Ken Livingstone is not anti-semitic

I tried hard not to comment on the debate about Ken Livingstone’s remarks; but if the Prime Minister thinks it is important enough to express an opinion, I suppose it is open season.

First, some facts. Livingstone did not say that Mr Finegold was "behaving like" a concentration camp guard, contrary to reports on the BBC, Times, CNN, etc.

According to this transcript, this is how the conversation went:

Finegold: Mr Livingstone, Evening Standard. How did tonight go?



Livingstone: How awful for you. Have you thought of having treatment?



Finegold: How did tonight go?



Livingstone: Have you thought of having treatment?



Finegold: Was it a good party? What does it mean for you?



Livingstone: What did you do before? Were you a German war criminal?



Finegold: No, I’m Jewish, I wasn’t a German war criminal and I’m actually quite offended by that. So, how did tonight go?



Livingstone: Ah right, 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?



Finegold: Great, I have you on record for that. So, how was tonight?



Livingstone: It’s nothing to do you with you because your paper is a load of scumbags and reactionary bigots.



Finegold: I’m a journalist and I’m doing my job. I’m only asking for a comment.



Livingstone: Well, work for a paper that doesn’t have a record of supporting facism.

It has also been reported that Mr Finegold then offered some four-letter insults in return.


Mr Livingstone apparenty intended to criticise Mr Finegold’s decision to work for Associated Newspapers. He draws a parallel, which he clearly intends as unfavourable, to people who sought to defend their role in the holocaust by saying they were "just doing their job". Mr Livingstone said afterwards:

I don’t suggest for one minute that has anything to do with the Holocaust which was uniquely the most evil chapter in history. But when reporters say to me I’m only doing this because it’s my job… that’s the same abdication of moral responsibility at the thin end of the wedge that in its most extreme and horrific version ends up with others being prepared to stand as a concentration camp guard.

Mr Livingstone is entitled to disapprove of the Evening Standard; and its parent company, Associated Newspapers. He is entitled to disapprove of the people who work for the company, and he is entitled to be offensive to them. He is entitled to be offensive even if the person he offends is jewish. Being offensive to a jewish person is not the same as being anti-semitic. Mr Livingstone does not criticise Mr Finegold for being jewish; he criticises him for working for the Evening Standard. Reaching deep for a profound insult to express his disgust for that newspaper, Mr Livingstone drew on his abhorrence of those who abdicated moral responsibility for their actions during the holocaust. There is no interpretation of his remarks that could be construed as either criticizing Mr Finegold for being jewish, nor as seeking to diminish the atrocity of the holocaust. His remarks were (deliberately) offensive, but they were not anti-semitic.


The over-reaction has been quite astounding. Melanie Phillips claims that Mr Livingstone’s remarks are an implicit Holocaust denial. The London Assembly has censured him. The path of least resistance would be to fall back on the tired formula of "being sorry if I offended anyone". But I rather admire Mr Livingstone’s refusal to make an apology that he does not mean, and which he should be under no obligation to make.

Ken Livingstone has a proud record of standing up for the rights of minorities; and for standing out against discrimination on grounds of race and ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender and disability. Contrast his record to that of Associated Newspapers, which spent the 1930s publishing numerous articles lamenting the number of German Jews entering Britain as refugees after the rise of Nazism, and which, on 9 January 1934, celebrated a British Union of Facists rally with the front page headline: Hurrah for the Blackshirts. For Associated Newspapers to accuse Mr Livingstone of anti-semitism is opportunist hypocrisy. And it would be a supreme injustice if Mr Livingstone were forced to resign at the hands of an organisation that was a leading advocate of appeasement of the Nazis.

As for Tony Blair, he should know better than to get involved in this. As should I. (It is a long time since I have agreed with Boris Johnson, but I agree with him on this. See his excellent article in today’s Telegraph.)

11 thoughts on “Ken Livingstone is not anti-semitic”

  1. Michael Portillo, in his new and attractive role as newspaper columnist and commentator, published an interesting and mostly right-minded commentary on all this in the Sunday Times last week. As it can’t easily be accessed from outside the UK, I venture to reproduce it here for general edification:

    February 20, 2005

    Comment: Michael Portillo: An earlier outburst that is the key to Ken Livingstone

    To understand Ken Livingstone’s extraordinary outburst against a journalist on the London Evening Standard, you would need to know what it is like to be victimised by the press. People think that they can imagine it, but they cannot.

    Strangely, media professionals are the least able to grasp how it feels to be hounded. On two occasions television journalist friends of mine have found themselves on the receiving end of malicious media attention. Each trembled with anguish and anxiety as he told me of the stress he had endured. News hounds surrounded the house and rooted in their rubbish hoping to grub up a dirty magazine or maybe just a bank statement or telephone bill.

    In the profiles written over the years about the mayor of London, commentators have pointed to his cool handling of the press as one reason for his success. Since Livingstone entered the political arena 24 years ago he has survived being one of the media’s top hate figures. During his period as leader of the Greater London Council (1981-86) The Sun called him “the most odious man in Britain”.

    While some politicians can take political abuse in their stride, they find intrusion into their personal life much harder to accept coolly. In 2002 Livingstone was involved in a messy incident at a party. The Evening Standard carried allegations of drunkenness and assault. It went overboard with pages of coverage day after day.

    Livingstone issued a statement of rebuttal that now makes interesting reading. It was long, rambling and emotional. He asserted that: “Editors have more power than any cabinet minister . . . the power to besmirch a reputation and end a career.” He accused Veronica Wadley, editor of the Standard, of being “reckless with the facts and malicious with that power”. The mayor complained that photographers were harassing Emma Beal, his girlfriend, while she was pregnant and appealed for her to be left alone. It sounded like a man at the end of his tether.

    That background helps me to comprehend the recent incident in which Livingstone asked Oliver Finegold, the reporter, whether he was a German war criminal and then suggested that, like a concentration camp guard, he was just “doing it” because he was paid.

    Presumably Livingstone has heard the dirty raincoat brigade of reporters make the excuse, “We’re just doing our job.” What else do you say when you spend hours in a car outside a person’s house, trying to drive his family to distraction, hoping to ruin their lives? It may be hard for such journalists to go home and talk to their children about their work with pride.

    Still it is incredible that Livingstone came out with his remarks. It is easy to see a connection between a reporter’s defence that he is only doing his job and the cliché from the second world war about only following orders. To link the two things is certainly not anti-semitic.

    What is bewildering is that Livingstone, who prides himself on seeing life as minorities see it, could form the thought in his head, let alone the words in his mouth. He might have recalled that the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a global hate figure for the left, was rightly vilified for making a similar remark to a member of the German Social Democratic party at the European parliament. Livingstone now makes an unlikely co-defendant with Prince Harry (who wore a Nazi uniform to a party) as both stand accused of grotesque insensitivity while the world commemorates the liberation of Auschwitz.

    As usual we do not know the full story. Perhaps Finegold was outrageously provocative, which would be par for doorsteppers. In this case the reporter has been rewarded with a huge story and promotion probably beckons. So I do not agree with Tony Blair that Livingstone should apologise because Finegold is Jewish. But clearly the remark has offended Jews and others. It was a daft thing to say and the mayor should say sorry.

    His refusal to bow the knee is intriguing. Why does a man who has spent his career campaigning against racism hold out against putting the record straight? As he sees this fiasco prejudicing his bid for London to host the 2012 Olympic Games, why not take the easy way out and seek forgiveness? Livingstone is no stranger to controversy. As an MP in the 1980s he advocated dialogue with the IRA and Sinn Fein. Last year he hugged Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a Muslim cleric accused of homophobia, anti-semitism and sympathy with suicide bombers. He called President George W Bush corrupt — yet even so most of the Labour party still dislikes him. I admire his fearlessness. It took guts to run for mayor as an independent after Labour had rigged the ballot rules to prevent him winning the party ’s nomination. His victory in 2000 is the biggest slap in the face yet delivered to Blair in an election.

    What marks out Livingstone’s career is that he has won office without trimming. In many ways the world has had to move to accommodate him. Sinn Fein has been received in Downing Street and invited into government. Back in the days of the GLC we derided Livingstone’s political correctness, but we could not foresee that within 20 years parliament would legislate for civil partnerships between gay couples. Even the media blitz that accompanied the GLC’s policy of cheap Tube fares anticipated new Labour’s development of modern techniques to sway public opinion.

    In the 1980s Livingstone was almost universally reviled. With no hope of rehabilitation through the media he set out on a massive charm offensive that involved speaking at every corporate dinner that would invite him. I saw him enchant a lunch at the Chelsea Flower Show with a speech about his love of newts. Over the starched linen and cut crystal of the capital he won over the Establishment, but without making any concessions to it. The contrast with Blair, who got elected by shimmying to the right, could not be greater.

    More like Gordon Brown, Livingstone owes the grudging respect he receives from opinion formers to his achievements in office. When Labour created the office of mayor of London it withheld nearly all the powers that matter. Livingstone has made the most of a weak hand of cards. The congestion charge has given him money to flood the streets with bendy buses.

    There are many arguments against the charge. To me it seems bizarre that a leftwinger uses the price mechanism to make the roads freer for drivers who can afford to pay by banishing those who cannot. Still, Livingstone gets points for taking a political risk. Rarely does a politician identify a problem, devise a solution and implement it.

    In November Londoners were chuntering with indignation because a Spanish football crowd had racially abused several black England players. Of course the outrage was mixed with the pleasurable thought that Madrid’s chances of hosting the Olympics might be scuppered.

    Today newspapers in New York and Paris are crowing about Livingstone’s gaffe. The selection of the host city is a cut-throat business. I think that we should have nothing to do with it. Still politically correct after all these years, Livingstone has designed his Olympic bid not to maximise his chance of winning but as a means to regenerate east London. The selectors will have to be convinced that the distant locations and transport links will be built in time.

    The last Tory government was motivated by a similar obsession with London’s drive to the east. Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza offered us his extraordinary collection of 1,000 paintings in which every great artist of the past millennium is represented by at least one masterpiece.

    We told the baron that we would be happy to house his treasures — out at Canary Wharf (which was then almost inaccessible). Meanwhile, Spain suggested that the beautiful Villahermosa palace in the heart of Madrid might be more suitable, being only a few yards from the superb Prado gallery. No prizes for guessing who won.

    If London does not win it will be because Livingstone skewed his bid to fit his political agenda, making it harder to sell to the selectors. But the mayor’s many enemies will say that London would have become host city but for his intemperate verbal abuse of a reporter. I put more blame on the Evening Standard. Finegold, after all, was only obeying orders.

    Good and illuminating stuff, IMO.


  2. Oh come on. Of all the insults in the English language which Livingston could have chosen, he chose that one.

    And he chose it ten seconds after his interlocutor had revealed that he was Jewish.

    Coincidence? Or reflex?

  3. Imagine if Bloomberg came out of a party — obviously drunk — and started berating a reporter he disliked…who happened to be black? Calling him an “Uncle Tom,” say? Or, asking if “wasn’t your grandfather one of those blacks who owned slaves?”

    He wouldn’t last a minute, no matter how many high minded political activists like you that he’d sucked up to over the years.

    I do not call this political correctness; I call it a more decent political culture.

    As awful as you, no doubt, think we Americans are, at least we have the sense not to tolerate an elected official who behaves like a drunken thug.

  4. Peter

    Don’t stereotype. You’re wrong to assume that I think Americans are awful. I was born in America myself, and members of my immediate family are American. I have many American friends, and I like America so much that I choose to live here. So stick to the issues, and cut out the personal stuff, especially when you have not the slightest idea on the topic.

    Back to the issue. If Ken Livingstone had said something that suggested that he approved of the actions of concentration camp guards, then that would be anti-semitic. And so the converse is true: saying something which indicates his moral repugnance of concentration camp guards cannot be reasonably interpreted as anti-semitic. (Or perhaps you think it is anti-semitic ever to mention concentration camp guards?)

    You sometime hear people throw around the word “fascist” as a term of abuse. When someone uses this term as an insult, are they being anti-semitic? I think not.

  5. Listen, I have plenty of British friends too. I lived in London for four years, 1998-2002. It is not stereotyping to remark that the British Left is anti-American, any more than the Texan Right is anti-Liberal!

    Going back to the main point: stop the hair-splitting about what precisely is anti-Semitic. Let’s talk bad behavior. And it is extremely bad behavior to compare someone’s behavior to that of a Nazi, a Fascist or a Communist…just because he is an adversary.

    It is particularly disgusting behavior when there is an ethnic angle to it. Again, use your imagination a bit and let’s say I confronted Mr. Al Sharpton, someone who IS obnoxious and does deserve confrontation. (Personally,I think he’s the same kind of obnoxious demagogue as Livingstone.) What if I compared Rev. Al to the Hutus? (“But I didn’t say Sharpton was bad just ’cause he’s Black…”)

    In Britain, from what I am reading, such behavior IS being tolerated by the Left because Livingstone is an old friend.

  6. It IS stereotyping to say that because you think I am part of the “British Left”, and because you believe that is a group of people who are anti-American, that you can presume that I am anti-American. I am not.

    Being precise about what is, and what is not, anti-Semitic is right at the heart of this, and is not “hair splitting”. We risk devaluing the idea altogether if we use the term whenever anyone says anything which criticises a jewish person or which disagrees with Israeli policies. Like any religious and racial bigotry, anti-Semitism deserves profound outrage: but we can only rely on getting it if we reserve the term for language or behaviour which attacks or criticises someone for being jewish. We debase the currency by calling people anti-Semitic when they are not.

    I agree that insulting someone – anyone – like this is bad behaviour – indeed, I said in my original post that Ken Livingstone’s remarks were “offensive”. But you do no service to the cause of fighting anti-semitism by labelling all bad behaviour as anti-semitic.

  7. Can you please direct me to a single piece of your writing where you express concern about the term “racism” being debased — for example when this charge is made against whites by Blacks, Asians, etc.

    Somehow, I do not think the cause of fighting anti-semitism to be your primary goal, rather it is coming to the defense of an old friend on the Left under criticism by a bunch of angry folks who happen to be mostly Jewish.

    You might want to ask yourself why British folks get so exercised about this particular example of “debasement,” as opposed to all the others that are so common in political life.

    Personally, I think there is IS anti-Semitism on the British Left, and I define it as:

    – The stereotype of Jews as being rich capitalists and bankers who exploit the poor. (Versus the majority of businessmen and bankers who are Christian!) I do believe Livingstone is latching onto this attitude, in order to appeal to the “angry working class” segment of the electorate.

    – The hatred of Israel among big segments of the educated Left and by this I mean a level of hyper-criticism that is not applied to any other country. For example, the claim that Israel’s Law of the Return is a racist underpinning unmatched by any other country with the exception of Apartheid South Africa. (Conveniently ignoring the underpinnings of other societies, like much of the Muslim world, where the suffering caused by discrimination is far more severe.)

  8. People seem to forget that Livingstone’s recent “concentration camp guard” remarks to a Jewish reporter are not the first, nor the worst, of his offensive remarks abusing the memory of the Holocaust.

    Note this Associated Press dispatch from August 27, 1983:

    A top Labor Party politician sharply criticized Ken Livingstone, left-wing leader of London’s city council, for saying Britain’s treatment of Ireland is “worse than what Hitler did to the Jews.”

    Peter Shore, a candidate for the Labor leadership, said Livingstone’s remarks in a radio interview Friday were “shameful.”

    In the interview with Dublin’s Irish Radio, Livingstone compared Britain’s treatment of the Irish people over the centuries with the Nazi Holocaust of World War II.

    Livingstone, 37, a Marxist, has long been an outspoken critic of the British presence in Northern Ireland.

    This seems to belie Livingstone’s semi-apologetic contentions that he sees the Holocaust as “worst crime of the last century,” etc

    Strangely, this quote seems to have been altogether ignored. The most recent reference to this quote I found was in a Reader’s Digest British Edition, I believe from 2002, in which he stands by his quote:

    [RD:] Do you regret the gesture politics of your GLC days, such as declaring London a nuclear-free zone and claiming “what Britain has done in Ireland was worse than what Hitler did to the Jews”?

    [Livingston:] No, I don’t. What I was saying about Ireland is historic fact. Henry VIII killed one third of the Irish, then a century later Cromwell killed another third. Ireland is the only country where there are fewer people alive today than in the time of Napoleon.

  9. My favorite Livingstone saying is that “Every year the international financial system kills more people than World War II…”

  10. Mr. Livingstone’s recent comments about Israeli terror attacks were beneath contempt.
    When Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists (who oppose the existence of the state of Israel,
    not just the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza) slaughter innocent Israelis, including infants and 90 year-olds, Livingstone justifies this as their only weapon against Israeli tanks and planes.
    But when London is hit by suicide attacks and nervous London police pump 5 bullets into an
    innocent man because they wrongly suspect him of being a terrorist, Mr. Livingstone does not fire
    the police commissioner, he blames the terrorists.

  11. Hey gilead,Do you know anything about Irish History?The Irish Disporia is the product of a historical holocaust played out over hundreds of years of abject suffering, deprivation, and murder.That has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. 

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