For the first time in more than 120 years, a Jewish politician is hoping to lead a major British political party to victory in a general election. If Britain’s Conservative party wins on May 5, Michael Howard will move into No. 10 Downing St., displacing Labor’s Tony Blair.
That seems an unlikely outcome, however. The honeymoon is long over for Blair eight years after his 1997 landslide victory — especially as a result of his support for the war in Iraq — but polls still show Labor firmly in the lead.
Few expect Howard to become the first prime minister of Jewish origin since Benjamin Disraeli in the 1870s. And Jewish voters are unlikely to be swayed by the Tory leader’s ethnic origins.
“Howard’s Jewishness is not really an issue,” says Barry Kosmin, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy research. “He’s not terribly associated with the Jewish community and has tended to distance himself from the Jewish agenda.”
Still, Howard’s roots have figured in an occasionally ugly pre-election campaign.
There were accusations of anti-Semitism when Labor published a series of trial posters in January featuring the faces of Howard and his shadow foreign secretary, Oliver Letwin — who also is Jewish — superimposed on pigs’ bodies.
Another image showed Howard looking like Fagin, the old Jew who oversaw a gang of child ruffians in Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.”
Some Jewish community figures feared the proposed poster campaign, which was quickly withdrawn, was a subliminal way to tell the electorate that the two most high-profile opposition politicians in Britain are Jewish.
“It may well have had some undertones” of anti-Jewish prejudice, says Eric Moonman, president of the Zionist federation and a former Labor legislator. “I think it was a cheap piece of ignorance by Labor.”
Suspicions were further raised by an article a Cabinet minister published in the Muslim Weekly newspaper arguing that only Labor could stand up for British Muslims and work toward the creation of a Palestinian state.
“Ask yourself what will Michael Howard do for British Muslims? Will his foreign policy aim to help Palestine?” Mike O’Brien, minister of trade and industry, wrote in the newspaper.
“There’s been a lot of innuendo,” Kosmin says.
Media attention has been focused on the electoral power of the U.K.’s approximately 1.6 million Muslims, who some predict will abandon their traditional support for Labor because of the Iraq war and Blair’s anti-terrorist legislation, which some Muslims say unfairly targets their community.
The Jewish vote is fairly evenly split between the two main parties, and Jews’ numbers and concentration make them a significant factor in up to 15 districts. Experts warn against dismissing the community’s political strength.
“Anyone who says the Jewish vote is not important doesn’t know about politics,” says David Mencer, former director of the lobby group Labor Friends of Israel and a Labor councilor in the London borough of Barnet.
“You need to appeal to the Jewish community because they are an excellent barometer” of the consensus, Mencer says. “It’s something the strategists at No. 10 understand very well, because of the part of the middle class the Jews belong to. If you appeal to them, you have captured that vital middle ground.”
Jewish support is also important for another reason, Kosmin adds: Not only do community members hold many senior roles in business, they’re among the most prominent contributors to party coffers.
“Both parties have significant Jewish funders,” Kosmin says, pointing to a top Labor fund-raiser, Lord Michael Levy, and a former Tory treasurer, Sir Stanley Kalms.
Jews long have been deeply involved in British political life. With some 20 Jewish legislators, the community is disproportionately represented in Parliament.
When they were an immigrant working-class community Jews overwhelmingly supported Labor. But as Labor became increasing radicalized in the 1970s — and as its sympathies moved away from Israel toward the Arabs — Jews drifted away from the party.
That coincided with the era of Margaret Thatcher, who was staunchly pro-Israel and an outspoken admirer of the Jewish community: At one time five Jews served in her Cabinet. Thatcher’s business-friendly economic policies also appealed to an increasingly prosperous Jewish constituency.
The rise of Blair changed the equation again.
“Blair has come closer to the Jewish community than anyone since Thatcher,” says Mencer, pointing to the prime minister’s defense of shechita — Jewish ritual slaughter — support for Jewish schools and support of Israel.
Blair also has made a point of wooing Jewish community institutions, and recently was the featured guest at the annual dinner of the Board of Deputies, the representative body of British Jewry.
The board refuses to be partisan.
“We are not calling on any individuals to vote in any particular way,” a spokesman says. “We are merely providing guidelines and inviting all deputies, as members of their constituency rather than as deputies, to meet their candidates and raise issues of concern to the Jewish community.”
The Zionist Federation, in partnership with the Christian Friends of Israel, produced a general election questionnaire. The group wants supporters to ask candidates whether they would condemn all calls for academic or economic boycotts of Israel, insist on strict Palestinian adherence to its anti-terror responsibilities under the “road map” peace plan, ensure aid to the Palestinian Authority was properly audited and support Israel’s continued control of an undivided Jerusalem.
Mencer insists that Labor policy means “Israel has no better friend in the world outside the U.S. than Britain,” but others point to an ideological movement within the party that some Jews find hard to stomach.
Since the start of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000 and the Sept. 11 terror attacks a year later, some Labor members have gone back to their radical roots, Kosmin says. That trend is typified by Ken Livingstone, the anti-Israel mayor of London who sparked outrage for comparing a Jewish reporter to a concentration camp guard and who has called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a war criminal.
Livingstone “is a symbol of why Jews turned away from Labor in the 1980s,”Kosmin says. That means, he adds, “There will probably be slightly fewer Jewish votes for Labor than last time.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.