The most Israeli of all British politicians
For all the antipathy toward Ken Livingstone, some Jews may still end up voting for him come Thursday, and with their votes, and those of other Londoners, he may yet return to City Hall.
It is a good bet that the majority of London's Jews, perhaps even of its left-leaning Jews, will not be voting Thursday for Ken Livingstone, the Labor Party's candidate for mayor. There probably is not another mainstream and prominent politician active anywhere in the Western world today who has repeatedly insulted organizations and individuals in his or her local Jewish community with nearly as much blithe disregard for their feelings and self-respect as Livingstone has shown over the years.
The full list of his transgressions against Jewish sensitivities would occupy at least half this column's space, so if you are not au fait, just go online where the charge sheet is easily available. Perhaps the most recent example of his attitude is from a closed meeting with a group of Jewish Labor figures two months ago, in which he flabbergasted the participants by saying he did not expect most Jews to vote for him since votes for the left generally come from the lower-income working class anyway. He didn't exactly repeat the anti-Semitic canard of rich Jewish fat cats exploiting the workers, but it was much too close for comfort.
Despite all this, as I sat in Hampstead Town Hall, at a public meeting organized by the London Jewish Forum on Tuesday, and listened to Livingstone repeating his long litany of non-apologies, semi-retractions and lame clarifications, I found myself warming to the former - and perhaps future - mayor of London. Maybe it's my perverse contrariness, but rather than join in the indignation of many of those present, I sympathized with Livingstone's barely concealed exasperation by the end of the session at having to defend his positions on the Israeli-Arab conflict, rather than detailing his policies on bus fares in the capital.
I think the main reason I experienced a sneaking, guilty liking for Livingstone is that, ironically, he is the most Israeli of all British politicians. He is Israeli in the sense that he says what he thinks, without giving a damn for whoever may be insulted, and almost never apologizes afterward. And in the anodyne scenery of contemporary British politics, there is something refreshingly different about that.
Ah, but he doesn't insult Muslims in the same way he does Jews, you may say. And that's true, and here is the second way in which Livingstone is akin to many Israeli politicians: He is adept at shamelessly playing sectarian politics, insulting one small community with impunity while mollycoddling his much larger constituency for political gain. For every Jew in London there are roughly four Muslims, and they are much more likely to vote for him anyway.
For all his offensive remarks, Livingstone is not an anti-Semite. He twice appointed Nicky Gavron, a Jewish member of the city council (called the London Assembly ), as his deputy mayor. And during his two terms as mayor, Livingstone cooperated well with Jewish organizations, addressing many of their specific concerns. What he is is a rude, insensitive politician who is canny enough to hold his tongue when addressing the sections of London's electorate he needs in order to win.
Is that such a bad thing? After all, his adversary, London Mayor Boris Johnson, has done quite a lot to offend other sectors of the British public, but the Jewish community feels much warmer to him because they were never on the receiving end of his condescending wit.
The first time I saw Livingstone up close was at a press conference in London in 2005, the day after the 7/7 bombings in the city. He said the attacks were "not religious and not Muslim," and at the time I thought it was a very defeatist and dogmatic thing to say. You could certainly argue that the young men who carried out the bombings did not represent all Muslims or Islam itself, but they were certainly religiously motivated and inspired by a particular version of Islam to kill themselves and 52 others.
But in retrospect, the way the city reacted to the attacks - with very little anti-Muslim violence or even recrimination - was admirable, and Livingstone, as the mayor at the time, deserves part of the credit for instilling the feeling that everyone was in this together. But the sensitive handling of that crisis only highlights the way he has callously insulted not only Jews, but also other groups of Londoners who are not his natural Labor constituents. A leader of a great city has to be a unifying figure. And upon reflection, I am rather ashamed for taking a liking to a politician just because he is fun and provides good copy for news stories.
At the meeting on Tuesday, Livingstone admonished one questioner who asked why he can't just concentrate on transportation and housing instead of talking about Middle Eastern politics. "Whenever I meet Jewish people, they ask me about Israel," he responded. "In all the meetings I have with Muslim voters, no one asked me about Israel and Palestine, only about bus fares."
Superficially, it may seem like a fair point but it is tantamount to telling Jews what they can and can't ask about. Not all Jews are interested in Israel; many Jews feel that their coreligionists are overly obsessed with Israel, but that's their democratic right. Livingstone also has a right to say whatever he thinks about Israel, and he has exercised it repeatedly over the years, in ways that have dismayed most Jews, on the right and the left. It is a bit rich for him to think that as a candidate for mayor, he should be asked only about buses and council houses.
There is, though, a cautionary tale here for Jewish leaders and opinion makers. While it is necessary to be vigilant against anti-Semitism and legitimate to lobby for Israel in every political arena, more care should be exercised in choosing battles. For all the antipathy toward Ken Livingstone, some Jews may still end up voting for him come Thursday, and with their votes, and those of other Londoners, he may yet return to City Hall.