Just before 9 am on Thursday April 28th 2016, former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone was interviewed by Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio London about anti-semitism in the Labour Party. “I’ve been in the Labour Party for 47 years,” he said. “I’ve never heard anyone say anything anti-semitic… Let’s remember that when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism, before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews… there has been a very well orchestrated campaign by the Israel lobby to smear anybody who criticises Israeli policy as antisemitic. I had to put up with 35 years of this, and then being denounced because back in 1981 we were campaigning to say the Labour party should recognise the Palestine Liberation Organisation. We were accused of antisemitism but then 12 years later the leader of the PLO is on the White House lawn, shaking hands with the prime minister of Israel”. As he emerged from the studio, Livingstone found himself surrounded by a crowd of reporters, and later that morning, while giving a live phone interview to LBC, he found himself confronted by a very angry John Mann MP “You’re rewriting history: you’re a disgusting racist, you’re a lying racist, you’re a disgusting Nazi apologist.” In later confrontations with reporters, Livingstone maintained his remark about Hitler was “history”, though he did correct the reference to Israel, referring instead to “what later became Israel.”
Later in the day Ken Livingstone’s Labour Party membership was suspended, and on the following day Jeremy Corbyn announced that he had appointed Shami Chakrabati and Professor David Feldman to head up an independent investigation into anti-semitism in the Labour Party.
This was by no means the first time that Ken Livingstone had linked Jews and Nazis. In July 1982 the Board of Deputies of British Jews called on the Attorney General to prosecute Livingstone and two others for inciting racial hatred. Ken Livingstone at that time was a very prominent figure, the Leader of Greater London Council, and the concern was about two articles and a cartoon published in Labour Herald on June 25th. One of the articles suggested that Zionists as well as Nazis bore responsibility for the Holocaust (The Times, 3 July 1982, page 1). Three years later, in a column in The Times “Why Labour is Losing Its Jews,” Peter Bradley explored anti-semitism in the Labour Party, attacking those who were identifying “Israel’s leaders with the Nazi architects of the final solution.” Only one Labour politician was criticised by name in the column—Ken Livingstone, who had recently written that the Holocaust was “skilfully exploited in the demand for a Jewish homeland.”( The Times¸7 May 1985, p. 10).
At that time, I was a student rabbi at Leo Baeck College, London. I would have been blissfully unaware of this news story had it not been for two students in year below me, Elizabeth Sarah (now Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah) and Sheila Shulman (of blessed memory). For both of them, in different ways, a militant anti-Zionism in the women’s movements had driven them away: “The main idea behind Zionism is that all the Jews should get together and form a nation, because they are in danger from the ‘non-Jews’, what they call the Gentiles. Which is so similar to the Nazi ideology that the Jews should not be with the gentiles” (Spare Rib 121, August 1982, 22-23). Jewish women were not allowed the right of reply to this and other articles, and in 1983 many broke away from their former friends, and Ellli and Sheila found their way to Leo Baeck College.
I found myself very intrigued by the allegations of links between Zionists and Nazis and decided I would like to research it for my College history project. What I wrote was later published in European Judaism under the title “Dealing with the Nazis: the Ambiguity of Survival” (1986, Issue 20:2, 30-40). The first use of this uncomfortable theme which I was able to trace was a book Antisemitismus, by W. Mohrmann, published in Berlin in 1972. Mohrmann accused European Zionists of opting out by encouraging Jews to emigrate instead of taking up armed struggle against the Nazis. The book argued that if all the anti-fascist forces had taken up this struggle, the Nazis could have been defeated much earlier and the Holocaust averted. Populist pamphlets took up this argument in a less subtle and more extreme form. A Socialist Workers’ Party pamphlet, Palestine Lives!, published in London in 1981, said this: Many Zionists treated the rise of fascism as a golden opportunity to advance their own plans. They actually opposed the campaigns of some Jewish groups to pressure the countries of Western Europe and North America into accepting Jews fleeing from the Nazis. They required that Jews be directed in one way only – to Palestine. A booklet published in Moscow in the same year with the title Zionism – Enemy of Peace and Social Progress, repeated these allegations and added others: The racist essence of Zionism … is manifested in Zionists’ reducing Hitlerite racism in fact almost exclusively to anti-Semitism … Hitler and his regime were reared by German Big Business … including a number of firms belonging to Jewish capitalists…
The real historical background to all this is complicated. Writing in the wake of the Ken Livingstone news story, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz called it “a raw Zionist nerve.” Told as objectively as possible, this is what happened. In April 1933, shortly after the rise to power of the Nazis in Germany, Sam Cohen, the director of a citrus growing company in Netanya, concluded an agreement with the Nazis under which German Jews could pay funds into a specially designated bank account. German businesses were encouraged to export to Palestine, and be paid from the account: the Jews in Palestine would sell the goods, and use the proceeds to pay back the depositors when they made aliyah. It became known as the Haavarah (“transfer”) agreement, and was designed to get round Jewish boycotts of goods coming from Nazi Germany. It remained in force until war broke out in September 1939. The scheme did not remain long in Cohen’s hands. In May 1933 it was taken over by the Director of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency in Palestine, Chaim Arlosoroff. He wanted to extend the scheme to include an aliyah quota, so that more Jews could get out of Nazi Germany. He flew to Berlin to talk directly to the Nazis, but on his return he was gunned down in Tel Aviv. Members of Jabotinsky’s Irgun Zvi Leumi were suspected of carrying out the murder: they wanted, like many Jews across the world, a complete boycott of Nazi goods. The row came to public attention when the Nazi government publicly announced the agreement in time to cause dissension at the Zionist Congress held at Prague in 1934. The following year’s congress in Lucerne endorsed the agreement, and placed it officially under the Executive of the Jewish Agency. The Jewish Chronicle reported (October 19, 1934, page 14) “Germany now holds second place among the countries from which Palestine derives her imports, Great Britain being first, an ironical position that, as far as it goes, amounts to a success for anti-semitism. So important to Germany’s trade has Palestine become that the ANGRIFF, Dr Goebbels’s very anti-Semitic organ, has sent a correspondent to Palestine and published a series of articles from his pen. He speaks highly, and with exact knowledge, of the Hechalutz activities.” On December 25th 1935 the Jewish Chronicle published a leading article which was very critical of the Haavarah scheme: “we do not oppose assistance for Jewish individuals or families pining to leave Germany, but we prefer that the help should be clean. We object to the transfer of their assets in the form of the products of German factories and German employment. We say that that is aiding and comforting one of the most savage oppressions even in Jewish history. It dishonours and defiles us. It shames us in our own eyes and un-mans us. It is a blow to our pride and a shock to our morale and self-respect at a time when we are most direly in need of the strengthening of these qualities. It also disheartens us, for it breaks the united Jewish boycott front … The Boycott offered Jews the first real weapon they have ever had, thanks to the modern development of international trade. The Haavarah dashes that weapon from their hands.” Eichmann himself attempted to visit Palestine in 1937, but was expelled by the British: later, he received emissaries from Aliyah Beit in Vienna, and helped them set up a training camp. Between 1933 and 1936, more German Jews went to Palestine than to any other country, some tens of thousands in all. This shows how the Zionist movements were making huge efforts to get Jews out, at a time when the rest of the world was doing so little.
That, then, is a brief outline of the Haavarah transfer agreement. Those who escaped to Palestine had nothing but praise for the way it worked to free them. The controversy which the agreement aroused in the Jewish world at the time was largely forgotten until the anti-Zionist left began to revive it. In the UK their arguments were given a boost by the publication of Lenni Brenner’s book Zionism in the Age of the Dictators (1983), which had such choice chapter headings as “The Roots of Zionist racism”, “Spain—The Nazis Fight, the Zionists do Not” and “Zionism’s Failure to Fight Nazism in the Liberal Democracies.” Brenner ruthlessly exploited details of the history in his efforts to prove Zionism is racist at its heart, conveniently forgetting that the primary object of the deals Zionists made with the Nazis was to save Jewish lives, and that it was always controversial: many Zionists at the time were totally opposed to such deals. Ken Livingstone read the book, and has cited it in his defence.
This is the way of prejudice: what some do, is taken to be the actions of a whole group. During the 1930s, some Zionists thought deals with the Nazis were an acceptable way to save Jewish lives: no doubt there were even a few who, in ignorance of the annihillation of European Jewry which was to come, even felt that Nazism was furthering the Zionist cause. But as we have seen, many others objected even at the time. Now that Livingstone has revived the controversy, another generation of Anglo-Jews may leave the Labour Party. The essence of the problem is the pernicious belief that Zionists will always act cruelly because they believe in a racist doctrine.
DEALING WITH THE NAZIS – on this page you will find a much fuller account of events, as I wrote it back in 1986