Ken Livingstone and the history of Zionism: A reply to Jane Caplan

Here is a letter from Jane Caplan that was published in Saturday’s Guardian:

It is not as a Jewish Labour party member but as a historian that I am offended by Ken Livingstone’s views on Hitler and Zionism. Livingstone has a feeble grasp of this history and his repeated claims to be merely speaking the historical truth compound his original error.

To claim that Hitler “was supporting Zionism” travesties the fact that Zionists aspired to create a Jewish state in Palestine, while Hitler was committed only to achieving the wholesale removal of Jews from Germany. Some German Zionists were prepared to negotiate with the Nazis in pursuit of their objective, but Hitler’s own interest in Palestine was purely opportunistic.

Nazi thinking was based on the premise that a resettled German-Jewish population in Palestine would remain under the firm rule of the colonial power, Britain. In this vision, German Jews in Palestine, far from achieving the statehood to which Zionists aspired, would live in a kind of controlled reservation policed by the British.

To the extent that a Jewish state nevertheless seemed likely to emerge in time and threaten to provide a new basis for the global “Jewish conspiracy”, Hitler’s interest in a “Palestinian solution” cooled. Why these simple facts escape Livingstone and his defenders is beyond me.

Jane Caplan
Professor emeritus of modern European history, University of Oxford

Here is my letter in reply (which perhaps predictably has not been published):

For someone who holds the position of professor emeritus of modern European history at the University of Oxford, Jane Caplan (Letters, 8 April) shows a surprising ignorance of the history of Zionism.

She tells us that in the 1930s “Zionists aspired to create a Jewish state in Palestine”. But it wasn’t until the Biltmore conference in 1942 that the Zionist movement formally adopted this aim. Before that, the official Zionist policy was for a Jewish national home in Palestine under the British Mandate, in line with the Balfour Declaration. It was this policy that the Nazi regime actively supported.

Professor Caplan is also mistaken in stating that when a Jewish state seemed likely to emerge, Hitler’s support for Zionism “cooled”. In 1937, when the Peel Commission recommended the partition of Mandatory Palestine between Jews and Arabs, some leading Nazis did fear this would open the door to an independent Jewish state and argued that support for Jewish migration to Palestine should be reconsidered. But Hitler intervened to ensure that the existing policy was maintained.

Before lecturing Ken Livingstone on his “feeble grasp” of the history of Nazi-Zionist relations, Jane Caplan would be advised to put her own house in order.

Originally posted on Facebook in April 2017