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Who speaks for the Jews? Livingstone and the Board of Deputies

The Hindu, 5 March

The news that the elected Mayor of London was to be suspended from office for a month at the direction of an appointed tribunal startled Londoners, partly because few had any idea that there existed a body with the power to overturn their democratic preference, and partly because the penalty seemed so disproportionate to the alleged offence.

The tribunal ruled that Livingstone had been “unnecessarily insensitive and offensive” to a Jewish journalist who approached him outside a private party in February last year. When the journalist identified himself as working for the Evening Standard, a long-time nemesis of the London Mayor, Livingstone chided him: “What did you do? Were you a German war criminal?” The reporter said he was Jewish and that he found the remarks offensive. Livingstone then told him he was acting “like a concentration camp guard — you are just doing it because you are paid to.”

The background here is that the right-wing Standard, London’s biggest-selling daily paper, has been engaged in battle with the left-wing Livingstone, London’s most popular politician, for a quarter of a century. The Standard is owned by Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail, which opposed Jewish immigration in the early years of the twentieth century and championed Hitler in the 1930s. Since then, it has waged inflammatory campaigns against black and Irish people, and more recently against asylum seekers and Muslims.

When the story broke, Livingstone was accused of boorishness, insensitivity towards holocaust victims, and even anti-semitism. He was asked to apologise but refused, basically arguing that he had every right to be rude to a journalist working for this particular organisation. On the question of the alleged offence to Jewish people, he said: “I have been deeply affected by the concern of Jewish people in particular that my comments downplayed the horror and magnitude of the holocaust. I wish to say to those Londoners that my words were not intended to cause such offence and that my view remains that the holocaust against the Jews is the greatest racial crime of the 20th century.”

For some reason, that plain-spoken statement was not good enough for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who made a formal complaint to the local government watchdog. Now that this complaint has resulted, a year later, in Livingstone’s suspension from office, many commentators shocked by the severity and undemocratic nature of the penalty nonetheless blame Livingstone for bringing it on himself by his refusal to apologise. That seems a perverse interpretation of events. It was the determination of the Board of Deputies to lay the matter before the statutory authorities that led to London being deprived of its elected Mayor for four weeks.

Just weeks before Livingstone’s contretemps with the Evening Standard journalist, Prince Harry was photographed wearing Nazi regalia at a private party (guests had been asked to dress in “colonial or native” attire). In contrast to its aggressive pursuit of Livingstone, the Board of Deputies adopted an emollient approach to the third in line to the throne. “It was clearly in bad taste,” said a spokesperson for the Board, but he added that the young royal had apologised and so there was no more to be said. When it was revealed, shortly after the Livingstone incident, that senior Daily Mail executives had donned Nazi costumes at a fancy dress party held in 1992, the Board said it was “not an issue at this moment in time”. However, it did find the time and energy to denounce Interpal, a prominent Palestinian charity, as a “terrorist organisation”. As a result of an out-of-court settlement following a libel action, the Board was forced to retract the charge and apologise for making it.

Recently, the Board joined the Chief Rabbi in condemning the decision of the Church of England to withdraw its ?2.5 million investment in Caterpillar, the US-based corporation that manufactures the bulldozers used by the Israeli army to demolish Palestinian homes and farms. “The timing could not have been more inappropriate,” the Chief Rabbi argued, because Israel at this moment found itself “facing two enemies, Iran and Hamas”. The Caterpillar decision, he warned, would have “the most adverse repercussions on … Jewish-Christian relations in Britain.”

And here the agenda becomes increasingly obvious. It’s not about protecting the rights of Jews in Britain; it’s about protecting Israel from scrutiny and protest. The aim is to muddy the waters – and the reputations of critics of Israel like Livingstone – with charges of anti-semitism. In his denunciation of the Church’s stand on Israel, the Chief Rabbi drew no distinction whatsoever between Jews as a whole and Israel as a state. Worse yet, he identified Jews in Britain with some of the most inexcusable policies of a particularly abhorrent Israeli government. I’m far from being the only Jew in Britain who finds these equations anti-semitic, whether they come from Iran’s Ahmadinejad, Malaysia’s Mahathir or those who claim to speak on behalf of Jews.

The British media treat the Chief Rabbi and the Board of Deputies as the authentic (and exclusive) representatives of Jews in Britain, despite the fact that neither is elected by or accountable to the Jewish community as a whole. The Chief Rabbi heads the Orthodox Synagogues, to which a minority of Jews are affiliated. He can make no claims on behalf of Reform, Chasidic, Sephardic or non-synagogue affiliated Jews. The Board of Deputies is a self-perpetuating collection of worthies and it’s safe to say that 90% of British Jews have no idea how they’re chosen.

Neither the vendetta against Livingstone nor the diatribe against the Church of England have served the real interests of Britain’s diverse Jewish population. The cheapening of the grave charge of anti-semitism has made it harder to oppose and expose the real thing, which certainly exists. The elevation of brutal Israeli realpolitik into an article of faith is a mockery of the ethical, universalist strand of Judaism that once flowed into revolutionary social movements around the world. It’s not Livingstone, but the Board of Deputies that has shown disrespect for the holcoaust – by seeking to exploit it in pursuit of a parochial political smear-campaign.

In recent weeks, many Muslims have professed despair over the antics of the self-proclaimed champions of their community. I think I know just how they feel.