Ken: I oppose Qaradawi on Israel

Five days before he faces community leaders and other voters at a keenly-anticipated meeting in central London, Labour’s candidate tackled many of the thorny issues that have coloured his relationship with Anglo-Jewry.

On Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian cleric who has condoned suicide bombings in Israel and who Livingstone has steadfastly defended since embracing him at City Hall in 2004, Livingstone did appear to take at least some account of communal anger for the very first time. He said: “Let me make it absolutely clear that I oppose suicide bombings in Israel or anywhere else. I oppose all violence. I honestly think we had this debate quite extensively four years ago in the run up to the last mayoral election. What people want to know now is how we deal with the very difficult times all Londoners are living through.”

And asked directly if, as he has continually used al-Qaradawi’s stance against al-Qaeda in the Sheikh’s defence, he equally opposes his stance on attacks in Israel, he said: “Yes. I have never said I agree with everything he says. And I want to see an end to all the violence and I want a peaceful, negotiated settlement that ensures the Israelis and Palestinians forge a future based on an equal footing.”

But in what will be viewed as disappointing, but not surprising, by many readers, he failed directly to answer a question on whether he has sympathy with those who’ve claimed he should have apologised sooner for likening a Jewish reporter to a concentration camp guard. He also failed to show any hint of regret for appearing on, and accepting money from, Iranian state-funded Press TV.

Rejecting claims by his rival Boris Johnson in last week’s Jewish News that he was pitting communities against each other for electoral gain, Livingstone said: “Quite the opposite. My meeting with Jewish Labour supporters was part of an ongoing process of engagement.

“One outcome of the real engagement I have with Jewish Londoners compared to the way the Tories take the relationship for granted is that there is no mention of Jewish Londoners in the Conservative Mayoral manifesto, not a single mention, whereas my manifesto has clear commitments on Jewish culture, community security, addressing the needs of Jewish Londoners. I will encourage unity and dialogue. Look at how I dealt with the terrorist attacks on 7/7. I worked to ensure the city held together. That’s my fundamental approach.”

And on the allegation, since denied, that he hinted Jews wouldn’t vote for him because they were rich, Livingstone clarified that he could “see that the way the conversation unfolded meant an interpretation was placed on what I said that people were offended.

“Controversies like this can lead to people refusing to acknowledge them and getting dug in. That’s why I immediately wrote a response that I hoped would show that the last thing I think is that Jewish people would not vote for me. If I believed that Jewish people won’t vote Labour in this election, and I did not value the opinions and concerns of Jewish Londoners, I would not have spent my evening at that meeting [with Jewish Labour supporters]. I do listen and I heard what people had to say.”

He insisted that he would “work with the London Jewish Forum and other Jewish organisations to ensure the priorities of Jewish Londoners of all backgrounds are taken seriously by London government. Some may accuse me of getting things wrong, but let’s be absolutely clear: I care about what happens in London, and Jewish people are part of London.”

Livingstone added that there had been a “lot of mischief” over claims he would promote London as a “beacon of Islam”. He said: “If I’m elected, my policy will not be to promote one faith or community over another but to promote inter-faith and inter-community dialogue.

“My point about Islam is simply that sometimes demonisation of Islam is used to justify racism towards many Londoners and we ought to collectively agree that this is a bad thing. I want my mayoralty to be at the forefront of encouraging dialogue. I’ve said that if I am asked to come along to Limmud as mayor then I’d be delighted to attend, not least because I know that inter-community and inter-faith dialogue is an important part of that.”

Livingstone’s running mate, Val Shawcross, had criticised him for not apologising sooner for likening the Evening Standard’s Oliver Finegold to a concentration camp guard when he was questioning him after a City Hall event in 2004. Livingstone said he had apologised at a London Jewish Forum reception in City Hall. “There can, no doubt, be an argument about whether I should have done it sooner. But I think most of us, including me, really want to talk about London, and Jewish London, in the here-and-now and look at the future.”

Livingstone also stressed he had “no truck” with the Holocaust denying views of the Iranian government, despite being paid to host a TV show on the regime’s mouthpiece, Press TV, now banned in Britain. “Holocaust denial is one of the most poisonous opinions around,” he said. “The Holocaust was the most terrible racial crime. If I’m elected, I will support the excellent work that is done to make sure no one forgets what happened.

“If I lived in Iran with my political views I would probably have been persecuted. I have no truck with the politics of the Iranian regime. I very much hope we can find a way to avoid a war that could cause terrible bloodshed.”

On the domestic front, in a move that will be applauded by those opposed to boycotts of Israel, he also expressed strong opposition to a call by some performers and writers to disinvite Israel’s national theatre from a Cultural Olympiad event at the Globe Theatre next month. “I disagree with that. I don’t want the Olympics, including the Cultural Olympiad, turned into a political football.”

Meanwhile, he also made clear that he would attend the Guildhall commemoration for the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics “if I am invited”.

He added: “I think it’s important to remember what happened and to insist that all athletes are able to participate in the Games free from harm.”
Discussing issues of concern to all Londoners, Livingstone claimed: “I will save the average fare payer 1,000 pounds year. The Tories will raise fares every year. Knife crime, robbery and burglary are up, but the Tory mayor cut the police by 1,700 officers. I will reverse the police cuts.

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Top actors want Israel boycott at London Shakespeare festival

In a letter published in the Guardian, Emma Thompson, Mike Leigh, Jonathan Miller, Alexei Sayle, Richard Wilson, Miriam Margolyes and 31 others urged Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to uninvite Tel Aviv’s Habima, “so the festival is not complicit with human rights violations and illegal colonisation”.

Habima is due to perform a Hebrew rendition of The Merchant of Venice, as one of the Bard’s 37 plays, to be performed in 37 different languages. Among other theatre companies invited are those from China, Russia, Tunisia, the Palestinian Authority, Turkey and Oman. The letter noted that the general manager of Habima had declared the “invitation ‘an honorable accomplishment for the state of Israel’. But Habima has a shameful record of involvement with illegal Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian Territory.”

The letter further read that “last year, two large Israeli settlements established Halls of Culture and asked Israeli theatre groups to perform there. A number of Israeli theatre professionals, actors, stage directors, playwrights, declared they would not take part. By inviting Habima, Shakespeare’s Globe is undermining the conscientious Israeli actors and playwrights who have refused to break international law.”

The Globe Theatre said it would hold a discussion on theatre and politics after Habima had performed at the festival, on 28 and 29 May. It added that the Tel Aviv-based theatre was “the most respected Hebrew-language theatre company in the world”. It was, therefore, “a natural choice to any programmer wishing to host a dramatic production in Hebrew. They are committed, publicly, to providing an arena for sensible dialogue between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians.”

Habima’s Ilan Ronen said: “The letter is filled with half truths. Habima Theatre doesn’t hold any political policies, and any attempt to present it in such a light just harms the artists. Habima is a democratic and pluralistic theatre. Some of the plays performed at our theatre criticise the Israeli government’s policies in the settlements. Portraying Habima as a mouthpiece of this or that policy does a disservice to anyone who’s a part of our endeavour.”

The Israeli embassy in London said: “This is a clear attempt to mix culture and politics. We will continue to act in order that this phenomenon is not repeated and that Israeli artists due to appear in Britain do so without fear.”

The Zionist Federation’s Alan Aziz said: “What a sad indictment on these signatories that they are calling for a cultural event to be cancelled for misguided reasons. Where are their similar calls against some of the other participants of the festival who are guilty of genuine human rights abuses? Why is Israel the only country being singled out?”

A blogger, writing on the It’s Complicated website, noted the irony that the “person who initiated and worked tirelessly to give the Globe Theatre its second life was Sam Wanamaker, the Jewish-American actor who was forced to leave the US to find work in London as a result of being blacklisted during the McCarthy reign of terror. Sadly, he died a few years before seeing the new theatre fully built, but I imagine he would be disgusted with this new witch hunt.”

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Cameron¹s the choice for Anglo-Jewish voters

A staggering 48 percent (290) of those questioned over the course of the
past four weeks claimed that they would be voting for Cameron’s Conservative
Party in the general election, compared to just 17 percent (105) for the
Liberal Democrats and Labour on 15 percent (88).

David Cameron is the right man to lead Britain for the next five years. That
is the decisive verdict that emerged from an exclusive poll of
more than 600 Jewish voters across London and beyond.

A staggering 48 percent (290) of those questioned over the course of the
past four weeks claimed that they would be voting for Cameron¹s Conservative
Party in the general election, compared to just 17 percent (105) for the
Liberal Democrats and Labour on 15 percent (88).

Around four percent indicated that they would be supporting a party other than the three main ones while nearly one in six had yet to decide where they would place their cross ahead of ysterday’s poll.

The national polls correctly pointed to a hung Parliament, with a
significant percentage of undecided voters proving decisive
in determining the make-up of the government following one of
the closest elections in decades.

Conservative Lee Scott, who was re-elected in Ilford North, said ahead of the results that the Jewish News poll is “tremendously
encouraging” although he was taking
“nothing for granted” either nationally or locally. He added: “I know you will find a Conservative government would be fair-minded and would be good for both the Jewish community and Israel.”

The Jewish News poll was conducted on the streets of north London between 29 April and 4 May, and online throughout the four-week campaign. Despite persistent fears over the Liberal Democrats’ position on Israel and the recent
much-publicised comments of the party¹s deputy leader in the Lords, it seems
that the community was not immune to the bounce enjoyed by the Lib Dems
following Nick Clegg¹s performance in the first televised leaders’ debate.

Interestingly, though, Labour received far more support than the Liberal
Democrats when the offline results from the past week are taken in
isolation.

Monroe Palmer, chair of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel, said of the
overall result: “I think this poll has shown that there is a strong Liberal
Democrat presence in the areas where Jewish News circulates.
“I think that the Jewish community reacts to national events as well as to
events which excite some members of the Jewish community.² He also predicted
that a number of “Liberal Democrat friends of Israel would be elected
including Ed Fordham in Hampstead and Kilburn”. Asked about the concern over
the potential impact on relations with Israel should the Lib Dems form part
of the next government, Palmer said: “I know Nick Clegg very well and he is
a great admirer of the state of Israel. But he, like other politicians of
other parties, is not afraid to be a critical friend of Israeli policy.” He
added: “We’ve been at the forefront of attacking anti-Semitism.”

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Clegg Tackles Your Questions

During a sometimes heated hour-long event on Monday – a gathering which was part of efforts by the party to reconnect with Anglo-Jewry following a series of controversies involving senior party figures – those international hot potatoes were among a wide range of issues on which the Lib Dem leader was quizzed by readers of the paper.

But the event – initiated by Jewish News columnist Fiyaz Mughal, who advises Clegg on interfaith issues – was dominated by questions over the party leader’s own critical words of the nature of Israel’s military action. In January, it led him to call for the EU to suspend a proposed new cooperation agreement with Israel “until things change in Gaza” and for Gordon Brown to halt Britain’s arms exports to the country.

When pressed on the subject during the event at Local Government Association House, he insisted it was the “overwhelming nature” of the IDF’s action with which he took issue. “Israel has and should retain the right to retaliate to unacceptable provocation and attack from thousands of rockets being lobbed into Israeli territory from the Gaza Strip,” he said. “So the principle of military action is one that I don’t dispute for a minute. I am very clear, Hamas I regard as a terrorist organisation…I think its views on Israel are abhorrent.”

But as well as pointing out that Israeli military commanders conceded they wouldn’t be able to stop all rockets, he said he believed the nature of the operation in December and January was not in Israel’s own security interests. “The effect of the deployment of such overwhelming force seems to me to lead directly to further radicalisation amongst large parts of the Palestinian community, a legitimisation of Hamas and a marginalisation, a weakening of moderate mainstream Palestinian opinion particular ly the leadership in Ramallah.”

While Clegg said he was cautious about dispensing advice to Israeli leaders, he pointed to conversations he had had with senior figures in the Northern Ireland peace process who say ” the only way to beat the extremists and the terrorists is to drain the swamp of support they have in the community in which they find themselves’.

He added: “If economic isolation, political isolation or military bombardment could have worked, I would suggest it would have worked by now. And I see no evidence that it is working…As both an admirer of Israel and a friend of Israel that frustrates me immensely, that a strategy which doesn’t work is being pursued constantly, constantly, constantly.”

Turning his attention to domestic issues, the Lib Dem leader spoke of the importance of people going out to vote in the forthcoming European elections in order to prevent the BNP making gains and addressed controversial comments by Baroness Jenny Tonge and Chris Davies that had caused friction between the party and community members in recent years.

Would he be willing to withdraw the whip if similar sentiments were repeated? “I’ll always be prepared to withdraw the whip from colleagues who cross the line,” he told the audience. “I made it quite clear that neither Chris Davies nor Jenny Tonge speak for the party on the issue of the Middle East and never will. I don’t for one moment accept their allegations… Both Jenny and Chris know what my views are, they know how strongly I feel about what they have said in the past.”

Describing Durban I as an “absolute scandal”, Clegg said: “I’ve noticed that Canada, the United States, Israel and now Italy have all decided to withdraw from Durban II because they feel that Durban II will be a repetition of Durban I.

“My own view is that if there’s any risk of that happening we should withdraw as well. I think the United Kingdom has no place whatsoever in legitimising a repeat of what was a wholly biased partial anti-Israeli rant.”

Congratulating the Jewish News on “an excellent evening”, Board of Deputies President and event chair Henry Grunwald said: “Whether or not he changed the views of those who questioned him about Israel he answered all their questions head on and clarified his views on this important issue.

“He will have impressed all those present with the way that he answered all of their questions on so many topics so fully and frankly. I particularly welcome his very clear statement about withdrawal from the Durban review conference.”

Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel Chairman Monroe Palmer admitted that he had been worried “about a meeting that could have been confrontational, but in fact what happened was a frank and helpful exchange of views”.

Ed Fordham, the party’s parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, who helped to organise the event, added: “I think this is part of the Liberal Democrats reconnecting with the Jewish community. This isn’t a one-off event. It’s part of a series of initiatives.”

Clegg told the Jewish News after the event: “I really welcomed the opportunity to have a vigorous debate with members of the Jewish community about issues important to them.

“It was clear to me from this event, that readers of Jewish News and the Liberal Democrats have many shared values which I hope to build upon in the coming weeks and months.”

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