The row over anti-Semitism in British politics took another sharp turn this week following the revelation that the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, had chaired a meeting with a Jewish Holocaust survivor who had compared the policies of Israel to the Nazis. Outrage led by the right-wing media forced the Labour leader to apologise. Corbyn acknowledged that he had appeared with people whose views he completely rejects, referring to the meeting he hosted as a backbench MP in 2010.
However, the main speaker at the event — Never Again for Anyone: Auschwitz to Gaza — was Hajo Meyer, a Jewish survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. He repeatedly compared Israeli action in Gaza to the mass killing of Jews by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Meyer passed away in 2014. He was a physicist whose experience as a young man surviving the genocidal policies of the Nazis, he would say later, turned him into a pro-Palestine activist. People who knew him said that he had spent the last two decades of his life campaigning to end the Israeli occupation, and the racist dehumanisation of the Palestinians.
The same people described Meyer as a kind man who had connected his own experiences with those of the people of Palestine. He himself said that the experiences of those who went through the Holocaust had been misappropriated to justify the ethnic cleansing and subsequent torments of the Palestinians. The Holocaust survivor saw parallels between fascist ideology and the racist ideology of the far right religious settlers. He was apparently “pained by the parallels I observe between my experiences in Germany prior to 1939 and those suffered by Palestinians today.”
Under the cloud of the latest scandal to hit the Labour Party, acquaintances of Meyer have insisted that someone who had survived the Nazi persecution has earned the right to draw connections between his own experiences and those of the Palestinians. It perhaps speaks volumes about the current debate about anti-Semitism that this would be denied.
Supporters of Corbyn have been quick to point this out on social media, making comparisons between Meyer’s comments and those of the late Sir Gerald Kaufman MP. Kaufman was “Father of the House”, the longest-serving member on the green benches, having entered parliament in 1970. He often described his journey from being a supporter of Israel to a strong critic by pointing out that he grew up as a supporter of the state: “I was brought up as a Zionist. I went to Israel again and again on holiday.” His infatuation quickly gave way to a disgust that grew deeper with every Israeli transgression.
Perhaps his most controversial remarks came in 2009, during that year’s Israeli military offensive against the people of Gaza, when Kaufmann, like Meyer, compared Israeli policies to those of the Nazis. Speaking in the House of Commons, he said: “My grandmother was ill in bed when the Nazis came to her home town of Staszow. A German soldier shot her dead in her bed. My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza.”
Kaufman went on to say that Israel’s claim that many of the Palestinians killed in Gaza were Hamas militants “was the reply of the Nazi. I suppose that the Jews fighting for their lives in the Warsaw ghetto could [also] have been dismissed as militants.”
Before calling on the British government to impose a total arms ban on Israel, Kaufman pointed out that Israel was born out of Jewish terrorism. “Jewish terrorists hanged two British sergeants and booby-trapped their corpses. Irgun, together with the terrorist Stern Gang, massacred 254 Palestinians in 1948 in the village of Deir Yassin.”
Corbyn’s supporters have noted that under the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) examples of potential anti-Semitism, which are at the bottom of the latest controversy, Kaufman’s speech would have got him expelled from the party. “We members will not accept the 4 examples that prevents criticism of the Israeli government’s apartheid, racism, illegal occupation and breach of international law,” one Labour supporter tweeted.
Others took to twitter to share the video of Kaufmann denouncing Israel in front of MPs, while repeating concerns over the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism: “Being anti-Israel is not the same thing as being anti-Semitic. Here is the late Gerald Kaufman, a Jewish MP, comparing Israel to Nazis in 2009.” Another Labour member asked if MPs should also be reprimanded in the same manner as Corbyn has been, given that Kaufman made his remarks in the Commons chamber.
Mehdi Hassan is also a strong critic of Israel. “As I’ve said before,” he wrote, “personally I think comparing Israel to the Nazis is wrong/inaccurate/insensitive but it isn’t anti-Semitic otherwise is Meyer an anti-Semite? Was the late Sir Gerald Kaufman?”
The Al Jazeera journalist also tweeted his opposition to the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism by reminding everyone that prominent Israelis and Jews have compared Israel to the Nazis, including Avraham Shalom, the ex-head of the Shin Bet domestic security agency, members of the Israeli government and army officers. “[We’ve become] a brutal occupation force similar to the Germans in World War II,” Shalom said in the 2012 documentary The Gatekeepers.
Although he later backpedalled on his statement, in 2016, Major General Yair Golan, the then deputy chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces, said: “If there is one thing that frightens me about the memory of the Holocaust, it is identifying the revolting trends that occurred… in Germany… and finding evidence of those trends here, among us, in 2016.”
One-time Israeli Justice Minister, the late Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, is reported to have stunned Cabinet colleagues by saying that a picture of an elderly Palestinian woman searching through rubble reminded him of his grandmother who died in Auschwitz.