The British Conservative party has elected Michael Howard as its
first Jewish leader and potential Prime Minister since
Benjamin Disraeli led the Tories in the 19th century.
This has occurred when much of the Jewish community in Britain
feels besieged by an upsurge of anti-Jewish hatred. So how can
a country whose deep vein of prejudice is once again open and
flowing be sanguine about the possibility of a Jewish Prime
Some Jews see no problem in Britain quite the reverse.
Howard's rise demonstrates, they purr, that Britain has changed,
that it has developed a new maturity, that British Jews have finally
become truly accepted. From which Panglossian optimism, one
can only marvel at the infinite human capacity for self-delusion.
For Britain is where the veteran Labour MP Tam Dalyell claimed a
'cabal' of Jews was controlling Tony Blair and George Bush and
was then promptly excused as a lovable eccentric. Where the
following day, the BBC TV current affairs show Newsnight
concluded that Dalyell had a case, and a 'tightly-knit' group of
Jews really did control US foreign policy.
Where Israel is repeatedly dehumanized and delegitimized as
an apartheid or Nazi state. Where almost two thirds of the public
believe it is the biggest threat to world peace. Where attacks on
Jews have increased. And where friendships between Jews and
non-Jews founder over claims by the latter that the Jews are
all-powerful, and that the establishment of Israel was a terrible
In this hostile climate, however, Michael Howard has climbed to
the top of the greasy Tory pole after the sacking of the previous
party leader, Iain Duncan Smith. So how does one explain the
The situation of diaspora Jews has always been characterized by
many such ambiguities and nuances, by a profound ambivalence
in the general population and a precarious balancing act over
Howard's triumph is an astonishing turnaround. As Home
Secretary in the last Conservative government in the 1990s, he
became the most unpopular politician in Britain, as much
because of his personality as his tough policies. He was widely
viewed as sinister and menacing, leading his colleague Ann
Widdecombe to make her infamous claim that he had 'something
of the night' about him.
So what was she getting at? Howard provoked a notable
repugnance not associated with other, even harder men of the
right. This was clearly because he was viewed as an unctuous,
oily, slippery, devious, too-clever-by-half lawyer all epithets
associated in the public mind with Jews.
True, under Margaret Thatcher's earlier regime there were no
fewer than five Jews in the Cabinet. But this was an aberration,
caused by Mrs. Thatcher's personal admiration for the Jews which
was not shared by her colleagues, who objected that there were
'more Estonians than Etonians' in the government.
Now, though, Howard is being hailed as the savior of his party
which is falling over itself to describe him as charming, decent,
honorable, upright, fair, fastidious and virtuous.
So have the Tories suddenly learned to love the Jews? Not quite.
The Conservatives are in the grip of a protracted nervous
breakdown, because they've been out of power for six years and
the country regards them as a hopeless joke. So lacking are they
in talent, and so bad is their disarray, they would have elected a
Martian if they thought he might win the general election.
Howard is by far the most successful politician they've got. He
has authority and experience, and through his forensic approach
does serious damage to the Labour government in House of
Commons debates. He is therefore the Conservatives' only
reliable weapon. And the Tories will do anything to win power.
Crucially, moreover, Howard's Jewish profile has always been
low. True, in his leadership bid he drew attention to the fact that
he was the child of immigrants. True, he says Jewish values are
still 'an important guide and influence on my life', and he attends
a (Liberal) synagogue on the high holydays. But he has never
made much of his Jewishness. His wife, the former model
Sandra Paul, is a member of the Church of England; and his son
Nick not only became a Christian, but provoked controversy as a
student when he started trying to convert Jews to Christianity as
Despite the gushing compliments about Howard in the media in
the past week, there have still been uncomfortable reminders of
the prejudice lurking below the surface. With the press going
overboard to describe how his father fled the Nazis in
Transylvania, there was also a reference to Howard posing as a
'proper English gentleman 'who stood for 'those very
Anglo-Saxon virtues of fair play and decency' whereas
according to his enemies, he was a 'chilly, calculating, heartless,
ruthless, ambitious, calculating political machine, bent on
passing himself off as something he wasn't'. In other words, not
an English gentleman at all.
On Newsnight (again), the renowned anchor Jeremy Paxman
asked another Tory MP: 'What makes you think the country is
ready for a man of Transylvanian origins?' And in an apparently
subliminal link, he followed this by saying Howard might as well
have 'something of the night' emblazoned on his forehead.
When Howard was asked by a newspaper what he had felt about
this extraordinary line of questioning, he displayed a rare unease
and muttered something about Paxman's reputation for
disobliging remarks. His reticence tells you everything you need
to know about Britain's supposed 'maturity' towards Jews.
For Howard surely knew that for a Jew to complain about
anti-Jewish prejudice in Britain is to provoke that very thing. That
is the true measure of Anglo-Jewish status: you are accepted as
long as you never come into conflict with the values of the
surrounding community. Whatever they hit you with, you are
supposed to take it in silence the defining characteristic of the
And this surely lies at the very heart of the terrible bitterness over
British attitudes towards both Israel and the Jews. For the British
think there's nothing wrong with the Jews as long as they agree
with the generally accepted view that Israel is the cause of world
terror because it is an apartheid or even a Nazi state.
Those Jews who agree with this analysis, and also agree that
claims of resurgent British anti-Semitism are a figleaf to conceal
the crimes of Ariel Sharon, are the Good Jews. They are
welcomed at the most fashionable dinner tables; they are
lionized in the universities, publishing or the media.
Those Jews who say Israel is defending itself against an attempt
to destroy it, that its dehumanization by the media breaks the
bounds of legitimate criticism, and that Jew-hatred of a kind that
was assumed to have vanished forever is now horrifyingly
respectable, are the Bad Jews. They are not merely socially and
professionally ostracized. They are regarded as not really British
Anti-Semitism is now the prejudice that dare not speak its name.
Everyone knows that 'real' anti-Semitism was what caused
Howard's father to flee Transylvania for Britain. Everyone also
'knows' that the victims of the Nazis have now turned into Nazis,
that anti-Semitism is history, and that it exists today only as a
shroud waved by whingeing Jews.
In other words, the newly 'mature' British like Jews as long as
they dump upon Israel, and deny the now rampant public
prejudice against them. The British like Jews as long as they turn
the other cheek when people commit mass murder against them.
They are the good Jews: the Jews who die, just like Michael
Howard's picturesque relatives. The bad Jews are the Jews who
The British believe they are not anti-Jew but anti-Israel. (So do
many British Jews on the left, who encourage them). But they are
not merely against the government of Israel. The agenda now is
that the creation of the Jewish state itself was the big mistake that
has led to world terror, and that the very idea of a Jewish state is
racist. People now say this to me all the time.
So what would happen if Howard were to speak up loudly and
firmly in support of Israel's measures for self-defense, and
against the new anti-Semitism? He would be taking a big risk of
being fingered for double loyalty. For what troubles the British
even more than the individual Jew is the collective Jew. Jews who
publicly identify with each other are considered suspect. The
British public will overlook a politician's Jewish heritage as long
as it's kept to the level of something consenting adults do in
private, and as long he doesn't identify with Jewish peoplehood.
The idea that British Jews are not really 'one of us' is deeply
rooted in British society. Even though prejudice based on Jewish
identity went underground after the Holocaust, the successful
dehumanization of Israel by the media has legitimized the revival
of the ancient canard of world Jewish power and other familiar
tropes of Jew-hatred. British Jews, who have always trodden an
existential tightrope, nevertheless believed until very recently that
they were as British as anyone else. Now, they find themselves in
the hideous position of being forced to denounce their own or bite
their tongues as the price of social acceptance.
Michael Howard has said: 'Being Jewish is no bar to playing a
very important part in public life in this country'. True, but at a
price. A Jewish politician who is determined to become Prime
Minister would be brave indeed if he put his head above this
particular parapet. Whether such a situation constitutes a 'new maturity' to be celebrated about Britain is quite another matter.