Identity politics, taking offence and voting for Ken Livingstone
Antony Lerman, blog
A day or two after Jonathan Freedland wrote an op-ed published in the Guardian announcing that he could not vote for Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London, because ‘he doesn’t care what hurt he causes Jews’, I started to write a blogpost taking issue with Jonathan’s argument and conclusion. Unable to complete it immediately because of other commitments, I sat down yesterday afternoon (Thursday 29 March) to finish it and discovered that Ken had written a long-ish conciliatory article for the Jewish Chronicle in which he effectively apologised to the Jewish community for hurt he had caused – actually using the words ‘humility’, ‘sorry’ and ‘regret’. He paid tribute to the Jewish contribution to London, pledged to work better with Jewish Londoners, not to promote one faith or community over another, promote interfaith and inter-community dialogue, in which, he acknowledged, Jewish-led organisations have taken a lead.
The tone of the piece was remarkably contrite. But especially surprising were his remarks about Israel and Jewish peoplehood. He stressed that he does see Jews as a people, that he opposed the academic boycott of Israel, visited Israel because it’s democratic and supports a two state solution, with ’strong economic ties to make both states economically successful and committed to lasting peace’.
It’s quite clear that a lot of work has been going on behind the scenes to bring about a rapprochment between Ken and London’s Jews following the disastrous ‘Chatham House’-style dinner on 1 March at the London Jewish Cultural Centre between Ken and some prominent members of the Jewish community who were Labour supporters. This event was supposed to draw a line under the past and lay the ground for a new beginning. But it seems that Ken signally failed to enter into the future-looking spirit of the gathering. According to a leaked letter written to Ed Miliband by some of the attendees, Livingstone suggested that ‘as the Jewish community is rich, [it] simply wouldn’t vote for him’. He also made other remarks which, it’s claimed, amounted to negative stereotyping of Jews.
I am sure that many people will be unconvinced by Ken’s sudden need to say sorry and will say that it’s narrow electoral calculation making him do it (and that he has had his arm twisted by Labour Party Central). You can find just such a view on Harry’s Place. Perhaps. But even the sceptical Martin Bright, writing in the Jewish Chronicle, seems to regard this as a significant and highly unusual step, for which Livingstone himself has taken responsibility:
ultimately the decision to eat humble pie lay with Ken Livingstone himself, and though the Jewish community will never take him to their heart, some may at least give him credit for admitting he was wrong.
I don’t think it ever had to get to this point. Whatever Ken did to alienate Jews was compounded by the ill-judged and immature response of the Board of Deputies of British Jews under the presidency of Henry Grunwald in 2005. Grunwald made a strategic error in ratcheting up the confrontation with Ken, egged on by various hotheads. Although I am not in any way party to what has been happening over the last few weeks between Ken and the Jews, I suspect that had the methods that were applied to produce the current outcome been deployed five or six years ago, the likelihood of any further ‘Ken and the Jews’-type dramas would have been minimised.
Whether Ken’s apology will sway Labour-supporting Jews who were preparing to follow some other course of action or inaction rather than vote for Ken remains to be seen. Which brings me back to the original starting point for this blogpost: Jonathan Freedland’s op-ed, which I suppose remains as relevant as it was last week, because those who sympathised with Jonathan’s view may well be thinking of his piece again in the light of Ken’s JC article. I therefore continue below with my original draft post, with some additions in the light of the most recent developments:
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I think Jonathan Freedland is wrong to conclude that because Ken Livingstone ‘doesn’t care what hurt he causes Jews’, he ‘can’t vote for Ken’ as London’s mayor.
I’m not saying this because I believe Jonathan is wrong to make Ken’s impact on his Jewish sensibility the touchstone for his electoral judgement. He’s perfectly entitled to assess Ken’s suitability as mayor from a Jewish perspective if he wishes. But it is important to understand that he is not just expressing a personal preference based on his appraisal of Ken’s attitudes to Jews. He’s saying that it is not in Jewish interests to vote for Ken even if you believe his policies for London are right.
Equally, I am not arguing that Jonathan has reached a wrong conclusion because he is wrong about Ken’s attitude to Jews. As it happens, I don’t agree with Jonathan on this. Yes, Ken has caused offence. Yes, he may ‘show Jews a “hard heart”‘. But to say that Ken ‘doesn’t care what hurt he causes Jews’ is a very harsh and sweeping statement and I don’t believe it’s proven by the examples recalled in Jonathan’s article. Nonetheless, whether he is right on this or not, it doesn’t effect my argument. My disagreement with him is about what should be the right response by Jews to a candidate deemed to be unsympathetic to them.
But is there any point in arguing with Jonathan? After all, his Guardian piece was written as a personal statement, not a call to arms. He’s entitled to his views and one should respect them. Nevertheless, as one of the Guardian‘s principal columnists and an influential figure in the Jewish community, Jonathan must at least be aware that he is in a very strong position to sway Jewish opinion. Furthermore, he is very likely to have an impact on non-Jews who sympathise with his characterisation of Ken’s attitudes to Jews. Jonathan must know this and I would guess that he’d be more than happy if others followed his lead. Jonathan’s article therefore matters. Even more so if the race between Boris and Ken turns out to be very close. So his piece deserves a response.
There are three main reasons why I think Jonathan is mistaken.
First, by not offering any practical political alternative, he leaves Jews in limbo. Is he saying that he won’t vote at all? If the policies of the three candidates were equally bad you could argue that there is some sense in this. But Jonathan firmly believes that Ken’s policies are best for London. This also seems to make it perverse to vote for the Lib Dem candidate Brian Paddick. Is he then, in effect, advocating disengaging from the political process? If so, wouldn’t this be politically highly irresponsible?
Second, given that he has decided to prioritise Jewish concerns, what does that mean exactly? If it means that you feel so upset with a candidate, you turn your back on the whole business, this is hardly mature politics. Surely, anyone really bothered about Jewish concerns must take a wider view of what’s good for the Jews. It’s hardly likely that any candidate, however noble and attractive, will have a set of policies or an outlook that in all respects is positive for Jews. A personal compromise is almost always inevitable. Jonathan rejects that, implying that he did it once but can’t do it again. But why not? It’s the stuff of politics and political choice.
Third, and this is my main argument, I think Jonathan is acting in a way that flatly contradicts the manner in which Jews have achieved so much over the last few centuries in terms of attaining emancipation, equal rights etc. If Jews in previous generations had behaved as Jonathan advocates, opting out because a candidate held some views that made them feel uncomfortable, yet the fundamental thrust of that person’s policies would clearly be of advantage to Jews, we’d still be in ghettos. For example, although Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary in the Attlee Labour government that swept to power in 1945, was known to have antisemitic views, as far as I know this did not prevent Jews from supporting Labour in the general election of that year. In the early 1990s, I once had a private conversation with the former Labour prime minister, Jim Callaghan, and was rather taken aback by some comments he made about Jews that, while not antisemitic, seemed to sail awfully close to constituting anti-Jewish stereotyping. He was a pretty blunt speaker so I imagine that I was not the only person in the Jewish community to have become aware of this. Yet I don’t recall ever hearing any doubts expressed among Jewish leaders and commentators about Callaghan’s attitudes to Jews while he was a senior Labour Party politician in the 1970s.
Of course there are red lines not to be crossed; candidates and parties to be shunned and opposed. Often, it’s not difficult knowing where these red lines are. But there are times when it’s harder to judge. I think it’s fair to say that in some respects for many Jews those times have become harder in recent years because of the part the issue of Israel plays in British politics, which has led to the deeply damaging phenomenon of some Jews, here in the UK but more seriously in France for example, expressing support for far-right, anti-Muslim parties, which say they back Israel because it’s the front line of the battle against Islamism. But for all Ken Livingstone’s dubious embracing of the homophobic Egyptian Islamic theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who justified suicide bombing, it seems to me to be a serious misreading of Ken’s politics to place him among the perceived enemies of the Jews.
Frankly, I was rather surprised to see Jonathan travelling so far down the road of identity politics in his Guardian article. I think there is a distinct difference between, on the one hand, being aware of the impact of political policies on Jews and actively campaigning on them, yet remaining universalist in political outlook, and on the other hand, allowing Jewish identity or sensibility to be the principal determining factor in one’s political outlook. (There are very good examples of some American Jewish organizations that successfully achieve the former.) The danger inherent in identity politics has been starkly highlighted by the deeply depressingresult of the West Bradford by-election, in which a massive Muslim swing to the maverick George Galloway, who shamelessly pandered to what he perceived to be Muslim interests, wiped out the Labour majority. I can’t believe Jonathan approves of such a development for one second, and yet it seemed to me that his article could easily be read as endorsing this kind of ethnification of politics.
I think there are two lessons that can be drawn from the ‘Ken and the Jews’ drama. The first is that for ethnic and religious minorities that are or have been disadvantaged, the fight for civic equality, political representation, an end to discrimination, and the basic desire just to be treated as equal citizens and not as the ‘other’, never fully comes to an end. The persistent nature of prejudice means that gains achieved can be eroded in certain circumstances, and not necessarily in ways that are overt or deliberate. Nevertheless, Jews today are far less vulnerable to this process than other minority groups, which does not mean that we can afford to be complacent, nor that we should shirk our responsibility for fighting for the rights of other minorities to achieve the same status in British society that Jews now have.
The second lesson is that, as Jews we need to pay far more attention to detoxifying the role that the Israel-Palestine conflict plays in British politics and inter-communal relations. This is fundamentally a matter of first and foremost telling the truth to ourselves about the deeply damaging nature of Israeli government policies and the legally and morally unacceptable manner in which Israel as a state behaves towards the Palestinians both inside pre-1967 Israel and in the occupied territories. This is not something we must do to please or appease anyone else. It’s simply a matter of being true, come what may, to the human rights principles we say we believe in and which have been so central to the positive transformation of the position of Jews in the world since the end of the Second World War.