Against all the odds, Sadiq Khan is winning over Jewish Londoners
Presumably it was the Zionist-led media (copyright, NUS’ Malia Bouattia) that kept Jews at the top of the national headlines for more than a week.
Days of coverage about anti-Semitism that’s shone a much-needed light on to a corner of racism that had previously found space only in the pages of the Jewish press, more mentions of Hitler than I care to think of and speculation about how Ken Livingstone’s latest rantings would impact on the elections. Even on polling morning itself, the Chief Rabbi attracted headlines after being unable to vote, along with hundreds of others, following an administration error in the London borough with the largest Jewish population.
It’s taken the historic election of the capital’s first Muslim mayor to take the focus away – and the 72 hours since his acceptance speech couldn’t have been more of a tonic for the days preceeding it.
In breaking with tradition to hold his swearing in at Southwark Cathedral rather than at City Hall, in the presence of immans, rabbis and Christian clergy, he signalled that his campaign mantra to be a mayor for all Londoners was more than just a slogan. By standing shoulder to shoulder with the Chief Rabbi, Israeli ambassador and thousands of British Jews at Sunday’s Yom HaShoah commemoration he couldn’t have sent a more powerful message of unity at a time when Ken Livingstone’s sickening remarks remain foremost in many minds. All the more striking for the fact it was his first official engagement since being inaugurated; it meant so much to the survivors and so much to me as a member of the third generation.
But we shouldn’t be surprised about this turbo-charged start to the new era at City Hall; he and his team are simply continuing in office where his campaign blazed a trail. Even before he was the unexpected selection as Labour’s nominee, he was touring the capital’s synagogues and kicked off his direct appeal to Jewish voters, in an article for the Jewish News, by vowing to become the Muslim who would be the best mayor Jewish Londoners have had.
At the time many – including some of those who would go on to become his most passionate cheerleaders – were highly sceptical over his record, principally on Israel. Could this man really be the politician to overcome Jewish voters’ concerns at the last Mayoral and General elections? Khan, referring specifically to the 2012 and 2015 polls in that opening article, vowed to win back trust. Acknowledging issues and tackling them head on became a hallmark that meant stories didn’t run and run in the communal media.
Faced with revelations that he had pushed for sanctions against Israel around the time of the 2009 Gaza conflict, Khan said it was clear boycotts, divestment and sanctions didn’t lead to peace. And risking a torrent of online flak, which duly arrived, he urged people not to turn their “faces against Israel”. Any future conflict involving Israel could provide a stern test.
There were no shortage of potential pitfalls in relation to the Jewish community where he could have tripped up, both related to his own record (including backing Jeremy Corbyn’s nomination for leader) and that of his party. The fact he received such a warm welcome at yesterday’s Yom HaShoah UK event is testament to his success in addressing them.
His reaction to the anti-Semitism scandal and condemnation of the party leadership became stronger and stronger every time he was challenged. When Ken Livingstone made his remarks about Hitler, he was one of the first to call for his suspension.
Then there is the fact he had shared platforms with extremists or represented them in the line of his work as a human rights lawyer. Days after questions began to surface, he sat down with the Jewish media, acknowledging that he had represented “unsavoury individuals” whose views made him uncomfortable. As he addressed each concern, he also had the opportunity to stress his non-extremist, western credentials.
In the same way as questions were asked of Corbyn’s links during his run for the leadership, it was entirely inappropriate to ask questions about some of those meetings and links, not all of which were in his capacity as a human rights lawyer. This was far from a one-off occurrence after all. But there was also much that wasn’t legitimate; a double page Evening Standard article highlighting his former brother-in-law’s links to an extremist group, for example. Sometimes, in stressing a legitimate point, the tone of the Conservative campaign against him undoubtedly risked offering succour to those with racist inclinations.
Much has been written about the comparative lack of vigour of Zac Goldsmith’s campaign, including within the Jewish community. In my experience, he picked up the pace in the final weeks and by the end, in some regards, was matching his main rival pace for pace in the bagel-munching, matzah-crunching hunt for votes.
Both put tackling anti-Semitism at the heart of their efforts but from the start there was always that bit extra from the Khan camp. When he attended Chanukah in the Square last December, many observed that he stayed for far longer than the call of duty. When I met members of his team to propose the idea of a mayoral hustings, the answer – without a moment’s thought – was ‘absolutely’.
Interviewing the new mayor wasn’t just notable for the fact he is the only frontline politician I’ve quizzed who isn’t taller than me. He seemed to be instinctively plugged into the issues, perhaps helped by the fact he is a person of faith whose religion shares many commonalities and challenges with Judaism. And it seemed that every time one of our interviews was posted on social media it would be tweeted from his account; it’s a minor detail in the scheme of a campaign to run one of the world’s most important cities but it just added to the sense of energy and determination that pervaded the campaign.
I don’t say all of this to play down the concerns and questions – many entirely understandable – that I know persist for many in our community. There are those that acknowledge he couldn’t have done more to reach out but couldn’t bring themselves to put a tick by a candidate for a party led by Jeremy Corbyn and engulfed in anti-Semitism allegations; those who simply can’t stomach the idea of his past associations; those who couldn’t forget his pushing for sanctions while in government, wondering whether a man who changed his mind once could do so again. There is also a group who strongly backed him who privately couldn’t be sure his change of heart was genuine – but decided that his current pronouncements and his future actions would be more important.
Time will tell but we look forward, as we did with Boris, to holding him to account on his pledge to follow in Boris’ footsteps by taking a trade delegation to Israel; it’s hard to overstate the symbolism that would have.
But I did feel it important to paint a fuller picture. All the more so when I saw the online bile aimed at Jeremy Newmark, chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, after he wrote of his pride at helping the successful campaign to elect London’s first Muslim mayor. He was labelled a ‘kapo’, accused of backing an ‘extremist sympathiser’ and told it was akin to welcoming Hitler’s rise to power. Those people – and others I’ve heard express more than a whiff of prejudice in recent days – need to ask themselves if we as a community can’t work with a figure like Sadiq Khan, who we can work with? And if we can’t work with anyone who has ever met or shared a platform with someone who has expressed extremist views at some point, who is going to lose out? Yes, it’ll be society at large, yes it’ll be moderate Muslims, but it’ll also be the Jewish community.
Sadiq Khan has a good story to tell. I’m told he is the son of a bus driver who grew up on a council estate (who knew?!). But he also has a inspiring story to tell London Jewry at a time when religion and faith are not fashionable. The son of an immigrant, he is not just a man of devout faith but someone who wore that on his sleeve throughout – and still got the nod from a record number of voters.
For so many reasons, it was good this story dominated the headlines over the weekend; showing positive tales of cooperation can occasionally grab headlines alongside the usual media diet of conflict and tension of religion-related stories. His appointment won’t be a miracle cure to ingrained prejudice but he now has an awesome opportunity to enhance interfaith understanding from his City Hall pulpit.
Just weeks after a survey revealed disturbing levels of anti-Semitism within the Muslim community it couldn’t be more timely and amid rising Islamophobia across London, his arrival couldn’t be more timely. His work has only just begun but just like in his campaign, he’s got off to a flier.