The next in a short line of Jewish prime ministers?

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The next in a short line of Jewish prime ministers?

Jeremy Havardi reflects on what history may have in store for former Brexit secretary  Dominic Raab

Jeremy Havardi

Jeremy Havardi is a freelance journalist and author

Dominic Raab
Dominic Raab

According to some, Dominic Raab, the former Brexit Secretary, is the frontrunner to replace Theresa May as Conservative leader and prime minister in the event she resigns. His articulate manner and telegenic appearance have persuaded many that he is the best candidate for the top job.

If he achieved this, Raab would be the second person, either Jewish or of partial Jewish ancestry, to become UK prime minister. Raab is the son of a Czech Jewish refugee who fled to Britain in 1938, leaving behind family who would later perish in the Shoah.

Exactly 150 years ago, Britain had its first Jewish prime minister in the form of the charismatic and witty Benjamin Disraeli. Despite his conversion to the Anglican faith, ‘Dizzy’ remained a Jew, both in his own eyes and those of  his detractors.

As historian Derek Taylor points out: “Disraeli was always known as “The old Jew” and there are books detailing the antisemitism he suffered throughout his political career.” When he stood for election, he faced cries of ‘Shylock’ and, later, people accused him of having a ‘foreign’ mentality.

Benjamin Disraeli.

Disraeli, the ‘One Nation’ Tory, would go on to reinvent the Conservatives, and as a two-time prime minister, introduce social reforms in housing, public health and labour relations.

British Jews have also been leaders of the opposition (Michael Howard for the Conservatives, Ed Miliband for Labour), Foreign Secretary (Rufus Isaacs, Malcolm Rifkind and David Miliband), Home Secretary (Herbert Samuel, Leon Brittan and Michael Howard) and Chancellor (Nigel Lawson and, as recently revealed, George Osborne).

There have also been Jewish Governor Generals in British colonies, including Sir Matthew Nathan (Sierra Leone, Gold Coast, Hong Kong) and both Sir Isaac Isaacs and Sir Zelman Cowen (Australia). There has been a Jewish Chief Minister of Singapore (David Marshall) and Gibraltar (Joshua Hassan).

Ed and David Miliband

As politicians, Jews have risen to prominence in Europe. France has had a number of Jewish prime ministers, including Leon Blum who in the 1930s introduced important labour reforms in the National Unity government. After being imprisoned during the Vichy era, he became prime minister briefly in a post-war coalition government. Pierre Mendes-France and René Mayer also served as prime minister for short periods in the post-war period, as did Michel Debré who, although raised as a Catholic, was the son of a famous Jewish physician.

Michael Howard

Italy’s three Jewish prime ministers were Luigi Luzzatti, Alessandro Fortis and Sidney Sonnino (of Jewish ancestry from his father). Luzzatti was noted for introducing measures of social reform, including compulsory accident insurance and voluntary insurance schemes. In 1970, Bruno Kreisky became the first socialist (and Jewish) chancellor of Catholic Austria, and he too implemented reforms including the decriminalisation of homosexuality and equality for women. There was rather less liberalism in the rule of Matyas Rakosi who, as Hungary’s de facto ruler until 1956, oversaw the death and imprisonment of thousands of his fellow countrymen.

Ruth Dreifuss became president of the Swiss Confederation in 1999, the first woman to hold this position. Jan Fischer, the son of a Jewish Holocaust survivor father and a Catholic mother, was prime minister of the Czech Republic between 2009-10.

Lord Nigel Lawson

In Russia and the Baltic States, too, Jews have risen to the most prominent political positions. Sergey Kiriyenko (Jewish father), Mikhail Fradkov and Yevgeny Primakov all served as prime minister of Russia under Presidents Yeltsin and Putin, while Zurab Zhvania became Georgia’s fourth prime minister in 2004, dying in suspicious circumstances the following year. Volodymyr Groysman has held the same position in Ukraine since 2016.

When Latvia became independent, Zigfrids Anna Meierovics served as its first foreign minister and later became prime minister in the 1920s. Meanwhile, in formerly communist Romania, Petre Roman became prime minister when the country went through its first free elections post 1989.

But Jews have also wielded political power elsewhere. London-born Julius Vogel was New Zealand’s prime minister between 1873 and 1875, a position also held briefly by Sir Francis Bell in 1925. Sir John Key, who won three elections, is the son of a Holocaust survivor.

Jews have been either prime minister or president in Peru (Pedro Kuczynski, Salomon Ghitis, Efrain Goldenberg and Yehude Simon), the Dominican Republic (Francisco Carvajal), Honduras (Juan Lindo, Ricardo Maduro), Panama (Eric Delvalle) and Guyana (Janet Jagan). Lindo, of Jewish ancestry from his father, was previously head of state in El Salvador!

In many countries over the past two centuries, Jews or those of Jewish ancestry have taken the ultimate responsibility for their country’s welfare, security and international standing. Raab could soon be joining the list.

Help perform the greatest mitzvah: save a life

While life in Israel has returned to normal and hopes are high that Britain is set for a summer without restrictions thanks to vaccines, for billions around the world there is no such imminent light at the end of the tunnel. In the majority of countries around the globe, particularly the poorest, the vaccine rollout has barely kicked off.

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