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Tuesday, March 29, 2005
The Lord Mayor of London's Anti-Semitism Troubles

The Lord Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has been in hot water a few times in the last couple of months over accusations of antisemitism. Actually, to back up, the entire Labour party's been looking bad in this department, as you can see from the range of things that Tony Blair denies in this newspaper Q&A:
Q: Why is your campaign so disgracefully anti-Semitic, depicting Mr Howard as Fagin and Shylock, flying pigs, and a mongrel, and Ken Livingstone's verbal abuse of a Jewish reporter as a concentration camp guard?

Christine Warren, Rickinghall (by email:

A: There has been absolutely nothing anti-Semitic about our campaign. You can hardly get a more widely used expression than pigs may fly. Surely you are not suggesting everyone who uses it is anti-Semitic. The other poster you are referring actually showed Michael Howard as a hypnotist, like the one on the Little Britain TV show. You may not think it is very good or very funny but it was nothing to do with Fagin or Shylock. And both posters, by the way, were never adopted by our party. As for Ken Livingstone, he can speak for himself but his remarks are not part of our campaign at all. It may well be that what he said was unwise and, you may think, offensive but I think even the paper they were aimed at has admitted they were not anti-Semitic.
Getting down to specifics, Livingstone had a run-in with Evening Standard reporter Oliver Finegold at a party (celebrating the 20th anniversary of the coming-out of the first openly gay MP, as it turns out.) Their conversation went like this:

Oliver Finegold: Mr Livingstone, Evening Standard. How did tonight go?

Livingstone: How awful for you. Have you thought of having treatment?

Finegold: How did tonight go?

Livingstone: Have you thought of having treatment?

Finegold: Was it a good party? What does it mean for you?

Livingstone: What did you do before? Were you a German war criminal?

Finegold: No, I'm Jewish, I wasn't a German war criminal and I'm actually quite offended by that. So, how did tonight go?

Livingstone: Ah right, well you might be [Jewish], but actually you are just like a concentration camp guard, you are just doing it because you are paid to, aren't you?

Finegold: Great, I have you on record for that. So, how was tonight?

Livingstone: It's nothing to do you with you because your paper is a load of scumbags and reactionary bigots.

Finegold: I'm a journalist and I'm doing my job. I'm only asking for a comment.

Livingstone: Well, work for a paper that doesn't have a record of supporting facism.

Livingstone then walked off.

Oh boy...(likely) drunk politician at a party says some obnoxious stuff. Does he apologize later? He does not. He digs in his heels. Weeks pass.

On March 2, Henry Grunwald,
president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, had this column in the Guardian:
The media storm created by Ken Livingstone's remarks to the London Evening Standard reporter Oliver Finegold finally seems to be abating. I empathise with those who feel that it is time to "move on". However for me, as the elected leader of the British Jewish community, moving on is not that simple. I wish it were.

The subsequent column inches have obscured the nature of the original remarks. It is worth remembering exactly what happened. After a reporter clearly identified himself as Jewish, the mayor responded with a remark deliberately calibrated to cause maximum pain and offence.

Ken has stubbornly refused to apologise for the hurt he caused, despite being called upon to do so by just about everybody in public life. This has highlighted the almost total lack of accountability of the elected mayor to the London assembly. If we are to move on, then Ken must also move on, beyond what seems to be a blind spot in his dealings with the Jewish community.

Ken is sincere when he states that he regards the Holocaust as the worst crime of the last century. Using the Holocaust as a moral reference point can be a force for good, but the mayor's record in this regard is lamentable. His Holocaust comparisons are premised upon his own political prejudices, rather than any objective study of human suffering and deliberate industrialised mass murder.

He has used them as reference points not just for Daily Mail group journalists, but also for international capitalism, Britain's record in Ireland and, in 1987, Camden council's housing policy for homosexuals. On this occasion he went one step further. By employing Holocaust imagery to address an insult to somebody who identified himself as a Jew, the mayor overstepped the bounds of acceptable behaviour for an elected official. That is the core of our complaint.

The hurt was compounded by his subsequent refusals to apologise for the offence and furore that inevitably followed. What is the option for the Jewish community - to remain silent when the Holocaust is trivialised before the last survivors are even dead?

We are repeatedly told that Ken is a steadfast opponent of anti-semitism. He certainly hates the swastika and jackboots variety, because that fits his world-view. But the sad truth is that there are other, more modern variants that he simply ignores.

His recent mayoral submission to the House of Commons home affairs select committee inquiry into terrorism and community relations mentions many forms of prejudice but makes no reference to anti-semitism - despite two previous Jewish communal appeals to him regarding the wave of anti-semitic violence and terrorism that Jews worldwide have endured since 2000. Similarly, the mayor has made no mention of this month's statistics that showed that the British Jewish community suffered a 41% escalation in anti-semitic incidents during 2004. Is this another example of the mayoral blind spot.

Livingstone's reply in the Guardian two days later included this passage:

No serious commentator has argued that my comments to an Evening Standard reporter outside City Hall last month were anti-semitic. So I am glad that Henry Grunwald, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, accepted on these pages that "Ken is sincere when he states that he regards the Holocaust as the worst crime of the last century".

The contribution of Jewish people to human civilisation and culture is unexcelled and extraordinary. You only have to think of giants such as Einstein, Freud and Marx to realise that human civilisation would be unrecognisably diminished without the achievements of the Jewish people. The same goes for the Jewish contribution to London today.

It's funny to think about the changing standards for offensiveness. In the 1960s, a lot of white people's talk about blacks was at this level -- why, George Washington Carver brought us peanut butter! Surely we must respect the entire race for this reason alone! (Also, I love the absolutely textbook "no serious commentator..."at the beginning. Oh, and -- Marx? Thanks a bundle, pal. That's sure to calm everyone down.) Anyway, thankfully Jews are smart and useful, which is why anti-Semitism is wrong.

Livingstone continues:

As mayor, I have pressed for police action over anti-semitic attacks at the highest level, and my administration has backed a series of initiatives of importance to the Jewish community, including hosting the Anne Frank exhibition at City Hall and measures to ensure the go-ahead for the north London eruv.

Throughout the 1970s, I worked happily with the Board of Deputies in campaigns against the National Front. Problems began when, as leader of the Greater London Council, I rejected the board's request that I should fund only Jewish organisations that it approved of. The Board of Deputies was unhappy that I funded Jewish organisations campaigning for gay rights and others that disagreed with policies of the Israeli governmen.

Relations with the board took a dramatic turn for the worse when I opposed Israel's illegal invasion of Lebanon, culminating in the massacres at the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila. The board also opposed my involvement in the successful campaign in 1982 to convince the Labour party to recognise the PLO as the legitimate voice of the Palestinian people.

The fundamental issue on which we differ, as Henry Grunwald knows, is not anti-semitism - which my administration has fought tooth and nail - but the policies of successive Israeli governments.

To avoid manufactured misunderstandings, the policies of Israeli governments are not analogous to Nazism. They do not aim at the systematic extermination of the Palestinian people, in the way Nazism sought the annihilation of the Jews.

Israel's expansion has included ethnic cleansing. Palestinians who had lived in that land for centuries were driven out by systematic violence and terror aimed at ethnically cleansing what became a large part of the Israeli state. The methods of groups like the Irgun and the Stern gang were the same as those of the Bosnian Serb leader Karadzic: to drive out people by terror.

There then follows some more specifically anti-Sharon stuff. So: no apology for the concentration camp guard thing, and Israel is wrong.

Followup letters to the Guardian are here; a column the next week from the Israeli ambassador to the UK, here. The whole thing's about a month old, but I hadn't heard of it. Brian Leiter posted a link to Livingstone's column, without comment; I thought it bore further examination.

[Disclaimer: the English people took in thousands of Jewish children during the war, including my father; he brought us back there to live for a few years in the early 1970s. If you care to read about the American School in London's surprising run-in with the Minister for Education, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, see here. I'm no Anglophobe.]

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