LONDON – Two-term former London mayor, Ken Livingstone, has always made a point of using the city's public transport to get around Britain's capital. On Tuesday morning, he took the elevator from the platform of Belsize Park Underground station up to street-level. For a couple of seconds, it seemed to stop in mid-ascent. "Maybe we'll get stuck" he said to an aide, with a faint glimmer of hope in his eyes. The elevator began moving again, taking him and his team to a public meeting with a group of Jewish voters.
Livingstone, now in opposition, will be competing for the fourth time, next Thursday, for the Mayor's office, trying to unseat incumbent Boris Johnson. In the long campaign, Livingstone's uneasy relationship with London's Jewish community has come to the fore, bringing in to question his sensitivity towards minority groups and his views on Israel have diverted attention from his policies on transport and housing. His appearance this week at an event organized by the London Jewish Forum, was officially a meeting like two previous ones held between Jewish voters and the other main candidates, but in reality it was a last chance attempt to patch things up between the community and the past and perhaps future mayor.
Nearly two months ago, a previous, closed meeting, between Livingstone and leading Jewish members of the Labor party ended acrimoniously after he had seemed to be saying that Jews would not vote for him because they are generally wealthy and therefore not inclined to vote Labor. Livingstone enraged his listeners when he failed to recognize the fact that Jews are a people, not just a religion or an ethnicity and seemed to be mixing up "Jews," "Israelis" and "Zionists." In addition, he refused to apologize for previous statements in which he had justified Palestinian suicide-bombers, accused a Jewish reporter of behaving like "a concentration camp guard," calling upon two Indian-born Jewish businessmen to "go back to Iran," a slur which he since exacerbated by becoming a presenter on the Iranian government-owned news channel Press TV.
The meeting and Livingstone's intransigence lead to an angry letter by Jewish Laborites to the party leader Ed Miliband, questioning whether they could continue to call on London's Jews to vote for the party's candidate. In an attempt to diffuse the row, the party leadership and Jewish representatives jointly drafted a letter with Livingstone in which he partially retracted some of the things he stated. But the letter, published in the Jewish Chronicle, seemed to have done little to change the hostile atmosphere.
On Tuesday he was back in the fray and making an effort to, as he wrote in the letter "to move on from the 'Ken and the Jews' dramas." One of his advisors said anxiously during the mingling period before the meeting, "I hope Ken doesn't think without thinking."
The chairman of the London Jewish Forum, Adrian Cohen, offered a friendly introduction reminding the hundred-strong gathering of Ken (no-one in London calls him Mr Livingstone) had cooperated well with the community during his eight years as mayor and ended with a request to conduct the proceedings with "decorum."
Livingstone kicked off with a commitment to be "focused on the here and now, the future not the past," and launched into an attack on the Conservative government and its fiscal policies; saying that a victory for Boris Johnson next Thursday "would serve as a green light for the Tories that they carry on with their policies." He continued to lambast the current administration's record on housing and transport. With regard to the Jewish community he promised to address their "specific issues" on subjects such as care for the elderly, kashrut and a specific commitment to assist Jewish burial services by providing a 24-hour service to issue burial certificates.
He acknowledged that in the matter of terrorism, "Jews face additional threats, especially after Toulouse" and promised to work with the community on security. This lead to a reference to his attitude, often criticized for being over-friendly, towards Islam. "As an atheist who drinks 2000 glasses of wine a year," he said, "I am against Islamophobia because Muslims have been demonized by the worst parts of the British media, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, just like the Daily Mail described Jewish immigrants in 1906. I will not favor one community over another." He said that his mayoral endorsement of Jewish cultural events had "not been only for Jews, but that so others can come and learn."
Following his statement came a long question and answer's session which began friendly on issues of housing and transport but quickly became tense when he was asked whether he would once again welcome Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian Islamic theologian who had approved of suicide bombing attacks against Israeli civilians, to London City Hall as he had as mayor in 2004.
This is where Livingstone became evasive. Instead of answering the question he quipped that "we won't let him drive the 210 bus." He said since Qaradawi had been banned by the Home Office from visiting Britain and that he was 89, another visit to London by the Sheikh was "unlikely" and avoided a subsequent question asking him to repudiate Qaradawi saying that he had not been aware of all his views before meeting him and that "I don't agree with him on suicide bombings but I did agree when he said that British Muslims should not use violence." In an indirect way, he withdrew from his previous support for Palestinian suicide bombing saying that "I am not in favor of anyone killing anyone," and "I am against Muslims attacking their wives, Jews, homosexuals," but continued to defend other previous statements.
"I have been rude to many journalists," he said when defending himself for calling a Jewish reporter a "concentration camp guard," but insisted that the reporter had been "pursuing me." Rudeness was also his excuse for the "go back to Iran" remark. He reminded the audience that he had said it in the context of a bidding competition over a building contract, in which he had favored another company, also owned by a Jewish developer.
By now the questions were coming fast. When asked about last month's meeting he tried to place part of the blame on his interlocutors saying that "none of us went in listening. We stayed with the same conceptions." He tried to clarify what he had said about Israel saying that – "anti-Semitism is a crime, anti-Zionism is a debate" and that he was in favor of a two-state solution though he has "been very pessimistic about peace since Rabin's assassination." He did mention though that he had interviewed Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in 2009 for the New Statesman and said that "behind all the rhetoric there is a recognition of the need for a political solution."
Livingstone was indeed unapologetic of his extracurricular journalistic activities excusing himself of accepting Iranian money for his work on Press TV. "I loathe the Iranians" he said. "If I was Iranian I would be dead by now, they rounded up people like me. But if someone allows me to speak uncensored to the Iranian people, I do so."
Neither was he prepared to back down from his opinions on the Jewish voting patterns denying that he had said Jews in London were rich but repeating that "a major factor of how people vote is income. I don't expect Jews to vote as a block."
"Ken doesn't do apologies or repentance," said one slightly exasperated Labor politician at the meeting. "You have to admire him for coming here," said a leader of a Jewish organization, "but he convinced no-one and I don't think anyone expected to be convinced."
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