LONDON (Mar. 6)
London’s Jewish community is beginning to waver in the matter of the city’s mayor, whose remarks to a Jewish reporter comparing him to a Nazi were punished with a sentence which was suspended just before it was to start. Ken Livingstone was to begin a four-week paid suspension from office March 1 for his remarks to a Jewish newspaper reporter, Oliver Finegold, whom he compared to a Nazi concentration camp guard. However, the day before the mayor’s suspension was set to start, he successfully lobbied the High Court to have the sanction stayed, pending appeal.
Referring to the appointed, three-member Adjudication Panel for England that handed down his sentence, Livingstone said, “Three members of a body that no one has ever elected should not be allowed to overturn the votes of millions of Londoners.”
Due to the mayor’s outspoken criticism, public attention has shifted away from his remarks to the system itself.
Despite their earlier pleas for an apology from the mayor, a poll last week showed that 84 percent of London Assembly members did not support the sentence.
Sir Anthony Holland, chairman of the Standards Board for England, has said the system “does have flaws.” Others have echoed concerns about the process, including Sir Iqbal Sacranie, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, who told the BBC, “This decision constitutes a clear over-reaction and an affront to our democratic traditions.”
With the twists and turns in the Livingstone case getting harder to follow, the Jewish community’s reaction is becoming mixed.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews is one entity that has not wavered. In December, the board filed a complaint against the mayor, with whom they have clashed in the past over his open criticism of Israel. Livingstone says that the board lodged the complaint solely because of his views on the Israeli government.
After the verdict was announced, the board said it only had sought acknowledgment from Livingstone that his words were inappropriate for the “elected representative of Londoners of all faiths and beliefs.” The board labeled Livingstone “the architect of his own misfortune,” and continued to defend its original complaint, despite mounting criticism.
Leslie Bunder, editor of the SomethingJewish.co.uk Web site, wrote, “There are certainly far more important issues the Board should get involved in rather than the off-the-cuff comment Ken made.”
The Association of Jewish Refugees, which last year dubbed the mayor’s remarks “flippant and disgraceful” and called for a “full and frank apology,” told JTA this week that it’s declining to comment further on the increasingly muddled debate.
The controversy was sparked in February 2005, when Livingstone left a party at City Hall and was approached by the Evening Standard’s Finegold, to whom he said, “Actually, you are just like a concentration camp guard — you are just doing it because you are paid to, aren’t you?”
The mayor later defended his remarks by citing years of harassment from the newspaper and its affiliates, and alluded to the Evening Standard’s alleged “support for fascism” in the 1930s. In fact, Livingstone worked as a restaurant critic for the Evening Standard in the 1990s.
The London Assembly and Prime Minister Tony Blair asked Livingstone to “just apologize and move on.” The mayor defended himself, invoking free speech rights and claiming that he has been “rude to journalists for years.”
In February, the Adjudication Panel for England, a sub-panel of the Standards Board with whom the original complaint was filed, determined that the mayor’s code of conduct had been breached, and that Livingstone had brought his office into disrepute when he acted in an “unnecessarily insensitive” manner. To the surprise of many, the panel ruled to suspend him with full pay for four weeks, effective March 1.
Livingstone has reiterated that he has no plans to apologize, as any apology would be “insincere.” A date for the appeal hearing has not been set.