By Gabriel Hershman
Does the Jewish community really want a Jewish prime minister? I ask the question in general terms. Once a Jewish politician, irrespective of his political persuasion, becomes a senior figure, especially the British prime minister, he ceases to be merely Conservative or Labour. Rather, he becomes Jewish. And in this context it is irrelevant if the Jew concerned is an atheist or agnostic. What matters is that he is of the Jewish race, that he is a member of “the tribe”. And British Jews would feel, in some way, that the individual concerned is speaking on their behalf.
If Ed Miliband had become prime minister he would have been aware that all of his actions would have been seen within the context of his Jewishness. Naturally the press would not have made an overt point of highlighting this. They would not have written “Miliband, the Jewish prime minister” in every editorial. Indeed they probably would have been careful, in most cases, not to refer to his Jewishness. However, it would always have been an issue.
The Jewish press, understandably, would have scrutinised his every move. How will he react to a fresh outbreak of anti-Semitism? What are his relations like with the Jewish community? In reality, however, a Jewish prime minister will be seen in a special light by all sections of the media. If he is too friendly towards Israel, is that because he is Jewish? If he makes a point of reprimanding Israel (which was not inconceivable in Miliband’s case as we saw with Israel’s 2014 invasion of Gaza) is it because he is Jewish and making an effort not to display pro-Zionist leanings?
A Jewish politician, especially one such as Ed Miliband who rather conformed to the stereotype of the Jew as an insular, nerdy urban elitist, would have been treated even more roughly if he had become prime minister than he was as leader of the opposition.
Miliband’s July 2014 comments in which he conceded that he was not “square-jawed” and lacked “chiselled” features were a way for him to confront the anti-Semitic stereotype without referring to it directly, an attempt to address the unspoken suspicion that he looked and sounded too Jewish to win an election. It was always unlikely that the British people would ever take such a person, one overtly Jewish, to their hearts. Miliband “looks weird, sounds weird, is weird,” said one senior Labour figure long before the election. And that was also a euphemism for “looks too Jewish”.
All Jewish politicians are seen within the context of their Jewishness to varying degrees. This “background” becomes more important the more prominent they become. Former Conservative leader Michael Howard was an example of a politician whose Jewishness was perhaps less noticeable to the public. Yet still it was an issue. Few noticed an interview he endured with Kirsty Wark on Newsnight in the run-up to the 2005 general election. Howard was arguing for stricter immigration controls into the UK. Wark put it to Howard. “As a Jew, and the descendant of Jewish immigrants, are you not aware that your words may be interpreted as hypocritical?” ( I may be paraphrasing her question). Suddenly Howard was not answering as an individual. Instead he was a Jew, a member of a collective who was supposed to think in a certain way, one that Wark had ordained.
Ed Miliband was, of course, not the only British party leader to become a figure of fun. Michael Foot, William Hague, Ian Duncan-Smith, Neil Kinnock and Gordon Brown all had problems with their public image. Yet there is a type of Jewish politician who has special difficulty gaining acceptance. In the 1992 general election campaign, for example, Labour MP Gerald Kaufman was the victim of a whispering campaign against him becoming foreign secretary because, it was said, his Jewishness would make it difficult for him to act as an impartial broker in the Middle East. Kaufman was also lampooned on Spitting Image as a sinister Hannibal Lecter-like criminal. Leon Brittan was portrayed as a deformed, unpalatable and slimy grease-ball. Sir Keith Joseph was known as “the mad monk” and was widely ridiculed for his private eccentricity. Oliver Letwin was compared to Fagin by a Labour MP. These are just some examples of Jewish politicians who, like Miliband, may appear “too Jewish” for British popular taste .
As a fellow (ex-) North London geek, albeit not a Labour voter, Miliband has my sympathies. But I would have advised him against standing in the first place. Britain is currently too anti-Semitic to accept an overtly Jewish prime minister. And I suspect that many Jews are ambivalent about one of their number speaking on their behalf and suffering the inevitable fallout – accusations of dual loyalty as well as wilder conspiracy theories – if and when the economy goes awry.
*Gabriel Hershman is the author of North London Geeks, subtitled An Easy Prejudice: The Real Reasons for Anti-Semitism.