the chosen person - melanie phillips

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    November 07, 2003
    The chosen person

    Ha'aretz, 7 November 2003

    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 Minister?

    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 dehumanised and delegitimised 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 mistake.

    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 apparent contradiction?

    The situation of diaspora Jews has always been characterised by many such ambiguities and nuances, by a profound ambivalence in the general population and a precarious balancing act over Anglo-Jewish identity.

    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 saviour of his party which is falling over itself to describe him as charming, decent, honourable, 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 well.

    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 diaspora Jew.

    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 antisemitism 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 lionised in the universities, publishing or the media.

    Those Jews who say Israel is defending itself against an attempt to destroy it, that its dehumanisation 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 ostracised. They are regarded as not really British at all.

    Antisemitism is now the prejudice that dare not speak its name. Everyone knows that ‘real’ antisemitism 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 antisemitism 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 fight back.

    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-defence, and against the new antisemitism? 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 dehumanisation of Israel by the media has legitimised 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.
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