Scribblings: The Livingstone Formulation Lives

Tzvi Fleischer

Imagine if someone said the “Global Jewish Conspiracy” had been conspiring to take over the world through their control of politicians and the media, and of course using their money and power over banking to dominate the global economy. Moreover, they added, the Global Jewish Conspiracy had been scheming and planning to gain global domination for hundreds of years, maybe even thousands, and was responsible for both world wars. Furthermore, that Holocaust thing, the Global Jewish Conspiracy just made that up to add to their power.

You wouldn’t have too much trouble coming to the conclusion that the person espousing this point of view was antisemitic, would you?

All right, now imagine that the same person said exactly the same thing, but substituted in the word “Zionists” for the words “Global Jewish Conspiracy.” Would it make any difference?

It shouldn’t. Looking at the context it is clear that the individual in question was not making a statement about Israel, or the Palestinians. They were simply using “Zionists” as a new codeword for “Global Jewish Conspiracy”. After all, Zionism didn’t even develop until the 1880s – how could “Zionists” have been plotting to take over the world for hundreds of years?

In Middle Eastern comments about “Zionism”, it is often very clear that this is the use of the word being employed. Some of the most blatant examples come from the Iranian regime.

In early August, speaking to Arab Ambassadors, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered a classic example, according to a translation provided by Iran’s official news agency, IRNA:

It has now been some 400 years that a horrendous Zionist clan has been ruling the major world affairs, and behind the scenes of the major power circles, in political, media, monetary, and banking organisations in the world, they have been the decision makers… Zionism is the modern times plight of the human society… The Zionist regime is both the symbol of the hegemony of the Zionism over the world and the means in the hand of the oppressor powers for expansion of their hegemony in the region and in the world.

A few weeks later, the “Zionist” quest for world domination was pushed even further back. At al-Quds day celebrations, Ahmadinejad stated, again according to IRNA:

Zionists, who think solely of power, wealth and dominance over others, have been inflicting very heavy damage and suffering on the whole humanity for over two thousand years especially during the past four centuries. Saying that the two world wars were designed by Zionists and carried out by the US to retain dominance on other countries, the president further noted that Zionists have been administrating affairs in the US since the very beginning of its establishment.

Nor is this exclusively an Iranian problem. Adnan Azzam, a pro-regime Syrian-born writer who has lived in France for 20 years, told Syria’s al-Dunya TV in August that not only were the “Zionists” behind the uprising in Syria, but they have been plotting world domination since they took over the French Revolution, beheaded the King, and recruited Napoleon Bonaparte and “sent him to Egypt in order to lay the foundations for the State of Palestine.”

Similarly, the Hamas Charter says the “enemy” (also identified as “Zionist scheming”) controls the media and banking, is responsible for the French and Russian revolutions, and plans to conquer all of the Middle East (it does also use the word Jews in other spots.)

And even in West anti-Zionist circles, similar conspiracy theories about the supposedly all-powerful “Zionist lobby”, clearly rooted in traditional antisemitic tropes, are becoming common-place, if usually more carefully phrased.

For instance, in 2006, British peer Baroness Tonge said ‘The pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the Western world; its financial grips.”

Relevant here is something called the “Livingstone Formulation”, named after former London Mayor Ken Livingstone. In 2005, Livingstone had an argument with a Jewish journalist from the Evening Standard about a city hall party, and asked the reporter if he had previously been a “German war criminal”. When the reporter said he was Jewish and offended by the suggestion, Livingstone again insisted he was behaving like a “German war criminal”. When this kerfuffle became public, Livingstone not only refused to apologise, but wrote an article attacking then-Israeli PM Ariel Sharon containing the phrase “For far too long the accusation of antisemitism has been used against anyone who is critical of the policies of the Israeli government, as I have been.” Livingstone’s formulation is to complain that Zionists cry “antisemitism” when people criticise Israel. But what was in fact happening was that, following an incident of insensitivity to Jews completely unrelated to Israel, Livingstone was crying “Israel” when being accused of antisemitism.

It has become a standard response among anti-Israel extremists. For instance, Baroness Tonge used the Livingstone formulation in responding to critics of her “financial grips” statement, saying “I am sick of being accused of anti-Semitism when what I am doing is criticising Israel and the state of Israel.”

Unfortunately, both in the West and in the Middle East, the Livingstone Formulation, shallow and transparent as it is, often works. People are quick to adopt the logical fallacy that just because criticism of Israel or Zionism is not necessarily antisemitic, it is therefore necessarily not antisemitic. But using the word Zionism in place of “Global Jewish Conspiracy”, or inserting the word “Israel” somewhere in a rant about inordinate Jewish power is no inoculation against antisemitism, neither for Ahmadinejad nor amongst anti-Israel activists in Britain or Australia. It is just sad that such an obvious truth needs to be articulated.