Life & Culture

Why we should all be more like sorry Ken


One of the most salutary effects of ageing is the realisation that the advancing years do not necessarily bring wisdom or emotional maturity. When something goes wrong, you still look for somebody else to blame. If you break a vase, you curse whoever left it in your way, and any motoring mishap is inevitably the other driver's fault. And, while scapegoats are handy for evading personal responsibility, the harshness of reality can be avoided by seeking comfort in self-delusion.

This is well-illustrated by the old tale of a Jewish journalist called Levy who applied for a job as a television news-reader. He didn't mention, however, that he had a serious stammer. When he auditioned and was duly rejected, he naturally put it down to anti-s-s-sssemitism

This joke is an interesting piece of Jewish comic irony, in that it exercises the celebrated humour of self-deprecation by targeting a Jew who is the exact opposite of self-deprecating. The device is not confined to Jewish humour, its most famous example being the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch in which a one-legged man auditions to play Tarzan ("a role for which two legs would seem to be the minimum requirement"), with its brilliant pay-off, delivered by Cook: "I've got nothing against your right leg… the trouble is, neither have you."

Shying away from responsibility and/or reality is an all-too human trait, applicable to all people of all ages. And there certainly have been several instances of this kind of thing relating to Jews in recent times. In his new book, This Is Not The Way: Jews, Judaism and Israel, Rabbi David Goldberg berates those Zionists who, he says, rebut all criticism of Israel by dismissing it as antisemitism. This raises a number of issues, not least the clear indication that some criticism of Israel is indeed driven by a prejudice more primitive than the politically acceptable "anti-Zionism". But the point - about wilfully missing the point - remains.

The issues raised by another rabbi, Yitzchak Schochet, the minister of Mill Hill Synagogue, relate to the post of Chief Rabbi. Rabbi Schochet alleges that Chabad, the movement of which he is a loyal and prominent member, is widely discriminated against. If only it wasn't, he laments. Had it not been for that single factor, he wrote in a column in the JC, he could've been a contender. Eat your heart out, Marlon Brando.

The dramatic mea culpa of Ken Livingstone also came in the form of a recent JC article, in which he apologised for giving the impression, at a private meeting with a group of influential Jewish supporters of the Labour Party, that he believed Jews weren't voting for him because they were rich. He held no such belief, he said in his column, and recognised that "Jewish voters are not one homogeneous block". Moreover, he declared himself to be a fervent promoter of Jewish interests in London and, most astonishingly, praised Israel for its democracy, in contrast to its neighbour states. "Politicians ought to have humility," he added.

I do hope that Ken meant what he wrote. Firstly, of course, because any apology issuing from such a rigidly self-righteous individual is as welcome as it is startling (Oliver Finegold, the Jewish reporter whom Livingstone compared to a concentration-camp guard, is still awaiting one, seven years after the event). But also because Ken and I are near-contemporaries, born at the start of what is often referred to as the "baby-boomer" generation. More pertinently, we are part of what Jeremy Paxman has described as the "lucky generation".

Born to parents who had just been through the war and who wanted, and were determined to achieve, a better future for their children, we grew up in a developing welfare state of increasing prosperity, improved health-care, free education (a shining light for Jewish parents) and a rapid removal of the dangers and constraints endured by the youth of earlier generations.

In short, we were spoilt. And so, after decades of self-interest, we still find it hard not to blame others when things go wrong and we continue to delude ourselves in the face of reality (I am still awaiting the call from White Hart Lane). But, if Ken Livingstone can achieve maturity, there is hope for us all.

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