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Ken and the Jews

Unlike Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian, I shall be voting for Ken Livingstone to be London’s Mayor, I shall be out campaigning for him and I shall be arguing against those in Labour’s ranks who, from the outset, have sought to undermine and damage his campaign. He offers the best policies for London and his leadership, so often denigrated by hostile media and political enemies, has always changed London for the better. But his approach to the Jewish community in London is foolish and wrong, will damage him further and I am sorry that he shows no sign of listening to friendly advice.

My criticism of Ken is not about Israel or Zionism. Although my (secular) Jewish identity has always been important to my political development, like almost one in four British Jews, I am not a Zionist. I oppose Israel’s occupation and settlement of the West Bank and Gaza, and the abuse of Palestinian human rights under occupation, and I favour immediate UN recognition of a Palestinian state. Ken’s views on these subjects may not play well in London’s Jewish community, but that’s not my gripe, and for the vast majority of British Jews, Israel isn’t a central issue when they vote even if it is important to most of them.

Nor am I opposed to Ken’s meetings with controversial radical Islamists either, though I wish he had clarified with Yusuf al-Qaradawi his opposition to suicide bombings targeted at civilians as clearly as his younger moustachioed self opposed IRA bombs in London when he bravely met with Sinn Fein representatives back in 1982. Based on his record, I don’t think Ken’s opposition to al-Qaradawi’s homophobia is in any doubt, nor do I think Ken has, as Ed Miliband put it, a single antisemitic bone in his body.

My complaint is that Ken appears to have written off the votes of the Jewish community. And though he must be aware of how much he has alienated many otherwise Labour-supporting Jews, he appears uninterested in developing a strategy for countering that hostility.

The row started with the leaking of a letter from six Labour members, active in the party but also prominent in London’s Jewish community.  It was leaked not by them, according to a party source, but by someone within party headquarters with a grudge against Ken. There are indeed people who answer to that description, some of them responsible for other recent leaks, or with a track record of undermining Ken’s campaign. Although it has been accompanied by negative and distorted hype in the Jewish Chronicle, the so-called “devastating letter” was intended to promote private discussion about strategy not public criticism. The signatories have tried to avoid public comment since but the letter’s positive objectives are revealed in its conclusion:

We firmly believe that Ken can turn this situation around, and can count on Jewish voters to help him be elected Mayor of London. But he does however desperately need to face up to the issues we raise.

But it did contain criticism. For me, the most important were, firstly:

At various points in the discussion Ken used the words Zionist, Jewish and Israeli, interchangeably, as if they meant the same, and did so in a pejorative manner. These words are not interchangeable and to do so is highly offensive, particularly when repeated over and again as was done.

If you are going to raise issues way outside the brief of the position you’re standing for in the most important election in Britain this year, attention to detail and precision of language is important. Ken’s failure to achieve that is sloppy and offensive, and he should know better. Worse still, however, were his remarks about the relationship between a community’s income or wealth and their propensity to vote Labour. The letter said:

Ken, towards the end of the meeting, stated that he did not expect the Jewish community to vote Labour as votes for the left are inversely proportional to wealth levels, and suggested that as the Jewish community is rich, we simply wouldn’t vote for him.

Although Ken is reported as denying those precise words, he said pretty much the same thing only yesterday as recorded on the Camden New Journal website:

Every sephological study I’ve seen in the 40 years I’ve been following politics shows that the main factor that determines how people vote is their income level – it varies, a lot of people vote against their economic interest, very often, but that is the main factor and it is not anti-semitic to say that.

It isn’t anti-semitic to say that. But it is a shoddy basis for an election strategy, and it is not surprising that even Jewish friends see it as an indication of a lack of interest in their community, compounding the errors of the past. For the record, British Jews are evenly split between Labour and the Conservatives, and their views fall consistently to the left of those in equivalent occupations. Within the community, religious views seem to be a more important determinant of politics than wealth with Labour’s strongest support tending to come from secular, Reform and Liberal Jews – although ultra-orthodox Jews tend to be significantly poorer and are an exception.

So Jews in Redbridge, Harrow and Barnet may be a bit less likely to vote Labour than Jews in Hackney, but more likely to vote Labour than their non-Jewish neighbours, and more likely to turn out than their more working class near-neighbours. They are a smaller community than many others, but in this election we can’t afford to ignore anyone.

None of this is news to the people running Ken’s campaign. They do understand what is at stake, as indicated by what they told Liberal Conspiracy:

It is absolutely not the case that Ken believes Jewish people will not vote Labour – on the contrary, Jewish Londoners are an important part of the Labour vote in London and constitute many of our most important and effective campaigners. Ken’s campaign will reflect the importance of Jewish London, as will his policies and team if elected.

Though there are bound to be different interpretations of what was discussed we view the letter in the spirit in which it was written, of wishing to continue dialogue, and making sure issues of concern to Jewish London are part of Ken’s administration if elected. Ken will maintain a discussion and not allow sensationalist coverage to prevent that.

Jewish Londoners are an important part of the fabric of London and Ken’s campaign will be seeking the votes of all Jewish voters from all backgrounds, incomes and parts of London.

Quite right. Ken needs to listen more closely to his own advisers as well as his supporters in the Jewish community. And stay on message.

The statistical references to British Jews are drawn from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research reports ‘The attitudes of Jews in Britain towards Israel’ and ‘The political leanings of Britain’s Jews‘ and ‘Social and political attitudes of British Jews‘.


  1. Jon

    this is wise and constructive advice. I hope Ken listens.

    My only factual dispute would be with the bit that implies Jews in Hackney are more likely to vote Labour than those in outer London. This used to be the case when there was a big non-Charedi Jewish community here, which voted Labour or even Communist, and probably still is for the couple of thousand non-Charedi Jews here. Unfortunately the large Charedi Jewish community in Stamford Hill votes very heavily for the Tories (or Lib Dems in one ward in council elections) for reasons mainly connected to local planning issues. 5 of the 7 current Tory and Lib Dem councillors in Hackney come from this community. As you know, for religious reasons most of the Charedi community are not Zionists.


  2. Jim Denham says:

    Don’t you realise the significance of your own words?

    “My complaint is that Ken appears to have written off the votes of the Jewish community. And though he must be aware of how much he has alienated many otherwise Labour-supporting Jews, he appears uninterested in developing a strategy for countering that hostility.”

    Don’t you understand that’s because Livingstone is an antisemite? Can you seriously imagine him treating any other ethnic minority in this way?

    The man is a disgrace and unfit to be Labour’s candidate. Unfortunately, he is so we have to vote for him. But he should be expelled from the Labour Party as an antisemitic racist.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      Jim Denham: Having known Ken and been an active supporter of his for over 30 years, in days when the criticisms he faced were far harsher than today, I stand by what I said: I do not believe that Ken has “a single antisemitic bone in his body”. I suspect the explanation for his current stance is that anyone who has faced the barrage of grossly disproportionate and politically-motivated criticism from the Jewish Chronicle and elsewhere for previous alleged errors of judgement (some of which were errors in my view, but others were not) is likely to become overly-defensive and weary of the discussion. In such circumstances, his friends and advisers should make sure he stays on track.

  3. Ravi says:

    Jon, you have completely failed to mention Ken earnings from iranian government back Press TV, which even Ken admits was his single source of earning after the book deal, the fact he tax avoidance of 50K and that Ken has made a bee-line to muslim community leaders meetings and visits to mosques and yet failed to do similar to hindu, jewish and sikh places of worship. Ken has worked it out that of the 5.2Million london voters around 2 million are ethnic. He know only less the half of londoners will turn out on the day to vote, so that 2.6million of these 1.2million are muslims with a near 70% turnout with 60% votes to Labour. So Ken has nearly 700,000 votes in the bag, half of what he need to win.
    Ken and his team have also worked of the other 800,000 ethnic voters, hindus, jews,sikh,tamil there turnout is extremely low, less the 20% and they are mostly also Labour.
    For Ken the maths works, so why care, better to pledge to muslim voters to make London beacon of Islam then a beacon of faiths and this from a atheist, I simple find it difficult to understand why labour supporters are unable to see Ken’s hypocrisy and that Ken is for Ken first and not the labour party. Sadly if he elected he is likely to cause more damage to our party then any single politician in the parliamentary labour party and our hopes for a labour government in 2015 which with cuts and unemployment we should easily win and undo the damage the tory government have and will do, but with Ken a mayor of Islam and a weak leader in Ed we are doomed.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      Ravi: The way in which London celebrates its multiculturalism is one of the things that makes it such a vibrant and exciting place to live, work and visit, and it is a feature of London which Ken has personally done a great deal to foster as Leader of the GLC and as Mayor. I don’t accept that he is selective about Muslim communities – it is rather that his detractors focus on his relationship with Muslim communities which is not unconnected with the wave of Islamophobia that has swept Europe and the US since 9/11.

      Press TV & and tax-avoidance are off-topic. I don’t agree with what you say but they are not up for discussion on this stream. This isn’t a place for generally having a go at Ken.

  4. dolandaka says:

    This reasonable feature – forwarded to me by a friend, has gone a little way to assuaging the distress caused to me by discovering that a politician I have admired and voted for all my life is making ill-judged comments about my community; I remain to be persuaded that I can still vote for him.

    Whether Ken is anti-semitic or not is a moot point. Since his ill-judged remarks to Jewish Labour supporters at their recent meeting, every article I have read on the subect uses the words ‘Jew’ and ‘rich’ repeatedly and often in the same sentence – a semantic link that happens to have caused European Jewry centuries of misery. Maybe Ken cheer-leading for other ethnic minorities in London, whilst writing my community off, has failed to notice this unfortunate spin-off of his sloppy electioneering.

    Livingstone’s cretinous comments have also managed to vandalise the fragile detente between left-leaning, two-state supporting, active trade unionists like myself and Marxists/Socialist Workers who are hard-line anti-Zionists and simply cannot understand our ambivalence about this particular party line. This makes me feel very sad.

    Lastly and on a very personal note: The Jewish community in the UK is minute – 0.05% of the population. This means that Barnet dwelling, Tory voting, Jewish Chronicle readers are invariably close blood relatives of those of us who have in the past been Livinstone’s biggest fans viz: this correspondent. Livingstone probably doesn’t realise or care that we are not all the same, and pride ourselves as a community on the fact that wherever three Jews are gathered there will be at least ten different opinions. I have been defending Ken to my extremely sceptical family for years, imagine how stupid I look now.

    So thanks, Ken, thank-you very much. If I had any energy left today after spending it on yet another march to try to defend our beleaguered teachers’ pensions, I would probably spend it writing you a letter explaining exactly how tempted I am to spoil my ballot paper this year.

  5. Zelig says:


    This isn’t the normal trolling– genuinely curious.

    You say:-

    “Although my (secular) Jewish identity has always been important to my political development, like almost one in four British Jews, I am not a Zionist. I oppose Israel’s occupation and settlement of the West Bank and Gaza, and the abuse of Palestinian human rights under occupation, and I favour immediate UN recognition of a Palestinian state. ”

    I agree your opposition to Israel’s occupation of the WB and Gaza, the various well-documented abuses of Palestinian human rights, and I also support the recognition of a Palestinian state.

    Yet I *would* also call myself a Zionist. Perhaps this is because I am one of those awful wishy-washy and terribly unfashionable liberals who still advocates a two-state solution. One of those two states being Israel– a country fundamentally shaped by Zionism.

    Can you clarify, given our agreement on the recognition of a Palestinian state and our mutual opposition to Israel’s occupation, why you say you’re *not* a Zionist? Is it distaste for the right-wing connotations of the term today? A more fundamental rejection of Jewish self-determination? Or something else?

    Look forward to your response,


    1. Jon Lansman says:

      Zelig: I believe that Jews (like all other people) have the right to live with the identity they choose in the country in which they were born/ brought up, to live as equals with their neighbours with mutual respect. I think that this multiculturalism is a far better response to antisemitism and other forms of racism than the segregation of people into different homelands (even in the unlikely or unusual event that the ethnic cleansing involved in the latter is consensual and non-violent). For that reason, I would have opposed the Balfour declaration in 1917, as so many British Jews did; I would have rejected Zionism as the solution to Jewish problems in Poland in the 1930s, as did the majority of Polish Jews in the last elections before the war. And even now, I do not seek a Jewish homeland for myself or other diaspora Jews.

      I do, however, accept Israel as a fact. I can entirely understand why the UN created it in the aftermath of the Holocaust. I can understand why so many Jews who had previously opposed Zionism supported its creation and perhaps I would have argued for some form of Jewish homeland in Palestine too in 1947. But I regard the Jews who live there now as the Israeli nation not “the Jewish nation”. Jews are and will remain a diaspora people and the government of Israel have no right to dictate otherwise to diaspora Jews. Israel was never about Jewish self-determination, in my view, because most Jews always chose to live elsewhere.

      However, in the context of the existence of Israel (for me the fact of its existence is more important than whether it has a right to exist), I argued for the ‘two state solution’ in my family and community from my teens in the 1970s when neither they nor the Government of Israel even acknowledged the existence of a Palestinian people. I continue to do so now, although the continual expansion of Jewish settlements, the progressive ethic cleansing of Jerusalem, the building of the ‘apartheid’ wall etc, do make it increasingly difficult to achieve.

      I have always preferred to describe myself as non-zionist rather than anti-zionist, because Zionism has always been a broad church and I can regard many Left Zionists as comrades, even if I must agree to differ with them on some issues. Martin Buber, philosopher & Zionist thinker, argued within the Zionist movement for a bi-national solution from very early on. Unfortunately, progressive Left Zionists are an ever diminishing proportion of the Zionist movement as the whole spectrum of Israeli politics moves forever rightwards.

      Hope that answers your question.

  6. Zelig says:


    Thanks for the considered reply: nothing desperately controversial for anyone grounded in Zionist historiography. The only point that jumped out at me was:-

    “Unfortunately, progressive Left Zionists are an ever diminishing proportion of the Zionist movement as the whole spectrum of Israeli politics moves forever rightwards. ”

    well, I *am* one of those left Zionists and it doesn’t seem from what you said that we disagree about much. Interesting that I am sanguine about the “Zionist” label and you’re not.

    All the best,


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