Ken Livingstone has denied being anti-Semitic, as one of the leading members of Britain’s Jewish community said he should be a “political pariah” because of his claims that Hitler supported Zionism.
Giving evidence to a parliamentary inquiry into anti-Semitism, the former London mayor said he stood by the comments, and blamed “embittered Blairites” for forcing his suspension from the Labour Party as part of a bid to undermine leader Jeremy Corbyn.
He said he expected the review set up under Shami Chakrabarti to investigate allegations of anti-Semitism within the party to find that it involved only a “handful” of recent recruits and was not a problem “inherent” to Labour.
But the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jonathan Arkush, told the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee that Labour’s shift to the left under Corbyn had “emboldened” anti-Semites on the far left to voice their prejudices.
“The election of a leader who is associated with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, with Stop the War, with a very, very hostile position on Israel, very well-known and well-publicised, and someone who has thought it appropriate to meet here in the democratic mother of parliaments with terrorist organisations whose stated mission in life is to kill as many Christians and Jews as possible, has clearly sent the wrong sort of message to some people,” said Mr Arkush.
He added: “With the advent of a more leftwards tilt in the leadership of the Labour Party, some people feel that a space has been opened up for them, or they feel emboldened to say things which previously they felt they couldn’t say in polite society.”
Mr Arkush welcomed the establishment of the Chakrabarti review, but added: “We are concerned that the impression is being given by the leader of the Labour Party of a certain reluctance to accept these issues. The impression we have got is that every step taken has had to be wrung out of him by public pressure.”
He said he had pressed Mr Corbyn to accept that his earlier meetings with Hamas and Hezbollah had been “inappropriate” and should not be repeated, and was concerned that the Labour leader had not yet done so.
Mr Livingstone was suspended from the Labour Party in April amid a row over his remarks about Hitler, which led to a confrontation in front of TV cameras with furious Labour MP John Mann who branded him a “Nazi apologist”.
The former London mayor told the committee the allegation was a “lie” and he could have sued Mr Mann over it. He said he had been trying to calm the Bassetlaw MP because he “seemed to be on the edge of violence” and he feared Mr Mann would “take a swing” at him.
Mr Livingstone insisted he was right to say that Hitler had at one point supported Zionism as a way of “getting rid” of Jewish people from Germany. He repeatedly told the cross-party committee he had been approached in the street by Jews agreeing he was right.
In a written statement to the committee, he said: “I detest racism and condemn anti-Semitism. Indeed my political career has totally opposed any such views concerning any religious or ethnic group.”
Challenged to offer an apology for his comments, he said: “If I had said something that was untrue and caused offence, I would have apologised, but what I said was true.
“What caused offence was a group of embittered old Blairites running around lying about what I said.”
But Mr Arkush described Mr Livingstone’s comments as “plainly anti-Semitic” and “a completely false and distorted version of history” which had been debunked by reputable academics.
“To say Hitler was a Zionist was not only the most absurd thing to say, but a hateful thing to say,” he told the committee.
And HASC chairman Keith Vaz said that the committee found Mr Livingstone’s evidence “unconvincing”.
Mr Livingstone said he “absolutely” felt that his suspension was the result of MPs seeking to undermine Mr Corbyn.
“They are not out to get me – I’m a retired pensioner and I’m a house husband,” he said. “They are out to get Jeremy Corbyn and that’s why they whipped up this hysteria about anti-Semitism.”
He added: “The MPs who smeared me have been criticising Jeremy Corbyn and stabbing him in the back for the last nine months. What I find appalling about the motivation of these MPs is they are prepared to cause worry and doubt and confusion amongst our Jewish community in this country for short-term political gain.”
Labour committee member Chuka Umunna told Mr Livingstone he was an “embarrassment” to the party.
“You are not a historian, you are a politician,” said the Streatham MP.
“By needlessly and repeatedly offending Jewish people in this way, you’ve not only betrayed our Labour values, you betray your legacy as mayor, because all you are now going to be remembered for is becoming a pin-up for the kind of prejudice that our party was built to fight against.
“That’s a huge shame and it’s an embarrassment.”
Mr Livingstone said he was “acutely disappointed” to hear he would not be questioned by Ms Chakrabarti’s inquiry and urged her to call him to give evidence.