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Ken Livingstone interview

by: Leslie Bunder - Last updated: 2005-11-17

Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London

Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London

Throughout his political career, London Mayor Ken Livingstone has never been one to shy away from an issue.

For the Jewish community, he has been labelled anti-Semitic and anti-Israel by his critics.

In a frank and revealing interview with SomethingJewish.co.uk editor Leslie Bunder, Livingstone answers his critics on a range of issues and topics from his clashes with the Board of Deputies of British Jews to his views on Israel. He also talks about his childhood and his possible Jewish roots.

You are often outspoken about the Israeli government and in particular its prime minister Ariel Sharon.  How do you feel when the Board of Deputies of British Jews denounces you for that?

The Board of Deputies – and the Jewish Chronicle is their mouthpiece – have this idea that anyone who’s critical of Israel gets denounced as being anti-Semitic, so as a result the average spineless politician never says anything about the Middle East again. I just think this is an insult to everyone’s intelligence, I mean when you look at how rude I have been about Mrs Thatcher’s government, or any successive American one there’s nothing out of line that strengthens my criticism on the Israeli government. I didn’t notice anyone complaining when I said the Saudi royal family should be hanging from lampposts. The Foreign Office did, and the Saudi ambassador did, but governments need good criticism. I stood in front of Mrs Thatcher in the House Of Commons and accused her of being an accomplice to treason. I’ve been this rude about governments and I think it is good for them, but there’s this huge sensitivity around this.

I’ve been offering to go and meet the Board of Deputies for at least a generation, and I would love nothing better than to go and have a real and honest debate about what is and isn’t wrong. But I’m not in the position to broker a Middle East peace deal. If I was, I would. The main player is America, if they prop up Sharon’s government, it’s going to do what it wants.

When the name Ken Livingstone is mentioned to many Jewish Londoners, and indeed Jewish groups such as the Board of Deputies, it incites very strong feelings. Why do you feel there is such negative feelings towards you, from certain sections of the Jewish community?

I remember the defence committee of the Board back in the mid-80s said I was the biggest threat to British Jewry since Oswald Moseley and I thought that’s a smidgeon over the top. Perhaps some might believe it, I don’t think most of them do.

Because when I became leader of the GLC in London we worked with Arab groups, as we work with any other group, and the Board of Deputies also asked me to give them a veto over Jewish groups we funded.

They didn’t want me funding the Jewish socialist group, the Jewish Lesbian and Gay Group – and we said no. The Board of Deputies is probably the biggest single strand of opinion in Judaism in Britain, but it’s not unanimous. I mean, lovely old lady came in, when I reaching up to buy my copy of the Jewish Chronicle in Waitrose, and said, “they don’t speak for all of us,” and it’s so true.

If you actually look at the vote last summer for Mayor, 18 months ago, you will find that you were six per cent more likely to vote for me if you were Jewish than if you were non-Jewish. And I’ve had 25 years of demonisation and being denounced as anti-Semitic, and of course half the population in London – I get more of the Jewish vote than Tony Blair – people were 12 per cent more likely to vote for me if they were Jewish than to vote for Tony Blair’s government – and they must be one of the most pro-Israeli that we’ve had.

So yes, while there are a lot of people who hate my guts because of the position I take on the Middle East, equally there’s a huge body of Jewish Londoners who have watched me for 25 years and they know it’s crap to denounce me as anti-Semitic.

I am just critical of the state of Israel, but then so are they. I think for people who aren’t Jewish they think the Board speaks for Judaism, but they no more do that than the Muslim Council of Britain speaks for Muslims. They’re strands, and they are important.

I have to say though, when my predecessors on the British left in the 1930s  - the socialists and the communists and trade unionists – were  all campaigning and calling for a boycott of Nazi Germany, the Board of Deputies opposed it. They are one strand of opinion, they’re often wrong, sometimes they’re right, but they don’t speak for the community any more than I speak for London. Some Londoners agree with me, some don’t, but I never wander round saying “I am the voice of London,” I’m just me, I get elected.

Talking about the incident with the reporter from the Standard, do you think that was a witch-hunt against you?

It was quite clearly orchestrated, I mean here was Brian Coleman (London Assembly Member), who was the driving force, and then it turned to Tim Donovan (BBC London), and was overheard by Nicky Gavron the Deputy Mayor, saying this is all theatre, and of course that’s exactly what it was.

And three things came together – the Board of Deputies wanted me to keep quiet, so I thought ‘big attack on Ken Livingstone, better keep my head down for a couple of years’.

Then the Tory Party at the time was trying to run this ridiculous campaign that Labour’s deeply anti-Semitic – that Fagin poster.

And of course the Standard’s very nervous about the fact that I will shortly be able to let the contract for the rival evening paper. So all these things came together to be able to put the boot in for Ken Livingstone, and I have to say it was really stupid.

Imagine if, in December, the Board of Deputies case results in my removal from office. Can you imagine? I mean people have an opinion about whether or not I was rude to a reporter and that’s justified, but the Board of Deputies could use this mechanism to remove me from office someone they disagree with me politically…it would be very damaging for the Board’s reputation but also every anti-Semitic fantasist around the world would say “The Board removed the Mayor of London who was automatically replaced by a Jewish Mayor. Someone would find it was all written down in the protocols of the elders of Zion by the time the day’s finished, you know? I think they should have thought it through. You don’t set out on something that you then are not in control of.

You recently supported the Jewish culture guide to London. Are you planning to go to any of the events?

I go to nothing that we do. I have three functions in life – one is doing the day job, two is looking after the kids and three is sleeping, and that’s about all I do. Once a year I go to the first ten minutes of whatever is the Mayor’s film festival. When the kids are older I shall bring them round and do all these things.

You mention you have been to synagogues. Can you remember what the last one you went to was?

Because I was the MP for Brent East and the GLC member for Stoke Newington and the Labour candidate for Hampstead, I’ve been to a large number of North West London and Hackney synagogues. The last real debate I had at one was at the Saatchi Synagogue, I’ve been there a couple of times. The first time I went there was a debate between me and Jeffrey Archer, and then the second time it was a debate about what I think. It was good-humoured but obviously quite intense.

2006 marks the 350th anniversary of the Jews returning to London. How does London plan to mark this?

Well, until you mentioned it, I’d say I hadn’t remembered when we had re-admitted the Jews. I can’t even remember who threw them out! I know we all clearly want to do something around that, but it is quite interesting because it must be just about the longest serving ethnic minority that we’ve actually got. And what’s quite interesting is that it’s stayed in London. It’s moved around London – it seems the pattern of Hindu settlement is following the Jewish pattern, and there’s a bit of overlap over the borders, but I suppose there are just problems in terms of the people you need to sustain a synagogue, as with a Hindu temple or mosque, but it’s a lot easier to do that in a big city than in a tiny village in the Home Counties, particularly if you’re strictly Orthodox and have to walk everywhere.

You’ve said you are an atheist.

I had no interest in religion. I am technically Church of England, I went to a Church of England primary school and my parents had me christened, but we never went near a church again except for a wedding or a funeral. My mum actually went to a spiritualist church to try and contact her relatives on the other side! And so I grew up totally without religion, I didn’t suffer from it as a child whereas some of my Catholic friends spent a lifetime recovering from brutality and beatings in the convent and so on. And I became an atheist by the time I was 11, I rejected all this mumbo-jumbo in favour of rational science.

Did you have Jewish friends as a child?

There were Jewish friends at school – because I went to Tulse Hill school and you had the Church of England Service, then the Catholic service and the Jewish service, everyone dispersed into three groups. We were all just mates at school.

I remember once going to the Catholic service just to see how it was different, I never went to the Jewish one. I was born in 1945. In the 1950s TV drama, whereas now you’ve got lesbians murdering people and burying them in the garden, in my day a dramatic drama would be something like Christian boy brings home Jewish girlfriend. So I was aware of this thing, and I was aware of the Holocaust – my generation was born just after the war, for the first 15 years of my life it was if the war was still going on as it was all my parents talked about. It was the most important thing in their lives, so my reference point for total evil Hitler and the Nazis.

Just before Blair was elected Prime Minister, a lobbyist came to me and said would I be prepared to be the tobacco company’s lobbyist in Parliament. Given my father died from smoking aged 56, I just wrote back a letter saying “Do please tell these people that I think they are one rung on the ladder of human evil above Adolf Hitler.” That to me is what I do.

That is such a big thing in my life because I was born just about a month after the war ended. But there’s also this other funny thing that we’ve never pinned down – on my 60th birthday the Evening Standard ran an article about tracking down ancestors. There’s no evidence of where my maternal grandmother came from, she was called Zona. And I remember a couple of times when I was a kid, she would say to me, “Don’t let anyone ever tell you you’re Jewish.”
Which made me think we must be, otherwise why would she raise this? And I remember chatting to Greville Janner about this, saying it sounds like a middle European name. So I might be Jewish. Not that I want anyone to feel mortified about this at the Board of Deputies. I mean, because it runs through the maternal line if it turned out to be true I could go and stand for the Knesset, couldn’t I? In Israel I could be elected, no problem.

There has been this theory that you are Jewish?

I know, and it would be lovely to find out. We know my grandmother was born in 1888 in London, which was the exactly the time that vast numbers of refugees were coming in from the Tzar. So it could have been. As I said, religion has played no part in my life. But it would be fun to know. Then I could be a self-hater, couldn’t I?

As Mayor of London, how do you think you’ve been engaging with the Jewish community, because for a lot of people it seems that compared to other ethnic groups Jewish Londoners don’t get much out of you?

That’s absolutely what you would expect, because in terms of average income, in access to the professions, Jews have overcome the worst of the discriminations they face – they have made it. And also the strength of networks in the Jewish community was like a precursor to the welfare state, the weakest were helped – and so young Jewish kids aren’t facing two and a half times the national unemployment rate, I’d be interested to know what the unemployment rate among young Jews coming out of university is, but I should think it’s pretty negligible. There isn’t the welfare function to tackle, and we do quite a bit to celebrate the Jewish community in London and what it’s done, but the community’s not there saying we need help with this or that, it’s self-sustaining.

Most of my contact with the Jewish community has actually been the Labour Poale Zion network. Every summer I would go to the Pole Zion fundraiser that Johnny Lebor would put on his garden, and it’s quite interesting because we’d have a great row about what I’d say about the Middle East at that time. And about the time that Sharon became Prime Minister, the first one I went to nobody mentioned Israel or the Middle East, they were all “Oh my God we can’t talk about it!” I’m looking forward to the one next summer.

How do you view Israel? Are you actually anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, or what?

I think Zionism is like every other form of nationalism. It can be inspiring or it can have a dark side. If you actually look at the debate at the time when the concept of a Zionist state was being kicked around at the end of the 19th Century, there were several Jews who said if you go down this road and Judaism becomes a state it will do all the terrible things that states do, you will lose what has made us what we are, and I think that is a large part of the problem.

I remember when the former Chief Rabbi, Jakobovits, retired, he was interviewed in the Standard and he said, “When I look at what’s happening I’m not sure it was right to create the state of Israel.”. It’s a perfectly valid thing to say after so many wars, so much bloodshed – did it work? It’s academic because it’s there and we need to find a way forward for the future, but the other thing is that I’m in favour of church and state being totally separate.

We’ve only got remnants of that here – Catholics can’t marry the heir to the throne, for example – lucky old Catholics, some people would say. But I was amazed to discover for example only a couple of months ago that in Israel a Jew can’t marry an Arab. What a load of crap! And what I tend to find usually here, whenever Sheikh Qaradawi says anything religiously conservative, which he often does – all you have to do is go to the website and find out what the Chief Rabbi in Israel has said and it’s often exactly the same.

So when there was the tsunami and Qaradawi said “this may be the judgment of God for all the sex at these holiday resorts” – that’s not my opinion but you only have to log on and that’s what the Chief Rabbi said, and certainly what Ian Paisley says. Religious leaders do this, they have to refer everything back to God. So I’m lucky I grew up without religion – I can marry who I want. And I do think there needs to be that separation. I have this ideal and given the cosmopolitan and humanist traditions of Judaism, of all the Arab nations the Palestinians are most close to having a natural grasp for democracy and liking, the most open, perhaps because they’ve been spread around the world

If there’s one Arab nation Israel should be able to get a deal with, share some common values with, do an awful lot of trade with, it’s the Palestinians. And I think it’s a tragic loss of opportunity. It’s got so bad and there’s so much bloodshed on all sides, seeing how you can put this back together…if Rabin had pushed all this through in the first three months and just said ‘we’re not taking this by stages….’ If you take it by stages it allows Hamas and Netanyahu to wreck the whole process from their different perspectives. If he’d just driven it through there would have been some bombings, there would have been some killings, but you would have gradually marginalized and isolated them and you’d have given the Arab population a real stake in it succeeding. And I have a horrible feeling the chance of getting that now after the bitterness and the bloodshed, I’m very very pessimistic about the future.

Have you had the chance to visit Israel?

I went as the guest of Mapam in 1986 and was there for two weeks. Everywhere I went I found myself at home, primarily because I was dealing with the left of the Israeli political spectrum who already shared my views.

So you’re not anti-Israel as such?

No, I enjoyed Israel immensely. I just look at the wall – I tell you what’s good, the Israeli government does truly terrible things, such as this policy of using Arabs as human shields, you read this and you boil with anger. And then you see the Israel court rules it’s illegal now – you can still argue for decent change and challenge these things. And you never forget about half Israeli society wants them to do a peace deal and the other half want them to kick the remaning Arabs out. It must be the most divided society in the West, and I see Israel as being in the West.

But at the same time a lot of Israelis are concerned about Hamas and other organisations…
This is what’s so annoying. You look back and it’s quite clear now that Israeli intelligence services did everything to encourage the growth of Hamas in order to undermine Arafat. If you go back to the assassination policy in the 80s, there’s a disproportionate number of Palestinian moderates being bumped off by Mossad, and you get the opinion that the more fanatical the leadership of Palestinians the more we isolate them. That’s why I’m very keen we engage with people like Tariq Ramadan – you look for what’s the most progressive voice in Islam, recognising  there might be 100 years to go before Islam’s going to be what you want it to be and you work and build them up. You don’t actually try and destroy them in the hope it will turn out so horrendous the world will turn against it.

What do you think of recent comments by the Iranian president that Israel should be “wiped off the map”?

Oh, he’s barmy. When the CIA overthrew Mossadegh’s government in 53 because he was going to nationalise the oil, if the West had not involved itself, the Mossadegh government might have evolved into some genuinely secular Iranian regime.

We propped up the Shah, and the Shah was overturned, and something infinitely worse. I always hope that every time a new Iranian president is elected it might be someone a bit more liberal – and you think who created these monsters? He shouldn’t intervene in other people’s countries, and I’m pretty sure what the outcome’s going to be. There’s a lot of scuttlebutt around to imply that both MI6 and Mossad had a hand in overthrowing Milton Obote’s government in Uganda – might be true, he was seen as anti-Israel. But which two nations suffered the most with Idi Amin? MI5, MI6, and the CIA gave Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party all the communists and trade unionists they could kill when they took power. That regime was seen as broadly in our camp.

Do you draw a distinction between targeting civilians on the one hand and attacks on military targets on the other?

I very much do. Acts of terrorism where civilians are targeted are totally and utterly unacceptable. Whether that’s carpet bombing of civilian areas by America or Britain in a war, or whether it’s Hamas going into a café and blowing 30 or 40 people to bits. But if you take the Uzbekistan regime, where the president boils his opponents alive, where two or three hundred people were gunned down on a peaceful demonstration, there’s no mechanism to remove the Uzbek regime. Now blowing up innocent Uzbekistanis in the market is no way forward, but if someone blows up or  assassinates the president, I will have a moment of thinking, “let’s hope they now get something better”. I mean they might get something worse. The tragedy of Iraq is that they now might get this fundamentalist Shia regime. And therefore I have to say if you haven’t got a functioning democracy then acts of terror will often be legitimate. We used them relentlessly in the Second World War against the Nazi occupation of Europe, now I think the parallel is not with that with what Israel is today. Israel has illegally occupied the West Bank for the best part of 40 years and you can’t be surprised if people violently resist that.

What would your advice be to Sharon if you saw him tomorrow?

My advice to Sharon would be to accept that you’ve got to withdraw broadly to the borders of 67, and you can either dismantle the settlements or do a deal in which they stay there, but under the overall control of the Palestinian regime. Now I would turn the settlements to look outwards, to employ local Arabs, to integrate them into the economy and to build common economic structures, and it might now be hopeless optimistic, but I’d give it a try, because otherwise what you’re going to get is the wall will be completed, a big chunk of the West Bank will be behind the wall, and is the Jewish homeland really to be no more than a walled enclave on the Mediterranean, with no engagement with the powers around? What a disaster after 60 years of struggle to build a state.

Any plans to go to Israel at all?

Come on, you don’t really want that, do you? Can you imagine that, everyone will go mad. I’m pessimistic about the future but if my visiting the Middle East would help I would go.

But if you did that it would stop people saying you are anti-Israel?

It won’t make the slightest bit of difference – whatever I say, people will carry on believing what they want to believe. Jewish Londoners who voted for me will carry on voting for me whatever they read in the Standard and people who hate my guts will carry on hating my guts.

So you’re not anti-Israel?

I’m not – I’m anti this government. This government is the worst Israel has ever had – there was a chance of peace but Sharon has relentlessly ground down everybody else.