In February 2005, Ken Livingstone, then the mayor of London, became involved in an apparently trivial late night argument with a reporter after a party at City Hall. Oliver Finegold asked him how the party had been. Livingstone was angry because he felt Finegold was intruding. There was a little banter to and fro, in which the reporter said that he was only trying to do his job. Livingstone fixed on that phrase and retorted by asking him whether he had previously been a ‘German war criminal’. Finegold replied that he hadn’t, and that he was Jewish, and that he was offended by the suggestion. Livingstone went on to insist that Finegold was behaving just like a ‘German war criminal’, that his newspaper, The Standard, ‘was a load of scumbags and reactionary bigots’ and that it had a record of supporting Fascism (Transcript 2006).
Instead of apologizing for his comments in the sober light of day Livingstone treated the publication of this exchange as a political opportunity rather than a gaffe. He wrote an article criticizing Ariel Sharon, then the Prime Minister of Israel. In that article he responded to charges of antisemitism which had been made in relation to the Finegold affair with the following words:
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 2006).
This is the Livingstone Formulation. It is a response to a charge of antisemitism. It is a rhetorical device which enables the user to refuse to engage with the charge made. It is a mirror which bounces back onto an accuser of antisemitism a counter-charge of dishonest Jewish (or ‘Zionist’) conspiracy.
The Livingstone Formulation conflates everything, criticism of Israel but also other things which do not seem to be so legitimate, such as repeatedly insulting a Jewish reporter by comparing him to a Nazi, into the category of legitimate criticism of Israel. The Livingstone Formulation does not simply accuse people who raise the issue of antisemitism of being wrong, it accuses them of being wrong on purpose: ‘the accusation of antisemitism has been used against anyone who is critical…’ [my italics]. Not an honest mistake, but a secret, common plan to try to de-legitimize criticism by means of the instrumental use of a charge of antisemitism; crying wolf; playing the antisemitism card. This is an allegation of malicious intent made against the (unspecified) people who raise concerns about antisemitism. It is not possible to ‘use’ ‘the accusation of antisemitism’ in order to delegitimize criticism of Israel, without dishonest intent; the accusation is an accusation of bad faith.
But read it all.