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Britain’s Conservative Party Set to Elect First Jewish Leader

November 7, 2003
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A former hard-line government minister has become the first Jew ever to lead a major British political party.

Michael Howard, 62, was declared the leader of Britain’s opposition Conservative Party on Thursday.

No one came forward to challenge him after the party dumped its previous leader, Iain Duncan Smith, last week.

Geoffrey Alderman, a historian of British Jewry, said Howard’s candidacy carried symbolic importance for Britain’s Jews but probably would not bear tangible benefits.

Actually, Alderman said, having a Jewish prime minister could be detrimental to the Jewish community, expressing a concern not unlike those voiced by some U.S. Jews during the 2000 vice presidential run of Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

If Lieberman had become vice president, Alderman said, some Jews worried he would have had to “bend over backwards on the Middle East” to prove that his religion was not a factor in determining U.S. policy.

“Michael Howard would also be under such pressures” if he became Britain’s prime minister, Alderman said. “It is of more benefit to Anglo-Jewry to have a prime minister who represents a Jewish constituency than to have a prime minister who is a professing Jew.”

Alderman cited the example of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who represented the heavily Jewish London constituency of Finchley.

“She made friends with the Jews and she never looked back,” he said. At one time, Thatcher had five Jews in her Cabinet — “more than anyone before or since,” Alderman said.

Stuart Polak, director of the Conservative Friends of Israel lobbying group, rejected Alderman’s suggestion that Howard might be constrained by his Judaism.

“It happens to an extent, but the bottom line is that Michael Howard is someone who will never sell the issues that affect the Jewish community or Israel down the river,” he said. “We have somebody who understands the issues affecting the Jewish community better than most.”

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a widely respected former foreign secretary and a possible future Conservative Party leader who also is Jewish, said he, too, did not think Howard’s religion would impact a premiership.

“The issue doesn’t arise,” Rifkind said. “As prime minister, Michael Howard will do what is in the interest of the U.K. There are constraints, but they are national and political, not personal.”

The Conservatives — or Tories, as they are commonly known here — have had an ethnic Jewish leader before, the great 19th-century prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli. But Disraeli was baptized a Christian long before he entered politics.

In Disraeli’s day there were serious constitutional questions about whether a Jew could be prime minister, Alderman said, since the prime minister advises the monarch on the appointment of Church of England bishops.

After Disraeli, there were no Jewish Conservative lawmakers for generations.

But the anticipated selection of Howard to lead the party more than 120 years after Disraeli has raised no apparent concerns.

The British press has noted his immigrant background — his father came to Wales from Romania in 1939, and one of his grandmothers died in Auschwitz — but has had little to say about his Jewishness.

Some British Jews, however, say they detected a hint of anti-Semitism in an Oct. 30 story about Howard in the Daily Mail, a solidly Conservative newspaper that supports Howard’s candidacy for party leader.

In the story, Edward Heathcoat Amory wrote that Howard “would like to be seen as the very model of that virtually extinct animal, the proper English gentleman. His enemies would complain that he is . . . bent on passing himself off as something he isn’t.”

Jewish television personality Vanessa Feltz responded in the next day’s Daily Express — the Mail’s arch-rival — whose owner, Richard Desmond, is Jewish.

“Heathcoat Amory does not use the ‘J’ word. He does not come out and call Michael Howard a Jew,” Feltz wrote. “What he does instead is to introduce the concept of Michael Howard’s Jewishness by stealth. It is articles such as this that give unwitting succor to racists and anti-Semites.”

For his part, Howard has made little of his religion, neither hiding it nor making overt displays of it.

In September, he told the London Jewish Chronicle that he “accepted those Jewish values I was brought up with. They are still an important guide and influence on my life.”

He is a member of St. John’s Wood Liberal synagogue, one of London’s flagship Liberal synagogues.

A member of Conservative Friends of Israel, he has opposed efforts by pro-Palestinian lawmakers to demonize the Jewish state.

But the former lawyer is far better known in Britain for his skepticism of the European Union, his conservative fiscal thinking and his law-and-order stance than for his foreign policy positions.

As Home Secretary — Britain’s top law-enforcement official — under John Major from 1993 to 1997, Howard introduced private prisons and pushed for tough sentencing standards.

When Tony Blair — then campaigning to be prime minister — vowed to be “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime,” Howard famously replied, “I know what causes crime: criminals.”

That stance will not necessarily harm him among British Jewish voters, who tend to split roughly evenly between Conservative and Labor.

Howard refused to make Holocaust denial a crime when he was Home Secretary, arguing that to do so would make martyrs of Holocaust deniers.

Howard has vowed to lead the Conservative party “from the center,” but few political analysts predict that he will take it to victory in the next election, which is expected within two years.

The Tories trail the Labor government by a huge margin in Parliament, and some analysts say Howard’s role is to shore up the party and give it a fighting chance to win the election after next.

If Howard does bow out after an election defeat, the Tories could replace him with another Jew — Rifkind or the rising young star Oliver Letwin.

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