What have I done for the Jews? Just look at London...

Tomorrow, Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, the outspoken rabbi of Mill Hill United Synagogue, having recalled the evils of Pharaoh, will turn his attention to a figure closer to home: the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone.

“Woe betide us all if we choose to just sit on our hands, let alone vote him back in,” he plans to tell congregants in his Shabbat sermon.

It is an indication of the antipathy among some of his Jewish constituents that faces Mr Livingstone as he seeks re-election next Thursday for a third four-year term.

But the Labour mayor will no doubt hope that most Jews are willing to draw a line under some of the controversies that have clouded relations between him and the Jewish community during his last period of office.

In May 2004, more Jews actually voted for him than against him, he has observed — an outcome that he will, no doubt, hope to emulate in what has become the toughest of his campaigns.

“I would have thought the Jewish community has done very well indeed over the past eight years,” he said, refuelling with a glass of red wine in a Mayfair hotel after a Labour Friends of India lunch. “It’s a better city to live in, we’ve made it more international and outward-looking, which is always good for business. I’ve worked with leading Jewish business people. And we’ve worked with many layers of the Jewish community to start to celebrate Jewish culture.”

Among the events sponsored by his office over the past four years have been Trafalgar Square Chanucah lighting and the twice-held festival of Jewish culture, Simcha on the Square. “This is the first time a non-Jew has celebrated Jewish culture in this city,” he claimed.

It is part of a commitment to recognising diversity among London’s communities that, he believes, shows that multiculturalism can work. Racist and antisemitic incidents in London have dropped by 50 per cent in the past eight years, he said.

He has also pledged to help those with large families — such as the strictly Orthodox — in meeting their housing needs. The planned £4 billion Thames Gateway development could well play a part.

On the plus side, too, he believes progress has been made in talks over the past year-and-a-half between his office and the newly formed London Jewish Forum. “You are actually arguing about and doing things that are relevant to the Jewish community in London,” he said.

“From 1981, when I became the leader of the GLC [Greater London Council], the only real debate between me and the Jewish community was about what’s happening in the Middle East.” It was at a City Hall reception for the LJF in 2006 that he endeavoured to bury the hatchet over recent upsets when he declared that if he had “caused offence to anybody in the past, I apologise”.

Despite his often trenchant views on the Middle East, he had appeared to enjoy a fair amount of goodwill among the capital’s Jews on his return to office in 2004, his campaign even having secured a donation from Gerald Ronson’s Heron group.

But the goodwill was quickly put to the test. First came his City Hall welcome in 2004 to the visiting Arab cleric, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, attacked over his views on women and gays and support of Palestinian suicide bombers.

Next came his notorious comparison of the Evening Standard’s Oliver Finegold to a concentration-camp guard, which culminated in the High Court 18 months later overturning a four-week suspension on the Mayor from the Standards Board of England.

Then, after a row over a land deal on the Olympic site, he told the Indian-Iraqi Reuben brothers to “go back to Iran and try their luck with the ayatollahs”.

The Qaradawi visit, he maintains now, was greeted with a “whipped-up visit hysteria which had never whipped up in any other of his visits” to the UK.

“No one picked up the phone from the Jewish community to talk to me about it. What I saw was, this guy arrives, there’s wave of stuff in the newspapers which the editor of one said [they] got from American sources, which makes one slightly suspicious. “And then there’s a campaign between leading members of the Jewish community, and some of the Board, Tory members of the GLA [Greater London Assembly] and the Evening Standard. So it doesn’t look to me like anyone wanted to engage, they just wanted to smash and destroy.”

A coalition of protesting groups, including the Board, has argued that the mayor had refused a meeting over their concerns about Dr Al-Qaradawi.

His response is: the Board has refused to meet him over the past 30 years.

“The best answer I’ve got is the time isn’t ripe yet. We need to hurry up before I’m dead. Can you imagine any Board of Deputies in any other major city around the world refusing to meet the mayor? If I’ll meet Qaradawi, I’ve certainly no problems with the Board of Deputies.”

He defends his meeting with Dr Al-Qaradawi as a representative of the “most progressive strand” of Sunni Islam who wants to engage with the West.

“You judge a person by their enemies. Somebody who is as profoundly loathed by Al-Qaida and the Wahhabis as Qaradawi is can’t be all bad.

“Do you work with the people who are prepared to denounce Al-Qaida even if you won’t agree them on everything else, or do you only work with people who share a complete package of liberal values? If you’re going to do that in Islam, you’ll be talking to very few people.”

On the Finegold incident, too, he believes himself the victim of an orchestrated campaign. The concentration-camp retort, he explained, has been “my standard line to any journalist that I don’t like for 30 years.

“When reporters or photographers are following me around and I say go away and they don’t, and then you get ‘That’s my job’, my response has always been that’s what concentration-camp guards said. “Right the way through Britain, in the post-War world, there were two sayings, ‘behaving like a concentration-camp guard’ and ‘jumped-up little Hitler’.

“To use those terms is not to denigrate the struggle against Nazism or the suffering of the Jewish people. They were the two most popular terms in constant use in the post-war period to denote a mindset of moral irresponsibility and nit-picking bureaucrats. I am not going to give special dispensation to a reporter because they are Jewish any more than if they had been black.”

Asked whether it still might have been better to express regret at the time, he continued: “We had 48 hours of silence and then I opened the Evening Standard and there is three full pages of coverage. The Tory group on the GLA is putting down a special motion.

“The whole structure of the assembly chamber is turned round so my back is to the Holocaust survivors they brought down and have not introduced to me. And I recognise a campaign when I see one. No one wanted an apology; they wanted my scalp. And the moment I managed to defeat the Standards Board for England, at the first Jewish event after that I was happy to apologise.”

As for the Reubens, he said that at the time he aimed his barb, “I didn’t even know they were Jewish. I don’t go through life wondering who is Jewish.” They were “endangering the Olympic project”, he said, and there were allegations about their business dealings in Russia.

“I wasn’t really happy with the idea that you’d been in the middle of building an Olympic park and someone comes along and makes these allegations.”

If it furthers dialogue, he remains prepared to meet “Arab leaders that many Jews will find repellent” should they come to London. “For a Jew who thinks the single most important issue about any politician is where they stand on the Middle East, I will never be acceptable to them because I am determined that the Palestinians must have justice and a two-state solution,” he said.

When it is pointed out that the issue is about those who seek Israel’s abolition, he said: “Qaradawi isn’t that, he is an absolutely rational man. Here is a person who, when the crunch comes, will come down on the right side… that recognises there has to be a compromise at the end of the day.”

    Last updated: 4:37pm, September 23 2009