RE: Meeting between Ken Livingstone and Labour supporting Jewish Londoners
On the 1st of March 2012 a substantial number of Labour-supporting members of the Jewish community met Ken Livingstone at a private meeting in order to explore ways in which Ken could re-connect with Jewish voters in advance of the May 3rd m ayoral election. We believe that it is vitally important that Labour win in London, not just for our city, but also for the future success of the Party.
The meeting was not part of the official Jewish calendar; however it was carried out with the full support of the London Jewish Forum, Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council with party members from each organisation attending. Also present were key people from Labour Friends of Israel, Jewish Labour councillors from five London Boroughs and also by the religious leadership of all streams of the Jewish Community.
The meeting was not open to the wider press; Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian and Jewish Chronicle was present although in a personal capacity. The meeting was held under Chatham House rules, understood as what was said can be repeated, though the individuals saying things cannot be attributed. Ken, at the beginning of the meeting however, made it clear directly that he was happy to have anything he said attributed.
This meeting partly followed up on a meeting held two years previously with a similar group of Labour- supporting London Jews, which was acrimonious. At that time we did not follow the meeting up with the party leadership in any way. A number of us having attended the meeting have concluded that as loyal Party members, in this instance, considering our collective desire to see Labour win in London, it would be remiss of us not to raise these issues now, rather than in a post-mortem of a failed mayoral bid. We still believe that Ken has every possibility of reconnection with Jewish Labour voters. For the good of the Party and for London we would ultimately like to see this happen.
It is worth mentioning that it was made very clear to Ken the mood amongst Jewish Labour Party supporters. Despite his seeming obsession with Israel, which gives some quarters cause for concern, many of us had just about managed to vote for him in 2008. Today, many of us who would otherwise normally vote Labour are finding it harder and harder to consider voting for Ken, despite agreeing with his policies for London. Many of us are actively working for local GLA Labour candidates, and in particular Andrew Dismore in Barnet and Camden, where grassroots efforts are being made to ensure he wins.
A key focus of the discussion centred on Ken's discourse when discussing Zionism. It is not an uncontroversial thing to say that for the vast majority of British Jews, Israel plays an important part in their core identity, in the same way that family, language and cultural ties continue to bind BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) communities with India, Pakistan etc.
This is certainly a conversation that has taken place with Ken on numerous occasions. Ken determines Jews as a religious group but does not accept Jews as an ethnicity and a people, and did not respond on this other than to say as an atheist he found this hard to comprehend.
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. Just as we do not have a right to tell Ken what he thinks about Israel despite our many disagreements, Ken doesn't have the right to define who we believe we are.
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. These words are not interchangeable and to do so is highly offensive, particularly when repeated over and again as was done. For example, when discussing Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi's extreme views on homosexuality, Ken said "one would expect the same views on homosexuality from extreme Christians, Muslims and Israelis" and using the word "Zionist" as an adjectival negative to criticise much more widely than what can be attributed to the ideology of Zionism. He also stated "I am not against Israel, I am against Zionists", which we also find impossible.
Ken's relationship with radical Islamist politics was also raised in the context of him accepting a paid role presenting on the Iranian state-controlled Press TV and his continued defence of the City Hall reception for Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
When challenged over whether it had been appropriate to publicly embrace an individual who holds racist, misogynistic and homophobic views, in addition to his justification for suicide bombings in Israel, Ken again reinforced his view that al-Qaradawi is a moderate voice to be engaged, and that he was encouraged to do so. Ken stated that as al-Qaradawi was not advocating suicide bombings in the UK, and as he had apparently been the victim of a smear campaign by the British press, Ken would gladly embrace him as he would anyone being attacked by the Murdoch empire. Given the scenario of hugging Nick Griffin, Ken quickly backed off this comment.
Ken, towards the end of the meeting, stated that he did not expect the Jewish community to vote Labour as votes for the left are inversely proportional to wealth levels, and suggested that as the Jewish community is rich, we simply wouldn't vote for him. When we pointed to research undertaken by the Institute of Jewish Policy Research that demonstrates the Jewish community in the UK has a propensity to vote much more radically than its wealth, and this is attributed to Jewish values and sociology and history and also alluded to Democrats in the USA, Ken begrudgingly accepted this.
The real and more pressing issue is that of the 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 antisemitism, misogynism and homophobia, even when overt and demonisation of Zionism and the derogatory use of the word Zionist and use of antisemitic memes.
We are concerned that this is more about infantile far left politics, being seen to take a stance against whatever the anti-establishment or anti-imperialism cause of the moment is. Boiled down, it's hard to interpret this in any other way than Ken basically having no sympathy for those that he perceives as bourgeois , which is why he isn't really attempting to appeal to, and perhaps why he is losing progressive as well as Jewish votes.
Whilst we do feel somewhat despondent that we are covering the same arguments and reaching the same conclusions as we have done before, we do feel that it is now more important than ever, given the closeness of this election, given the election's significance to the Party nationally, and to the growing unease amongst Jewish Labour voters, its time to resolve the matter once and for all.
This private note is to Ken and Ken's senior team, the party leader's office, the shadow London Minister's office, Ed Balls' office and to a very limited part of the Jewish communal leadership, who will meet Ed Miliband later this month.
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.
Rabbi Danny Rich