LONDON — In 2004, a young London Muslim lawyer named Sadiq Khan shared a platform with five political extremists at a meeting held by the Friends of Al-Aqsa, entitled “Palestine — The Suffering Still Goes On.”
The speakers included Daud Abdullah, who went on to lead a boycott of Holocaust Memorial Day in 2005 when he was deputy secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, and Dr. Azzam Tamimi, who once said he wanted Israel destroyed and replaced with an Islamic state.
As a leading British Jewish activist described it, the relationship in those days between Khan and the Jewish community was, “difficult… awkward, not comfortable.”
Fast-forward to today and the 46-year-old Khan is now the much-admired mayor of London whose most recent engagement with the Jewish community was an appearance — strongly applauded — at the annual Yom HaShoah ceremony in the capital.
In the last year he has been a frequent face at Jewish communal events, from celebrating Hanukkah in Trafalgar Square in the city center, to backing the community Mitzvah Day initiative. His has been a strong voice against anti-Semitism, and he most recently trenchantly called for his predecessor as mayor, Ken Livingstone, to be dismissed from the Labour Party after a tribunal found Livingstone guilty of bringing the party into disrepute.
Before his election as mayor last year, Khan was, since 2005, a fiery Member of Parliament with the Labour party, representing the south London district of Tooting, near where he grew up.
As he completes his first year in office, Khan’s trajectory to become Anglo-Jewry’s favorite Labour politician is certainly noteworthy.
When The Times of Israel spoke with Khan this week in a sports stadium pressroom, high above a verdant green pitch where the Yom HaShoah event for 2017 took place, he laughed and said he might be described as “just the Jewish community’s favorite politician, full stop.”
‘The Jewish community’s favorite politician, full stop’
But it’s certainly a title he has fought hard to earn. Back in 2004, before he entered Parliament, Khan, one of eight siblings and the son of a bus driver, was a Muslim firebrand.
A local Labour councilman, he headed the legal committee for the Muslim Council of Britain, chaired the human rights group Liberty, and, among other controversial positions, acted as the UK lawyer for the Nation of Islam’s leader, Louis Farrakhan. He was, in fact, a thorn in Anglo-Jewry’s side.
For the diminutive Khan, who speaks at a mile a minute — his enthusiasm sometimes causing him to trip over his sentences — the turning point came in 2008 when he was appointed faith minister, and began, for the first time, to meet Jewish leaders on a different kind of playing field.
He recognized, he says, that “Being a Jewish Londoner is a challenge… I didn’t fully understand the scale of anti-Semitism. I began to understand the correlation between tension in the Middle East and the rise of anti-Semitism in the UK. Even though I knew the issues, the penny dropped then.”
As faith minister he was charged with implementing the recommendations of MP John Mann’s All-Party Parliamentary Report on Anti-Semitism, and it brought Khan firsthand experience on the front line of Jewish communal politics.
He met and became friends with, he says, leaders of the Community Security Trust and the Board of Deputies. He also began to visit synagogues — in some of which he had the opportunity to break the Ramadan fast.
Khan is an observant Muslim and his religious devotion has certainly won him some fans in the strictly Orthodox Jewish community. He also established good relations with Nightingale House, a ground-breaking Jewish home for the aged, which is in his former constituency.
Once he was selected as Labour’s candidate for mayor, Khan hit the ground running. But it was still a surprise — and a line drawn in the sand — that his first public engagement after his election as mayor in 2016 was an appearance at the community’s Yom HaShoah event.
Saying he was “honored” to make a return visit this year, Khan gives every indication of being both awed and humbled by the Holocaust survivors with whom he comes into contact. He regularly makes a point of talking about the importance of Holocaust education for all school students, not just Jewish ones.
He can probably attribute some of his success with Jewish voters to sticking to his pre-election pledge not to use the office of mayor to comment on foreign affairs. Staying neutral on the controversies of the Middle East plays much better with the Jewish community — especially with recent comments by Ken Livingstone, his predecessor as Labour mayor, fresh in voters’ minds.
The mayor has, of course, an extraordinarily complex agenda which encompasses many issues facing today’s diverse London community.
“There are challenges our London community faces, and my job as mayor is to solve them,” he says.
“For example, freezing Transport for London fares, and bringing the night tube [underground rail service] on-stream. We had plans in relation to solving the housing crisis so that we can offer affordable homes in the city, we had plans to clean up the air in London, to restore neighborhood policing.”
But then came Brexit, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, a development which Khan admits he did not foresee and did not initially have plans in place to challenge.
‘One of the biggest challenges I have had is to remind ourselves, and the world, that London is open for talent’
“The thing about London,” he says, “is that it is the engine of our country, and our country’s success is contingent on London doing well. London relies hugely on access to a single market, on a customs union, on the ability to attract talent. So one of the biggest challenges I have had is to remind ourselves, and the world, that London is open, open for talent. We’re going to carry on being a place where business can come and invest.”
Dealing with the fallout from Brexit has taken up most of the mayor’s time in recent months.
But he has more optimistic news to impart: “More than half of my deputy mayors are women, we have the first ever woman Metropolitan Police Commissioner and the first ever woman London Fire Brigade Commissioner, 10 of my 16 business board advisers are women, so I always say I am a proud feminist in City Hall.”
Not everything has gone the way he would like, of course. He has succeeded in his bid to push up the minimum “living wage,” but has not done so well in tackling the housing crisis in London. As Khan says, “I’ve always said that dealing with housing would be a marathon, and not a sprint.”
And Brexit, he says, has led some developers to worry about investing in housing — “but that is outside my control.”
When asked how he would characterize his relationship with the Jewish community, Khan says, “I judge all Londoners equally. The great thing about London is that you are accepted for who you are, whether you are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, a member of an organized faith or not. I don’t like to talk about ‘tolerance.’ You should be respected and embraced, not tolerated. You tolerate a toothache, not a person.”
‘You should be respected and embraced, not tolerated. You tolerate a toothache, not a person’
He reels off a list of occasions when he has encountered the Jewish community: Pesach (and he says Pesach, not Passover), Hanukkah, the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street last year.
“That’s part and parcel of the job of being mayor,” says Khan, giving every sign of enjoying himself. He loves the diversity, he says, and indeed the day before the Yom HaShoah event he was trumpeting his pride as an Englishman while Londoners celebrated St George’s Day.
But it’s not all a bed of roses. Khan says that some things break his heart.
“One of the things that breaks my heart is that simply by virtue of a school being a Jewish school, or a place of worship being a synagogue, there is a need for 24 hour protection, seven days a week,” he says.
‘Nothing is too trivial to report’
“It breaks my heart that there is a need for the CST [Community Security Trust]. It breaks my heart that in 2017 simply by virtue of being Jewish you can be a victim of hate crime. So we have to redouble our efforts. I don’t want any Londoner — and in this context, any Jewish Londoner — not to feel comfortable and confident to report hate crime. Don’t think it’s too trivial. Nothing is too trivial to report.”
We speak, once again, of Livingstone and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement that the former mayor’s place in the party would be reconsidered by Labour’s national executive committee. At least publicly, it seems that not much has happened since that declaration.
Khan spreads his hands: “It has to. It has to [happen]. To be fair, the general election has intervened, and I haven’t spoken to Jeremy Corbyn about this, but anti-Semitism is a form of racism, we can’t have a hierarchy of racism where anti-Semitism is seen as less serious than other forms of racism.”
He is aware of the response of many Jewish Londoners towards Corbyn’s Labour Party — but is gamely trying to encourage people to vote for good local candidates, almost despite the party’s leader.
‘We can’t have a hierarchy of racism where anti-Semitism is seen as less serious than other forms of racism’
Nevertheless, some cannot forget that when Khan was still an MP, he was one of those who nominated Jeremy Corbyn for party leader. On the other hand, despite distancing himself from Corbyn since becoming mayor — he even backed Labour challenger Owen Smith who ran against Corbyn last year to lead the party — he tacitly endorsed him after the general election was announced, saying he wanted Labour to form the next government. But it’s hard to think of why any Labour politician would say otherwise.
Khan genuinely believes in Labour solutions to Britain’s problems. Asked if a tiny bit of him had wished to be back in the Commons when the prime minister announced the general election, Khan laughs.
“No, no. I love my job as mayor, it’s the best job in the world. I can be here, making a difference, giving others the helping hand that I had.”
And he, and his young and enthusiastic team, race back to City Hall.