Howard Jacobson: Why our Mayor should stop fanning the flames of division and try to put them out

To use the London bombings to reiterate his version of Middle Eastern affairs is opportunism
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The Independent Online

He did well, Ken Livingstone, when he was in Singapore. Maybe there's a lesson in that. A gravity appeared to take possession of him when he addressed the world's television cameras on 7 July. I listened to every word he spoke that day - transfixed by his dignity and statesmanship, moved that he was moved, persuaded as I had never been persuaded before of his vision of a London for peoples of all colours and all faiths. An earthly paradise in peril. When we looked at his drawn face, a man fighting back tears, but resolute, we saw ourselves writ large. Cometh the hour, cometh the Mayor.

Then he flew home and that was that. Instead of the statesman, the old opportunistic radical heckler with a simpleton's view of history was back. Yes, he continued to condemn the bombers, and to assure the world that our great city would never capitulate to them (though it's hard to know what capitulation in these circumstances would actually entail), but he could see what they were getting at now, he had entered their anger with the West and agreed with their analysis, approved their logic, right until the moment of their strapping explosives to their backs, that is. No to the bang, yes to their reading of world events.

Don't mistake me. It is a good idea to know what drives those who want us dead, the circumstances in which they abandon themselves to hate, their "grievance" as we have taken to calling it. But to become a student of rage is not to accept that the rage has right or reason in it. Many a grievance is nursed without there being foundation for it beyond the aggrieved person's politics or pathology.

An Israeli who believes the Arabs are giving him a hard time full stop should talk to a Palestinian. But so should the Palestinian talk to the Israeli. In neither case does it help the aggrieved party - psychologically or morally - to confirm him in his sense of victimhood. Strap a victim into explosives and we know what happens. Telling him we share his anger, though we wish he wouldn't express it quite that way, won't make him any safer. But who's to say that an alternative reading of his story, in which he is neither the oppressed nor the oppressor, neither the hero nor the villain, wouldn't make a difference in the end?

A mythical narrative predominates at present in which one group of people believe themselves to be under the heel of another. Find a different narrative, I say, for there is never only one. And choose a different hour to start the clock. Start here and you are a victim; start there and you are a conqueror yourself. Restore a little glory to those who feel oppressed. I don't mean lie; I mean complete the picture.

Merely to do as Livingstone has done and use the London bombings to reiterate his own selective version of Middle Eastern affairs is the grossest opportunism. He is of course entitled as a private individual to believe what he believes, though even a private individual should think twice before making political capital out of other people's tragedies. But Ken Livingstone is not a private individual. Whatever simplicities he nurses in the secret places of his heart, as Mayor he has no business justifying the hatred others feel towards to us. It is a species of treason, it seems to me, to embrace the reasoning of your enemies when that reasoning leads ineluctably to your destruction. Doubly treasonable in someone charged with the responsibility of protecting us.

In the matter of Israel, Livingstone has for so long been incapable of accuracy or impartiality - now likening elected governments to terrorists, now inviting sheikhs to tea who consider even unborn Israelis legitimate targets of the bomber - that we take his ill will as a sort of unguarded eccentricity. Oh, that's just Ken. And after all, you can get on with the business of administering the capital, sorting out the congestion charge and so on, without being a particular friend of Israel.

Since the bombings on the London Underground, however, the ill will has, as it were, spilled out on to the streets. Speaking on Channel 4 News, Livingstone pitted "young Jewish boys in this country" against "young Muslim boys in this country", arguing that he was unable to see why the former can join the Israeli army and "end up killing many Palestinians", while the latter, wanting to defend his Palestinian "brothers and sisters", is "branded as a terrorist".

Leave alone this brain-dead interpretation of who goes where to do what - the "killing" on the one side as against the "defending" on the other, the libellous imputation that the Israeli army has no function but to slaughter indiscriminately; leave alone the slide into moral equivalence, which makes whoever imposes authority a terrorist, and thus a London policeman identical to the bomber he hunts. What is most alarming about these words, coming from a Mayor, is their divisiveness. Israelis vs Palestinians have now become Jews vs Muslims. What does Livingstone want? The battle to be joined on Oxford Street?

In his Singapore speech, Livingstone numbered Jews among those who comprised his threatened earthly paradise of many faiths. Three weeks on, they are the reason for the threat. Not Israelis, Jews. And those who would not bother to distinguish between them as devils anyway now have Livingstone's sanction for their loathing. So you tell me - what use, in times of conflagration, is a Mayor who would rather fan the flames than put them out?