Reuben Bard-Rosenberg, who blogs at the Third Estate, takes a look at Livingstone and the Jewish community.
The issue of Ken Livingstone’s relationship to London’s Jewish community has generated much wrring and grrring over the past couple of weeks. It began with a letter to Ed Miliband – written by a group of Jewish Labour supporters who had met with Ken to discuss ways for Ken to “reconect with Jewish voters”.
In their opinion Ken’s whole attitude left a great deal to be desired. Shortly afterwards, left-wing guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland wrote that, having voted for Ken in the past, he would not be doing so again.
Perhaps the most cringeworthy moment came when Lord Prescott responded to Freedland’s piece: “@j_freedland You’re just another member of the Guardian North London Dinner Party Activist movement. #morewhinetarquin”. An utterly shoddy way to engage with both the serious issues that were at stake, and with a consistently progressive commentator.
A serious issue
That said there has been something rather seedy about the whole affair. The original accusations were aired not in a journalistic account of the meeting at which Ken had addressed Jewish labour supporters, but, rather were aired in a “letter to Ed Miliband” that, for unexplained reasons, ended up in the press. And thus bold accusations are accompanied by a distinct lack of detail.
So we are told that “Ken used the words Zionist, Jewish and Israeli, interchangeably, as if they meant the same, and did so in a pejorative manner”. A genuinely serious allegation but one that it is not backed up by any direct quotations – so that we can judge for ourselves the content of his words. To be fair, the meeting had taken place under Chatham House rules, but with the caveat that Ken had said that he was happy for anything he said to be quoted. Thus those present may not have taken the kind of notes they might have, had they been expecting to formally and publically report on the event.
Yet, this in turn raises the question of whether such accusations ought to be aired in a form that cnanot meet proper journalistic standards. Clearly we don’t know how the letter to Ed ended up in the press, yet is doubtful that anyone on the recieving end of the letter – i.e. Ed Miliband’s office – would have forwarded it to journalists.
The only properly journalistic account of the event comes from Jonathan Freedland. Here, the accusation that Ken used the term “Jew” pejoratively are not repeated. But Freedland, a journalist whom I genuinely trust, did report that Ken had linked Jewish voting habits to their socio-economic status. It is understandable that people were taken aback by this.
Stereotypes about moneyed Jews remain all too common, and unfortunately are encountered are amongst the left as well as the right. Yet in the absence of any direct quotation, or sense of the context in which the remarks were made, it is difficult to know what significance to place upon these comments. Perhaps (and admittedly this is a rather generous scenario) Ken had been shown evidence that his expressed opinions were losing him Jewish electoral support, and he came up with an alternative explanation.
Or perhaps he was engaged in some clumsy psephology (as much psephology tends to be). Yesterday, Livingstone himself wrote a piece about the whole affair for the Jewish Chronicle. “Let me start with the report that I said, at a meeting of mainly pro-Labour Jewish Londoners that Jews will not vote for me because they are rich”, he wrote. “I didn’t actually say this. However, I can see that the way the conversation unfolded meant this interpretation was placed on it.”
Clearly Ken’s record is not unblemished. His comments to the Reuben Brothers, wherein he told them to “go back to Iran” and “see if they can do better under the ayatollahs”, were fairly indefensible. Leftists shouldn’t be telling anybody to go back to where they came from. But telling Jews to go “back” to a country where Jews face discrimination and persecution – not to mention the fear that comes with having an anti-Semitic loon as President – is rather beyond the pale.
As as socialist and a Jew I hate anti-semitism. And I get irritated by the tendency of some on the left to sometimes downplay or deny it – or to robotically respond to any accusation by ritually repeating that line about anti-Zionism not being anti-Semitism. Yet the new accusations against Ken simply lack sufficient clarity to justify moving one’s vote elsewhere in this very politically important election. On May the 5th I will be voting Livingstone.