WeeklyWorker

16.06.2016
Ben Chacko: faulty editorialising

Blundering ineptitude

There are furious objections to the Morning Star giving Ken Livingstone a regular column. Peter Manson reports

Ken Livingstone, of course, is still suspended from the Labour Party as part of the campaign to undermine the Jeremy Corbyn leadership through false accusations of ‘anti-Semitism’. As readers will know, Livingstone’s crime was to state that Adolf Hitler had supported Zionism “before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”. This clumsily phrased statement, made off the cuff during a radio interview, was not entirely accurate, but it cannot be described as anti-Semitic by any rational person. The former mayor of London was referring to the cooperation between the Nazis and Zionists in encouraging German Jews to emigrate to Palestine.

Last month Liz Davies and Sue Lukes stated in a Star article that Livingstone’s remarks were equivalent to “blaming victims for their fate”, which they said was “another form of racism” (May 27). How can the claim that Hitler “was supporting Zionism” imply that it was therefore the Jews’ own fault that Hitler later slaughtered them in Nazi death camps? This nonsense was published even though the authors had had exactly a month to consider their reaction to Livingstone’s remark, made on April 27.

The following day, the Star editorial blunderingly attempted to put matters right. “[T]o wade into a row over anti-Semitism and compare Zionists to Nazis was a serious misjudgement and could have been predicted to whip up the storm now battering the Labour Party”. Of course, Livingstone was rightly defending those under attack from an orchestrated witch-hunt. That was not a “serious misjudgement”, but an elementary principle. If there is a “serious misjudgement”, then it is that of Star editor Ben Chacko. Moreover, Livingstone did not “compare” Zionists to Nazis in the sense of putting an equals sign between them. Nor did he “whip up the storm now battering the Labour Party.” That is indeed an inexcusable case of blaming the victim. However, thankfully the editorial did at least make clear that “Livingstone was attacking the political ideology of Zionism, not Jewish people” (April 28).

Clearly then, the Morning Star’s initial coverage of the Livingstone incident and his subsequent suspension was confused, to say the least. Regular columnist Solomon Hughes actually dubbed Livingstone’s remarks anti-Semitic and I recall a news item that referred to his suspension “for anti-Semitism” (without so much as an ‘alleged’). However, both Hughes’s original article and that report now seem to have been removed from the Star website.

On May 2, another regular columnist, Charley Allan, agreed that Livingstone’s remark was not anti-Jewish, but noted: “there are some things you simply can’t mention in modern politics”. Amongst such “taboo” statements, he said, is “drawing attention to the fact that some Nazis made deals with some German Zionists in the 1930s to move Jews to Palestine”.

However, in the same issue, Chelley Ryan commented: “If anyone, particularly anyone Jewish, was offended by Ken’s comments, I take that seriously, and am glad Jeremy acted swiftly to suspend him.” What? She was pleased that Corbyn bowed before the rightwing campaign alleging that Labour is stuffed full of anti-Semites, on the basis that some - unreasonable - people might be “offended”?

And Hughes himself, while moderating his earlier condemnation, nevertheless commented:

Cheap remarks like Ken’s look just like the ‘Swastika = Star of David’ posters: the person holding the poster might think they are pointing to some Israeli hypocrisy, but to the crowd it just looks like they are belittling the holocaust - or, worse, celebrating it.

Calling for a just settlement for Palestinian people is very important, and most emphatically not anti-Semitic. But carelessly talking about “existence” is a very bad idea, when the Nazis really did try and stop Jewish people existing at all. We should be calling for the creation of something better in the Middle East, not for “destruction” (May 6).

 

Hughes was clearly referring to the “existence” and “destruction” of the state of Israel, not of Jews - in his mind the two are synonymous, it seems.

Reaction

While Hughes is obviously a left Zionist, how should one describe Mary Davis, a former national chair of the Star’s Communist Party of Britain? On June 8 the paper published her letter protesting against “the decision to give Ken Livingstone a regular column”.

Davis described this as “a very impolitic move … in view of Livingstone’s suspension from the Labour Party and Shami Chakrabarti’s inquiry into anti-Semitism” - so she thinks the setting up of an inquiry into an imaginary problem was a good move, does she? Making a pointed reference to the Star’s “alleged opposition to anti-Semitism” (my emphasis), she claimed the decision “to offer Livingstone this lifeline” was “hugely embarrassing”. In other words, Ken deserves to be thrown to the dogs.

After all,

Livingstone has not been a friend of this paper in the past. He and the group supporting him did not support former Star editor John Haylett when he was wrongly sacked and furthermore he has a chequered history of making injudicious comments bordering on the anti-Semitic.

 

Presumably, she was referring to a comment also brought up by another letter-writer, Phil Katz, who stated: “It was wrong to castigate even the most reactionary and crappy reporter as a ‘concentration camp guard’ just because one thinks he is Jewish” (May 13). Once again I am left puzzled as to why throwing such an insult at someone, however crude and exaggerated, should be considered “bordering on the anti-Semitic” if that person happens to be Jewish.

Only the likes of comrade Katz know why. He complains: “Until now, the Star ... was the only newspaper that never let the anti-racist movement down. Sadly, now there is a column I won’t read.” He also raises all sorts of failings on Livingstone’s part, including that he “supported the illegal Nato intervention in the Balkans and the mass bombing of Serbia”.

Yes, that gives strong grounds for criticism, but right now Livingstone is amongst those targeted by the rightwing witch-hunt and in such circumstances the Star decision to make its opposition to that absolutely clear by offering him a column should be applauded. As John Haylett himself wrote in a letter published on June 9, “We have to be aware that the current furore about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party has been largely confected as a device to undermine Jeremy Corbyn and demean his record of supporting Palestinian national rights.”

Absolutely correct - instead of sanctioning the inquiry, Corbyn should have insisted that the allegations against Livingstone, not to mention Naz Shah, Jackie Walker, Tony Greenstein et al, were blatantly false.

While a subsequent letter - from Brian Precious - calls the Star decision “typically brave and principled” and asks, “Are those sections of the media pointing the finger at Ken the same ones who ridiculed the way the Greater London Council bent over backwards to challenge racism under Ken Livingstone’s leadership?” (May 15), comrade Haylett concludes his own letter by stating: “Having, as political editor, discussed the issue with our editor, Ben Chacko, I support his decision to give Ken a regular column.”

What he means is that the old hand has helped to put his young and inexperienced successor on the straight and narrow - ‘Make sure that from now on the paper comes over clearly and consistently against the witch-hunt, Ben, and show everyone what we think of the allegations against Ken.’

And CPB general secretary Rob Griffiths has made his own position clear by circulating on Facebook a statement from the Jewish Socialists Group, which reads in part:

Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are not the same. Zionism is a political ideology which has always been contested within Jewish life since it emerged in 1897, and it is entirely legitimate for non-Jews as well as Jews to express opinions about it, whether positive or negative. Not all Jews are Zionists. Not all Zionists are Jews.

Accusations of anti-Semitism are currently being weaponised to attack the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour party with claims that Labour has a “problem” of anti-Semitism ….

We stand against anti-Semitism, against racism and fascism and in support of refugees. We stand for free speech and open debate on Israel, Palestine and Zionism.1

 

Despite this, the Star’s coverage of Ken Livingstone’s suspension has been confused and inconsistent. And unfortunately its position on imperialist intervention on Syria is equally stupid, weak and blundering. Last week a Morning Star editorial, headed ‘Tide turning against Isis’, said this:

Only after Moscow directed the Russian airforce to back the Syrian government last year ... did the US government authorise similar attacks. As welcome as US aerial involvement has been, especially in support of [the Kurdish-led Syria Democratic Forces] along the Turkish border, Washington’s hostility to president Bashar al-Assad still trumps its desire to see Isis and the al Qa’eda-affiliated Nusra Front defeated” (my emphasis, June 7).

 

Perhaps the Morning Star’s editor is retrospectively siding with Hilary Benn, not Jeremy Corbyn, over support for the RAF joining US airstrikes in Syria.

Nowadays strange things are happening at William Rust House, London E3.

peter.manson@weeklyworker.co.uk

Notes

1. www.jewishsocialist.org.uk/news/item/statement-on-labours-problem-with-antisemitism-from-the-jewish-socialists-g.