After the London Polling (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 4, June 10, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. For London Jews, Mayor Ken Livingstone's loss to Boris Johnson was marred by the triumph of the far-right British National Party in elections for the London Assembly London's Jews don't know whether to celebrate or mourn. In local government elections on May 1, voters ousted a far-left mayor who had become a hated figure in the community, but they also elected a member of the far-right British National Party (BNP), where tinges of anti-Semitism frequently surface, to a key post in the capital's administration. The mayor, Ken Livingstone, whose fiery politics are reflected in his nickname, "Red Ken," is disliked by the Jews because of his frequent anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian remarks and outbursts, which reveal prejudice against Jews. Many in the Jewish community hope that the colorful Conservative candidate Boris Johnson, who defeated Livingstone with the support of most of the members of the community, will turn out to be more to their liking. But the satisfaction felt by many of the capital's 200,000 Jews at Livingstone's loss was marred by the triumph of the BNP, which for the first time won a seat in the 25-member London Assembly, the city-wide local government chamber linked to the mayor's office. Though the anti-immigration party has tried desperately to fight accusations of anti-Semitism, it is still widely perceived as racist and fascist. It does not help their image that the party's national leader, Nick Griffin, is on record as having made Holocaust-denying statements, although he has subsequently disowned them. Livingstone has been the capital's mayor since the post was created in 2000. He was first elected as an independent, having lost the Labor Party selection battle, and was then re-elected in 2004 as the official Labor candidate. A charismatic, populist, radical figure, his statements about the Middle East dismayed many British Jews. In a 2003 speech, he condemned Britain's willingness to sell arms to an Israel led by Ariel Sharon, calling him "a war criminal." In 2004, Livingstone hosted the controversial Egyptian cleric Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who holds extreme views on women and gays and has voiced support for Palestinian suicide bombers. Responding to protests, Livingstone wrote, "If you wish to say that I should not share a platform with anyone who seeks to justify suicide bombing by Palestinians, but that I should be indifferent to Israel blowing the bodies of women and children apart with modern missiles, bombs, tank shells and bullets while illegally occupying their land and destroying their homes - I can tell you that I regard such double standards to be pure moral hypocrisy." Livingstone outraged Jews and many others when, in 2005, he likened a Jewish reporter, Oliver Finegold of the Evening Standard, whom he perceived as harassing him, to a concentration-camp guard. A local government review body suspended him for four weeks for bringing his office into disrepute, but this judgment was later overturned by the High Court. Another outburst with anti-Semitic overtones occured in 2006, after a row over a land deal on the site for the 2012 Olympics, which London is hosting, involving the wealthy Jewish businessmen David and Simon Reuben, who are British-born and come from an Indian-Iraqi family. They should "go back to Iran and try their luck with the ayatollahs," Livingstone told a press conference, prompting the Guardian to comment that his remarks would "shame a loudmouth pub buffoon." Across the enraged Jewish community, there were grassroots efforts to topple Livingstone. In a Passover sermon, Yitzchak Schochet, rabbi of Mill Hill Synagogue and one of London's best-known Jewish religious leaders, asked: "Is it fathomable that a leader who benefited so much because of the Jews [referring to the support Livingstone ini- tially received from the Jewish community] could actually betray the Jews?" Livingstone received a bashing from other rabbis too. Even Livingstone's deputy, Jewish Labor party politician Nicky Gavron, acknowledged in a post-results interview with the Jewish Chronicle that the meetings with Qaradawi "was very damaging in relation to the Jewish vote... it did cause offense." All of this "acted to persuade many Jewish Labor voters to vote for Boris Johnson, and get rid of Ken," Adrian Cohen, head of the London Jewish Forum, an organization set up in response to these run-ins in order to represent London Jewry's interests to local administration, tells The Report. Johnson is always keen to make a connection with the Jewish community. His great-grandfather, Elias Avery Lowe, was the Moscow-born son of a textiles merchant. He claims that another great-grandfather was a Muslim journalist and politician, Ali Kemal Bey. Born in New York in 1964, Johnson was educated at Eton, the school of choice for Britain's upper classes. He studied classics at Oxford, worked briefly as a management consultant before becoming a trainee reporter with "The Times" newspaper and went on to hold several other journalistic posts. In 1999 he was appointed editor of the right-of-center Spectator magazine, which he left in 2005 when he was appointed Shadow Minister for Higher Education. He was elected to parliament in 2000. He is well known for his mop of blond hair, his love of cycling, his eccentric ways and his lack of tact. Examples include a 2004 editorial in the "Spectator" where he criticized the city of Liverpool for over-egging grief for Ken Bigley, a British contractor who was taken hostage and later killed in Iraq. At the 2006 Conservative Party conference, he was reported to have taken a swipe at the massively popular TV chef Jamie Oliver, who campaigns for healthy school meals. He would like to "get rid of [him] and tell people to eat what they like," he reportedly said. As for what the Jewish community can expect from him: He has already pledged to take action on housing shortages in the 30,000-strong ultra-Orthodox community and support Jewish cultural projects. He has appointed several Jews as advisors. Sir Simon Milton, outgoing leader of Westminster City Council and a member of West London Synagogue, will be senior planning adviser. Advertising executive Dan Ritterband, a former national president of the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization who was campaign director for his mayoral campaign, will be head of marketing for mayoral office. Before the election, Johnson spoke to the London Jewish Forum about his determination to tackle anti-Semitism and his dedication to protecting, in the light of periodic challenges, the existing arrangement according to which Jewish schools can receive state funding for secular studies. Strong statements on the Middle East are unlikely, as Johnson has said that he believes that the mayor should steer clear of foreign policy. Rabbi Avraham Pinter, a former Labor councilor and de-facto spokesman for London's ultra-Orthodox Jews, is optimistic about Johnson's election. He tells The Report that, "Expectations are very high, in both the Jewish community at large and in the haredi community. As for Israel, he [Johnson] seems to have learned from Ken's mistakes, and though he is pro-Israel, as a community we expect, and hope, that he will keep away from international issues and simply be a good mayor for London." But the optimism over Johnson was counter-balanced by the BNP's showing. It polled 5.3 percent of the votes; giving candidate Richard Barnbrook one of the assembly's 25 seats, as well as boosting its number of municipal councilors nationwide by 10, to 55. Rabbi Schochet tells The Report of his "elation" at getting rid of Livingstone, while describing how his joy was lessened by the "tragedy" of the BNP result. "This shows that we can never rest on our laurels, that there are always threats there and that we need to always be looking over our shoulders and see what's coming," he says. The Jewish community did see the BNP threat coming. The Board of Deputies, the community's official representative organization, refrained from intervening in the Livingston-Johnson race. But it was so worried that it made a rare entry in to the party political arena and in partnership with dozens of Jewish religious and cultural organizations, ran a sustained campaign called Hope Not Hate, urging people to get to the polling booths and use their vote to keep the BNP out. It was not only the BNP's extremist anti-immigrant declarations and attacks on "blacks and Asians" that worried the community; it was also its new-found "moderation." The BNP has begun to campaign on mainstream issues that affect the average Briton. Its list of policies offers solutions to the top ten bugbears of Middle Britain. To high immigration, it promises a complete halt; to European Union bureaucracy, it promises withdrawal from the EU. It pledges to crack down on crime, boost the economy, make schools more disciplined, strengthen British farming, invest in transport, save the environment, stop defense cuts, and bring the troops home from Iraq. Extract from an article in Issue 4, June 10, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.