In April, a new phrase entered the London Jewish lexicon. The phrase is simple: “I’m sorry. I can’t. I’m Jewish.” It is a statement of political assertiveness that comes with a resigned smile, a semi-apologetic shrug of the shoulders and a half turn-up of the palms of both hands. It was said in response to Labor Party campaigners when they asked London’s Jews if they would be voting for Ken Livingstone, Labor’s candidate for mayor of London, who lost his bid May 3 to the incumbent Tory, Boris Johnson. This sentiment is rarely challenged, and is normally met with understanding, even empathy.
How did it come to this, that so many Jewish voters, even Labor-supporting ones, were so repelled by Labor’s candidate that they considered their Jewishness reason enough not to vote for him?
The basic answer is simple: The litany of public run-ins between Livingstone and Jews eventually broke the camel’s back. It was, to use an older Jewish phrase, “enough already.”
All the good, practical things that Livingstone did for Jews during his earlier term in office, from 2000 to 2008, from using Trafalgar Square for menorah lightings and for the Simcha in the Square cultural event to housing and welfare provisions for the Orthodox, were rendered irrelevant. “Enough already” came about because what Livingstone said about Jews, Israel and Zionism came to overshadow what he did for London Jewry.
Livingstone’s prolific gaffes have been covered many times: the “concentration camp guard” gibe at a Jewish journalist being the best known. Why he makes them is another matter. Political calculations regarding numbers of Jewish and Muslim voters in London may play a role, but Livingstone’s conflicts with London’s Jews long predate the emergence of Islamist political movements in Britain. His ideological leanings, though, have been constant for decades and can provide some answers.
In his memoirs, published last year, Livingstone took a detour from telling the story of his political career to rehearse arguments that Zionist leaders of both left and right befriended fascists and Nazis in 1930s and ’40s Europe. He relied for much of his source material on American Jewish Trotskyist Lenni Brenner and on Brenner’s 1983 book, “Zionism in the Age of the Dictators.” The charge sheet repeated in Livingstone’s memoirs stretched over three pages to include Betar, the Stern Gang, the World Zionist Congress, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and wartime American Jewish leader Rabbi Stephen Wise — all of whom, according to Brenner and apparently endorsed by Livingstone, either failed to oppose fascism sufficiently or actively collaborated with Nazi anti-Jewish policies. Most shocking of all for Livingstone was the idea that Labor Zionist’s leadership was as culpable as its right-wing rivals. “Of course the Labour Zionists cannot be blamed for not anticipating that Nazism would become the greatest evil in human history,” Livingstone wrote, but “it was a catastrophic error of judgement not to throw all the resources of Zionism into the campaign against Nazism.”
By endorsing Brenner, Livingstone’s view appears to be that Zionism was. to a significant degree, a fascist-friendly movement, “conceived at a time when the concept of racial superiority was normal.” Livingstone had promoted Brenner’s book in the Labour Herald newspaper, which he edited at the time — a newspaper produced on printed presses subsidised for much of the 1980s by money from Libya’s leader Moammar Qaddafi.