LONDON (Feb. 22)
London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, has appalled British Jews, defied Prime Minister Tony Blair and faces an official inquiry into his behavior that could see him barred from public life. But the controversial mayor still refuses to apologize for accusing a Jewish reporter of “being just like a concentration camp guard.”
“There will be no apology,” Livingstone said Tuesday, though he added that his words “were not intended to cause such offense.”
That qualification was not enough to assuage the feelings of British Jewish leaders.
“He knows that Holocaust survivors were deeply wounded by his remarks,” said Britain’s Orthodox chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. “He may not have intended this, but that was the effect of his words, and therefore he must accept responsibility. His failure to offer an unequivocal apology is both regrettable and damages the stature of his office.”
The scandal was sparked two weeks ago, after journalist Oliver Finegold approached Livingstone as the mayor left a reception at his City Hall headquarters. On learning that the reporter worked for the Evening Standard, the mayor asked, “Were you a German war criminal?”
When Finegold said he was Jewish, Livingstone replied: “Ah, well you might be, but actually you are just like a concentration camp guard, you are just doing it because you are paid to, aren’t you?”
Justifying his actions, Livingstone emphasized that the newspaper group that owns the Evening Standard had “a record of supporting fascism” in the 1930s. Ironically, when Livingstone worked as a freelance restaurant reviewer he sometimes had pieces published in the Standard.
Even after the London Assembly unanimously voted that he should make a public apology, Livingstone insisted, “What I said, I stand by.”
His voice shaking with emotion, he said he had been a victim of media harassment for the past 24 years, adding, “I could apologize, but why should I say words that I don’t believe in my heart?”
Following a complaint from the Board of Deputies, the representative body of British Jewry, a formal investigation was launched to consider whether Livingstone breached public standards. If found guilty, he could be banned from office for five years.
As the scandal grew, Blair added his voice to those demanding a retraction, calling on Livingstone to “just apologize and move on — that’s the sensible thing.”
Yet Livingstone remained defiant, claiming that this week his office had received more than 1,500 letters and e-mails from the public, with 74 percent expressing support for him.
Among the Jewish community, however, his popularity ratings are likely to be substantially lower. A vehement critic of Israel, Livingstone repeatedly has slammed the actions of the Jewish state, once describing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as being steeped in Arab blood “for over half a century.”
His close contact with the radical Muslim Association of Britain also has worried community leaders. And last July, he publicly hosted a controversial Muslim imam, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Qatar-based cleric who justifies Palestinian suicide bombings.
In response to Qaradawi’s visit, a coalition of Jewish, Sikh and moderate Muslim groups produced a report detailing their concerns. Livingstone countered with a dossier that declared Qaradawi had been the victim of a smear campaign led by Israeli intelligence.
Livingstone’s nickname, Red Ken, comes from his days on the Labor Party’s far left in the 1980s. His outspoken, anti-establishment attitude always has been a large part of his public appeal.
He broke with Labor to run successfully for mayor in May 2000. Championing public transport as passionately as he denounced U.S. President Bush, he proved so popular with Londoners that he was welcomed back into the party to win a further four-year term last year.
But it seems Livingstone’s love of controversy may yet derail him politically. With a general election a possibility this May, a poll taken this week for the Guardian newspaper found that Livingstone’s ratings were so bad, even among Labor voters, that he could well become a campaign liability for his party.