2016. For there is nothing easier than hating the alien. Nothing is easier and more simple than provoking anxiety and horror. Nothing is easier and simpler than brutalization, jadedness and self-righteousness. On Holocaust memorial day, it is appropriate to discuss our own ability to uproot from our midst signs of intolerance, signs of violence, and self-destruction on the path toward moral deterioration.
These comments were, as Golan surely anticipated, savaged by the Israeli right (that is, most of the country). The general staff issued a statement walking back Golan’s comparison. But no one should believe that he spoke without realizing what he was saying or without the prior approval of the chief of staff. Knesset member Haneen Zoabi turned down an invitation to speak at a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony, saying:
How can you teach the lessons of the Holocaust when you don’t discern the frightening similarity between what is happening today all around us and what happened in Germany in the 1930s? The Holocaust obligates us not to be silent when racist laws are legislated, not to be silent when natives are exiled, not to be silent when their land and property is stolen, not to be silent when entire neighborhoods and entire families are bombed and wiped off the face of the earth, and not to be silent when political activists are put in administrative detention. … Out of respect for the Holocaust, its victims and its lessons, I appeal to you and beg you to deal critically with the Israeli usage, which exploits and minimizes the Holocaust; to educate Israelis to critical thinking and moral awareness; and to open their eyes to the ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people.
Such outspokenness makes Zoabi the Palestinian political leader Israelis most love to hate. How can Israel’s deputy chief of general staff and the most militant spokesperson for Palestinian rights in the Knesset speak in such remarkably similar ways? Perhaps they see something that is willfully obscured in Washington and London. It is self-serving and hypocritical when Jews diminish other forms of oppression by judging them to be “not as bad” as the Holocaust. It is utterly illegitimate when the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his successors in the Israeli right compare Palestinians to Nazis. It is politically obtuse for advocates of Palestinian rights to compare Israel’s treatment of Palestinians — the ethnic cleansing of 1948 and 1967, the massacres and other war crimes, the massive violations of human rights, etc. — to the actions of Nazi Germany. While many forms of government-sponsored racism and popular anti-Arab street hooliganism may be comparable, the broader historical context and trajectory are not. Moreover, such comparison is certain to divert attention from the issue of Palestinian rights. Joel Beinin is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History at Stanford University and a past-president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America. He is the author of eleven books, most recently, Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt (Stanford, 2015).
Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.