Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone on the Middle East, anti-Semitism and the United States
Ken Livingstone's first encounter with Palestinians was in 1966 on a hitchhiking trip through North Africa. Stumbling across the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Algiers, he spent hours inside listening to stories of their parents who had been driven out of their land. "It's really only then that I became aware of the scale of the problem," he explains.
"I thought no one lived there and that's why the Jews went there. I think there just wasn't anything like the blanket media coverage that you get today, no one had film or even photographs of the expulsion of the Arab communities during 1948 or anything like that."
Livingstone is from the 1960s generation, one that protested against inequities across the world, such as the Vietnam War. "We were challenging injustice everywhere, so the Palestinian cause fitted in with that," he explains; but back then speaking out about the conflict was hard. "The one big difference was that because of the Holocaust it was much more difficult to get people to engage with."
One year after his experience in the PLO office in Algiers Israel launched the Six-Day War. "My recollection is there was overwhelming support for Israel, and people like myself saying this was wrong." Nowadays, he points out, public opinion has fallen dramatically; a 2010 BBC World Service poll put Israel simply 2% ahead of North Korea (19% and 17% respectively) in the popularity stakes and it's not difficult to see why.
"From the first Likud government in 77, Israel has gradually, from the sheer intransigence and belligerence and the completely uneven death toll, alienated an awful lot of world opinion."
These days, the debates of the 90s between Jewish members of the Labour party about Israel and the solution are a distant memory. "For progressive British Jews they've found it almost impossible to mount a defence of Israel because of the increasingly unpleasant and reactionary governments".
What was once a discussion, explains Livingstone, has been reduced to a vilification process. "I used to be invited into the Jewish free school once a year and take part in a really vigorous debate with the kids, but now the Israel lobby doesn't engage in a debate, it just smears someone who is a critic of Israel as anti-Semitic."
"There's an awful lot of Jews in this country and around the world that are deeply critical of the Israeli government," explains Ken on the subject of the Liberal Democrat MP who faced disciplinary action over a tweet in which he appeared to accuse Jewish people of Palestinian suffering, rather than the state of Israel, "yet there's a wall of sort of anti-Semitic charges and denunciation over what was basically a misuse of one word."
"Every time I've said something that is critical of the state of Israel, the denunciations, the wave of abuse, it discourages people from speaking out", he continues. Over a decade ago Livingstone was impolite to a reporter following him on the street one night; it turned out the reporter was Jewish and he was accused of anti-Semitism. "I've been rude to reporters all my life, whether they're Jewish or not", he explains.
Many right-wing papers have played their part in smearing Livingstone for his opinions, something he believes to be particularly two faced. He explains that in 1906, the front page of the Daily Mail read 'the Jews bring crime and disease to Britain' and that during the 1930s they wrote that the Jews had brought everything on themselves.
"The Daily Mail was the leading voice in anti-Semitism for decades. Now it's moved on to being basically Islamophobic and it's changed its position on those issues. The Daily Mail is just uniquely evil and poisonous and racist. Over 100 years of demonising black people and the Irish and Muslims. Now they're moving on to the Romanians and the Bulgarians."
But if you sift beneath the media spin, his autobiography offers an alternative account of Livingstone's thoughts. Its title, 'You Can't Say That,' is rather appropriate given the revelations inside, and the current climate about speaking out. Amongst other things the book details his work with Lenni Brenner, the American journalist who published a book about collaboration between the Zionist leadership and Nazi Germany back in the 30s.
It also references Benny Morris, a leftist who according to Livingstone became a right wing Zionist. Because of this the Israeli army gave him access to their files about ten or twelve years ago: "He came out that it was quite clear that there was a policy of ethnic cleansing, planned and orchestrated by Ben Gurion. Arabs were being ethnically cleansed, out of their areas, even before the British pulled out starting as early as December the year before."
"Everybody at the time was saying 'you can't say this;' they thought there would be huge denunciations that the book was anti-Semitic. Of course the board of deputies didn't want to draw any attention to it, and they just advised people not to read it," he says, chuckling. "Actually it's quite an endorsement in a sense. I doubt if One MP in a hundred has heard about it. It's been completely covered up and ignored."
The defining issue of the conflict, says Livingstone, is America and its "blanket support" for the state. Whilst this continues, there is no reason for Israel to make any concessions. Take, for example, the make up of the Israeli government over the last 65 years; throughout, there has been Arab MPs in the Knesset, but none in the government, either left or right. "Imagine the uproar there would be in America today, or in Britain if you had an exclusively white government. But this is just never mentioned."
Because of this "blank cheque," Livingstone points out, what Israel can get away with is becoming more and more unreasonable. He draws attention to criticism in the Jewish press over Iran making itself a Muslim state, yet at the same time Israel has to be a Jewish country. "Anyway", Livingstone points out, "I'm not in favour of a Muslim, Jewish or Christian state. I believe in separating faith and religion from the functions of the state."
Livingstone makes clear that he was never happy with the two-state solution. "I don't want states based on racial purity and segregated lines. I was opposed to the way that black people were treated in America back in the 50s and 60s. I would rather see a one state solution in which Arab and Jewish communities live side by side and their kids go to the same school."
He goes on to explain that many of the Israeli citizens he's met don't have an Arab friend or have never had any engagement with the Palestinian community at all. "What Israel is in danger of becoming is a walled off enclave on the Mediterranean coast which is primarily part of Europe and America, rather than based in the Middle East, of which it's a part."
Israel doesn't have a legally instituted apartheid state, he says, but that one seems to have grown up there with the various restrictions that have been put in place, that is "barriers, checkpoints, and excluding Palestinians from reaching their economic potential. Gaza is effectively a large open-air prison. It's not allowed to trade in the way that it should be with the rest of the world."
And as for politicians - who for speaking out often comes at the price of a tirade of abuse - he is not full of hope. "Politics doesn't attract people with strong backbones," he assures me, "we were all quite optimistic about Obama. Someone who had grown up as a black person in America might have a better understanding of the discrimination that the Palestinians are subjected to. But he just turns out as just another politician who doesn't have the courage to stand up to injustice."
According to Livingstone, this tirade of abuse does not trouble him. "It's been going on for so long, I've had thirty years of it. You get used to it, same as when I've been called a communist and all that. What I've always found is that the reason people use this sort of abuse is because they can't engage in a genuine debate about the issues."
Published in Interviews, Palestine and Israel, The Middle East