LONDON - The Labour party's candidate for the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has been forced to apologize for controversial remarks he made earlier this month in a meeting with central Jewish party activists.
The former two-term mayor who is attempting to return to office in the May 3 elections has a long history of tension with London's Jewish community. The apology was agreed upon in a meeting Wednesday night between Labour Leader Ed Miliband and the Jewish Leadership Council with the precise wording being a subject of lengthy negotiations.
The latest round of recriminations was triggered by a closed meeting four weeks ago between Livingstone and a group of local Jewish leaders, including veteran Labour supporters, rabbis and pro-Israel lobbyists. The aim of the meeting was an attempt to establish common ground between the mayoral candidate and Jewish Labour supporters who have been finding it increasingly difficult to support him and to urge other Jewish Londoners to vote Labour in the upcoming elections.
"People were saying at the meeting that they are going out in their neighborhoods, canvassing for Labour, and getting doors slammed in their faces because of Ken," said one of the meeting's participants.
The list of grievances between Livingstone and the British capital's Jews is long and varied. As mayor, he enraged Israel's supporters in July 2005, only two weeks after the multiple suicide bombing attacks on London's public transport, when he justified the Palestinians' use of such a tactic saying, "Given that the Palestinians don't have jet planes, don't have tanks, they only have their bodies to use as weapons," and that Israel's actions "border on crimes against humanity."
Livingstone had welcomed Egyptian cleric Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi at City Hall, who approved of suicide attacks against Israeli citizens since they are all soldiers in his eyes.
While Livingstone has been very considerate of the feelings of London's Muslim residents, Jews in the city have felt that he has exhibited the opposite toward his Jewish constituents. They cite examples such as his failing to apologize for intentionally offending a Jewish reporter of the London Evening Standard when comparing him to a Nazi concentration camp guard or when he said of the Jewish property developers, David and Simon Reuben, that they should "go back to Iran and see if they can do better under the ayatollahs."
He then went on to accuse one city councilor who criticized him of behaving like Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels.
Relations were not improved following Livingstone's departure after he lost in 2008 to the Conservative candidate Boris Johnson.
In 2009, he was hired as a presenter for the English-language Press TV channel owned by the Iranian government, further adding to the acrimony. "In addition to his continued offensiveness toward the community, this is simply not fair to the party," said one veteran Jewish Labour supporter. "The party has so many wonderful parliament members and city councilors, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who are doing fantastic work and Ken is just ruining this fantastic relationship."
The meeting at the beginning of the month was convened in the hope that it would be possible to put a line beneath all the past tension and reach an agreement on a new, more cordial relationship. "We didn't expect to change his positions on Israel," said one of the participants, "but at least we hoped to convey the reasons why he had been so offensive in the past."
In the event, the conversation only succeeded in exacerbating matters. Livingstone told the representatives that he had little expectation of many Jews voting for him since in his opinion votes for the left-wing came mainly from the working class while Jews are predominantly high-earners. Throughout the meeting he seemed to be mixing between "Jews," "Israelis" and "Zionists" and refused to concede that any of his past remarks had been wrong. Saying "I am not against Israel, I am against Zionists," he denied he wished to see Israel destroyed and that his criticisms were motivated by anti-Semitism.
Details from the meeting that was supposed to remain a secret were leaked to the Jewish Chronicle, as was a letter written by six of the participants to Labor Leader Miliband in which they wrote that, "In the same way that Black, Irish, women and LGBT groups are afforded the right to determine their own identity, many of us feel that Ken doesn't afford Jews that right… At various points in the discussion Ken used the words Zionist, Jewish and Israeli, interchangeably, as if they meant the same, and did so in a pejorative manner." In addition they wrote that there is a "strong perception that Ken is seeking to align himself with the politics of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian regime, whilst at the same time turning a blind eye to Islamist anti-Semitism, misogynism and homophobia, even when overt and demonization of Zionism and the derogatory use of the word Zionist and use of anti-Semitic memes."
Despite this they ended the letter on an optimistic note writing that "we firmly believe that Ken can turn this situation around, and can count on Jewish voters to help him be elected Mayor of London. But he does however desperately need to face up to the issues we raise."
"This has put us in a very difficult situation as we believe in collective responsibility within the party and we have been fighting to make voting for the Labor candidate as palatable as possible for the Jewish community," said Andrew Gilbert, a founder and former chairman of Limmud and one of the letter's signatories. "Until now, he has simply gone nowhere near far enough to help us do this. I stand by the last paragraph of the letter in which we said that we believe that Ken could turn the situation around and count on Jewish voters, but we need to see dramatic changes some of which could be forthcoming."
But not all the Labour-supporting Jews at the meeting were willing to hold to ranks. The Guardian's columnist, Jonathan Freedland, one of the most prominent liberal-Jewish voices in Britain who was also at the meeting, wrote on the Guardian's website that despite having supported Livingstone in three previous elections and even calling upon Jewish voters to do so in his bi-weekly Jewish Chronicle column, this time he could not. "The case against Ken Livingstone is not that he is some crude racist," he explained. "It is rather that, when it comes to this one group of Londoners and their predicaments, their hopes and anxieties, he simply doesn't care… he doesn't care what hurt he causes Jews." He made it clear that he didn't want the Conservative Mayor Johnson to remain in City Hall but he couldn't bring himself to vote for Livingstone again.
"I had major concerns regarding Ken for a while," explained Freedland this week, "especially after he became a presenter for the state-controlled Iranian channel Press TV and continued presenting even after becoming Labour's mayoral candidate. At the meeting earlier this month he failed to show he understood these concerns. He now clearly seeks to make amends - but on that night, he didn't seem prepared to give an inch to this group of committed Jewish Labour activists."
The voting trends among Jews who make up about two percent of Londoners will probably have little outcome on the election's results but the activists' letter and Freedland's column created a storm within the party's supporters and elite, with bloggers and leading politicians weighing in for either side. Party leader Miliband tried to deflect controversy by saying that, "I know Ken Livingstone well. He doesn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body. He is attracting people of all faiths, backgrounds and religions to his campaign. He is someone who has fought prejudice his whole life and I am sure that is what he will continue to do." But this failed to calm the waters.
While preferring not to come out in the open, many Labour figures were scandalized with Miliband's reluctance to rein Livingstone in. "They have to do something about this," said one Labour member of Parliament. "They think that Ken is a character and it's okay if he says scandalous things but there are limits and you can't alienate our Jewish supporters in such a way."
Livingstone himself was unapologetic, saying in an interview with the Camden New Journal on Monday that "every psephological study I've seen in the 40 years I've been following politics shows the main factor that determines how people vote is their income level. And it's not anti-Semitic to say that."
In another interview with Gaydar radio, he tried to mollify the Gay community who is also angry with Livingstone for his ties with the violently homophobic Sheikh Qardawi and Iranian regime saying that, “I don't go to Iran, because I don't accept what the regime does, but if I've got a chance to talk directly to the Iranian people I'll take it."
But as the week progressed, it became clear that he would have to do more to clear the air. Miliband's advisers urged him to put pressure on Livingstone and toward a planned dinner-meeting with the members of the Jewish Leadership Council, and over long hours, a wording that would be acceptable to all sides was worked out.
Livingstone's clarification was published this on Thursday morning on the Jewish Chronicle's website under the headline "Please, let's move on from the 'Ken and the Jews' dramas."
Rather uncharacteristically, Livingstone wrote, "Politicians ought to have humility when things like that happen. I am no exception." He denied that he had said that Jews would not vote for him because they are rich but admitted that his words could have been interpreted in such a fashion. He paid tribute to the Jewish contribution to London and said, in contrary to his previous positions, that "I do explicitly see Jewish people as a people – not either a religion or an ethnicity but a people." He also affirmed that Israel "is democratic" and that he supports a two-state solution but failed to address his past statements or his relationship with Sheikh Qardawi and the Iranian television channel.
In response, Labour stalwart Andrew Gilbert said that "it is certainly a very important letter and it is so hard for a candidate to so change his words." Another Jewish official, who was involved in the wording of the letter, said "this is the bare minimum we could live with. Who knows if and when Ken will again say something outrageous that will offend everyone."
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