Michael Howard's Tory enthusiasts cite his upright English character and sense of fair play. His enemies, many of whom have been his detractors since the days when he was a stalwart of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet, describe him in adjectives associated with Jewish stereotypes - ruthless, ambitious, calculating.
The English have felt ambivalence toward Jews for centuries. Initial hatred toward them was motivated by religion and Jews were deported in great numbers in the year 1290. As they trickled back in later years, the enmity was expanded from religion to resentment of their financial skill and intellectual achievements. The current debate in England follows conferences on anti-Semitism in New York, Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna.
"A New Anti-Semitism? Debating Judeophobia in 21st-century Britain," a book published by the Institute of Jewish Policy Research, includes essays by 17 writers - lawyers, novelists, trade unionists, academics and financial professionals. The editors of the volume conclude that the center-left intelligentsia in Britain drives "institutional Judeophobia." The perpetrators include mainstream media - writers for the Guardian, the New Statesmen magazine and the BBC.
Jonathan Sacks, Britain's Orthodox chief rabbi, testified before a Parliament committee that "we are witnessing the second great mutation of anti-Semitism in modern times, from racial anti-Semitism to religious anti-Zionism, with the added premise that all Jews are Zionists." He was reluctant to speak about it, he said, because there's always the danger that it can be exaggerated by drawing attention to it. Publicity fuels the flames: "As the Talmud says in another context: 'Woe if I speak; woe if I am silent.'"
Eli Wiesel, the Nobel prize winner and the conscience of the Holocaust, identifies the contradictions of anti-Semitism. Jews are alternately perceived as too wealthy or too poor, too Jewish or too assimilated, too learned or too ignorant, too smart or too naïve, too nationalistic or too universalist. Will Michael Howard triumph over the stereotype?
Henry Grunwald, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, says that the rise of Howard to the Tory leadership "is a sign of the maturity of British society." We can hope.