All Ken Livingstone had to do was utter the magic words "I'm sorry" and the London Mayor would not have been facing a disciplinary tribunal this Tuesday for comparing a Jewish journalist to a Nazi concentration camp guard.
The hearing will focus on an incident last February when Mr Livingstone berated an Evening Standard reporter, Oliver Finegold, outside a party at City Hall. As Mr Finegold attempted to ask questions about the party (as pesky journalists do), instead of shrugging him off the Mayor asked him if he was "a German war criminal". When Mr Finegold calmly replied that he was Jewish and found the remark offensive, the Mayor, in jolly, post-party mood, countered by comparing the reporter to a concentration camp guard.
No awards for good taste, then, for the mayor of a great, multicultural city. But this - and his pig-headed refusal to acknowledge, let alone apologise for the offence caused - is in keeping with the history of contemptuousness towards the feelings of the 200,000 or so Jewish residents among the Londoners he represents. It could be that the Mayor has made a simple, cynical calculation, and decided that the Jewish vote in the capital is just not worth bothering about and that he would be better off cosying up to other, more electorally significant ethnic minorities in London.
It certainly is hard to explain his bizarre enthusiasm for the Muslim cleric Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. This religious leader, invited to London by the Mayor, has been described by Livingstone as "the most progressive, Islamic theologian in the world".
Many would disagree. The gay activist, Peter Tatchell, a former Livingstone ally, wrote in the New Statesman of "2,500 leading Muslim intellectuals from 23 countries who signed a petition to the United Nations naming Qaradawi as one of 'the theologians of terror' and accusing him of 'providing a religious cover for terrorism'".
Indeed, London's gay and lesbian community was shocked and disheartened by Livingstone's repeated embrace of a man who so profoundly rejects homosexuality, the issue of which he said "should not be seen as a disagreement between Muslims and non-Muslims, [but] a clash between morality and immorality". The "progressive" sheikh is no better on domestic violence. "Islam," he has proclaimed, "doesn't call for beating but it is necessitated by certain circumstances for a certain type of woman and within limits." Maybe it's the "within limits" that makes it kosher for the London Mayor.
When it comes to Israelis, Sheikh Qaradawi is at his most colourful. Wilfully ignoring the fact that most Palestinian suicide bombers blow themselves up on buses, in marketplaces and at shopping malls (as was the case only last Sunday, in Netanya, when five Israeli civilians were killed by an Islamic Jihad bomber), Qaradawi insists that Palestinian suicide bombing is targeted at combatants. But, just to cover himself, he told The Guardian recently: "Sometimes they kill a child or a woman. Provided they don't mean to, that's OK."
So there's the absolution needed for suicide bombers to blow themselves up anywhere they fancy. So long as they can see a uniformed soldier or policeman somewhere in the vicinity, they should feel free to press the button and damn the consequences.
When faced with having to defend the indefensible, the Mayor inevitably chooses to go on the attack. In a plenary session of the London assembly on 12 January, a gay Green Party assembly member, Darren Johnson, questioned Livingstone's hosting of Qaradawi, on the basis of the hurt it aroused among gay Londoners. Livingstone's reply is instructive. Instead of tackling the issue of Qaradawi's homophobia, the Mayor's instinctive reaction was to feed into the wells of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. "The reality is," Livingstone told Johnson, "that you got caught up and used as a stooge by a Zionist front organisation led by a former intelligence officer." So, London's Mayor appears to be alleging in 2005 that "Zionists" are running gay, Green Party London assembly members. If this weren't so dangerous, ignorant, insensitive and ill-judged, it would be funny.
And when challenged in The Guardian by Henry Grunwald, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, for an apology - in the hope of bringing the Finegold saga to closure - Livingstone again ignored the offensiveness of his remarks and launched into an attack on Israel and its leaders.
Preferring to ignore the fact that Ariel Sharon is the first Israeli Prime Minister to give the Palestinians a substantial chunk of territory and dismantle Jewish settlements built on Palestinian land, Livingstone wrote in reply to Grunwald that Sharon "is a war criminal who should be in prison and not in office".
One could argue that Livingstone was writing before the Gaza disengagement, but I wouldn't put money on Livingstone having altered his view post-disengagement. But Sharon is strong enough to brush off the shrill comments of a die-hard anti-Zionist like Livingstone. The vulnerability felt by the London Jewish community, Zionist and non-Zionist, is another matter.
In his mayoral submission earlier this year to the Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into terrorism and community relations, Mayor Livingstone mentions a number of forms of prejudice, but not anti-Semitism. This is despite two appeals made to him by the Jewish community regarding the wave of anti-Semitism since the outbreak of the intifada in 2000. In 2004 there was a 41 per cent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the UK, many in London. Why would the Mayor, not known for reticence, choose to remain silent about this?
No doubt Livingstone will make a feisty defence on Tuesday, arguing that there is nothing fundamentally wrong in being rude to a journalist. He will also probably repeat his claim that he was making reference to the historical record of the Associated Newspapers group, to which the Evening Standard belongs (conveniently ignoring that it was not just the Daily Mail of the early first half of the 20th century that opposed Jewish immigration to Britain, and that he once wrote a column for the Evening Standard).
But had the Evening Standard sent a Muslim reporter to doorstep him that evening, and had he made Livingstone aware of his religion, would Livingstone have then labelled him a Guantanamo Bay guard? And if he had, would he have refused to apologise to the Muslim community?
Jeff Barak is managing editor of 'The Jewish Chronicle'
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