LONDON — Barring a last-minute upset among Conservative voters, next year’s election for the powerful position of mayor of London could well be run between a practicing Muslim and the aristocratic scion of a Jewish family.
London, in fact, has two mayors – the largely ceremonial position of Lord Mayor of the city – and the more recently established political mayor, a post currently held by the volatile Conservative MP Boris Johnson. Johnson succeeded Labour left-winger Ken Livingstone, the first holder of the post, and both men served two terms of office.
But Johnson, who is leading a trade visit to Israel in November, has declined to run a third time after being re-elected as an MP in this year’s general election. (Johnson is widely spoken of as being ambitious to succeed Prime Minister David Cameron as leader of the Tory Party). Instead, the Conservative mantle is likely to fall on the shoulders of fellow Conservative MP, Zac Goldsmith.
Goldsmith is currently the front-runner in an open primary whose result is due to be announced at the end of September. But he is the bookies’ favorite to succeed Johnson, though in fact it is his Green credentials which are boosting him rather than anything to do with his background.
Goldsmith’s grandfather, Frank Goldschmidt, was born in Germany to a multi-millionaire Jewish banking family. Changing his name to Goldsmith and marrying a French Catholic woman, Goldsmith became a Conservative MP in Britain in 1910, a position he held for eight years.
But despite having married “out,” Frank Goldsmith stayed close to the Jewish community and helped many refugee Jewish charities. He went into the hotel business after standing down as an MP and was one of the founder group which built the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Settling in France before World War II, he managed to escape on one of the last ships leaving the country as the Nazis invaded, leaving most of his assets behind.
Frank’s son, who became Sir James Goldsmith, was a maverick millionaire businessman and would-be politician who founded the short-lived Eurosceptic Referendum Party. Sir James married three times and fathered eight children, three of whom – Zac, Ben and Jemima – remain constantly in the public eye.
Zac, whose first name is Frank after his grandfather, began his career as a journalist and edited The Ecologist magazine from 1998 to 2007. He entered Parliament as MP for Richmond Park in 2010 and was returned, with a huge increased majority of 19,000 over his rival, in this year’s general election. Just 40, he has been married twice, the second time to Alice, a member of the Rothschild family, although she, like Zac, is not Jewish by birth or practice.
Jemima Goldsmith, the would-be mayor’s sister, was formerly married to the Muslim ex-cricketer and Pakistani politician Imran Khan, and converted to Islam in order to marry him
Jemima Goldsmith, the would-be mayor’s sister, was formerly married to the Muslim ex-cricketer and Pakistani politician Imran Khan, and converted to Islam in order to marry him. She became a fierce critic of Israel and in November 2000 wrote in the Guardian that perceived one-sided media coverage of the Middle East conflict was due to the “fact” that the Israel lobby in the US “is rich and powerful. The media are largely controlled by Jews, as is Hollywood, and they account for more than half the top policy-making jobs in the Clinton administration,” Jemima Khan wrote.
Although she was once thought to have softened her attitude to Israel, last year she and her brother Ben had a falling-out – played out in social media – over the summer’s Gaza conflict. Ben Goldsmith, a financier like his father, has made no secret of his affection for Israel, and according to the website Jewish Business News (JBN), describes himself as “non-Jewish but a passionate Zionist.” He takes a group of influential people to Israel every year and encourages investment in the country.
During the fighting in Gaza, Ben Goldsmith, JBN said, expressed his support for Israel and tweeted that it was justified in using force against Hamas which “uses its civilians to defend its weapons.” His sister responded harshly: “Ben, your tweets on this subject are really ignorant and offensive.”
Zac Goldsmith only made his first visit to Israel a couple of years ago and unlike his brother and sister has not really spoken much about his own attitudes to the Middle East. But in trying to garner Jewish support for his mayoral candidacy, he spoke to the London paper the Jewish News, and said that he thought of Israel as “one of the most dynamic and exciting places on earth, fizzing with ideas and energy and innovation so the economic ties are very important.” He said it was a “bright light” in the region which he hoped to get to know better, regardless of the outcome of the mayoral contest.
‘I’ve always been a supporter of Israel – not a completely uncritical supporter – but, as a friend of Israel and as someone with a Jewish name, there was a time during the Gaza conflict when a day didn’t go by without abuse on social media’
Perhaps bearing in mind the Twitter spat between his siblings, Zac Goldsmith also observed: “I’ve always been a supporter of Israel – not a completely uncritical supporter – but, as a friend of Israel and as someone with a Jewish name, there was a time during the Gaza conflict when a day didn’t go by without abuse on social media. I love what social media has done to our politics on many levels – but it has also provided a platform to monsters.”
In contrast to the Conservatives, the Labour Party has already announced the winner of its internal primary to run for mayor of London. In a surprise result, beating the favorite, Dame Tessa Jowell, the one-time lawyer Sadiq Khan will be Labour’s nominee, a result which is said to have benefited from the surge of support for the party’s new leader, left-winger Jeremy Corbyn.
Khan, MP for the south London constituency of Tooting, is the former Communities and Faiths Minister in Gordon Brown’s government and is one of eight children born to a Pakistani Muslim immigrant to London. His father worked as a bus driver and his mother was a seamstress; Khan grew up on a council estate but turned his life around with the law degree he earned from the University of London.
A savvy politician, he has been assiduously wooing the Jewish community since putting himself forward for the mayoral race. He has made it clear to UK Jewish media that he is not Ken Livingstone Mark Two, and, indeed, told the Jewish Chronicle: “I want to reassure you I’m not like the last guy, I’m not going to be like previous Labour politicians. For me it’s a source of sorrow that people who historically voted Labour are now not voting Labour.”
In an interview with this reporter last month, Khan said: “I recognize that at the last mayoral election and at the general election, there were many Jews who felt they simply couldn’t vote Labour. Being a Jewish Londoner in 2015 is a challenge. I didn’t fully understand the scale of anti-Semitism, and it is an outrage that schools and places of worship should have to have the level of security which they do in order to protect the community from anti-Semitism.”
Khan said he understood that there was “reluctance” by the Jewish community to vote either for Ken Livingstone or [Labour’s last leader] Ed Miliband.
“I began to understand more when I became Faiths Minister in 2008, 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.”
In that capacity he was charged with implementing the recommendations of MP John Mann’s All-Party Parliamentary Report on Antisemitism, and it brought Khan first-hand experience in the front-line of Jewish communal politics.
He has had two hurdles to climb in his relationship with the Jewish community. One, that he nominated Corbyn to lead Labour. Although Khan eventually voted for one of Corbyn’s rivals, the media focus on Corbyn’s associations with Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites and anti-Israel activists has inevitably spilled over to those who initially supported him.
‘I began to understand more when I became Faiths Minister in 2008, 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’
And two, that during his time as a lawyer, Sadiq Khan defended Louis Farrakhan in his unsuccessful attempts to enter the UK, and insisted, in 2002, that the Nation of Islam leader was not anti-Semitic.
The 2015 image Khan is keen to present has left the Farrakhan-defending days behind. He has “zero tolerance” for anti-Semitism, he says, and when asked directly by this reporter if he would continue to say Farrakhan was not an anti-Semite – after Farrakhan blamed the terrorism of 9/11 on the Jews – Sadiq Khan responded: “I agree. That is anti-Semitic.”
Khan told the Mail on Sunday that the Labour Party – and by extension him and his bid to become mayor – had to move away from its “unacceptable anti-Jewish” image. He has been at pains to tell potential Jewish voters that he wants to be a mayor for all Londoners, and insists that if he becomes mayor he will not “use it as a pulpit to pronounce on foreign affairs.” He does not believe that foreign policy should be an issue for the post.
As a practicing Muslim he has broken the Ramadan fast in several London synagogues and believes that the two religions have much in common. Khan said he had visited “the Middle East” with the main pro-Arab lobby group, Caabu — the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding — but was understandably keener to discuss what he said are positive links with the Board of Deputies and the Community Security Trust.
As a practicing Muslim, Khan has broken the Ramadan fast in several London synagogues and believes that the two religions have much in common
There may be other candidates standing for London mayor – from the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats, the right-wing UKIP and, most notoriously of all, the Respect party leader and anti-Israel activist George Galloway, who has poured his energies into a bid for becoming mayor of the city after being thrown out as MP at the May general election by Bradford voters.
But most commentators expect May 5, 2016 to be a two-horse race – and Zac Goldsmith, once widely thought likely to take that race in a walkover, may have the fight of his life on his hands if Sadiq Khan benefits from the Corbyn effect. Either way, it will be a fascinating election.