Britain's Conservative Party, adrift in a wilderness dark and drear, has elected a Jew as its leader. It figures. Only a Moses could lead them out of the wilderness, down the valley of doubt and through the pond of despair into the promised land.
Fortunately for his immediate peace of mind, nobody expects Michael Howard to move into No. 10 Downing Street tomorrow. But he has revived Tory spirits with a sense of excitement, and part of it is because he's the first Jew to head the party since Benjamin Disraeli, back in the 19th century.
Like Disraeli, who had been baptized a Christian as a child, Michael Howard has Christian connections. His wife, a onetime model, is a member of the Church of England, and they raised their son as a Christian. Joe Lieberman, he isn't.
Whether this is a triumph over the stubborn strain of anti-Semitism that survives in England to the present day, particularly in among the intellectual elites of the chattering class, remains to be seen. It may be an aberration of circumstances that makes him the best man for the job in a party out of power for six years. Iain Duncan Smith, who was sacked to make room for Howard, was a failure by anybody's standards.
"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," writes columnist Melanie Phillips, an Englishwoman, in Ha'aretz, the influential Israeli daily. "Howard is by far the most successful politician they've got."
He's regarded as the kind of Jew that doesn't ruffle the feathers of the peacocks of Britain, who strut their tolerance in grand colors, tolerating eccentrics as long as they're not "too Jewey." Howard says his Jewish values are an important "guide" and "influence" in his life, but he did, after all, marry a shiksa.
What makes his Jewishness an issue is the debate raging in England over whether anti-Zionism, which is all the rage in certain circles, constitutes actual anti-Semitism. A recent poll found that a majority of Britons regard the Jewish state of Israel as the greatest threat to world peace. (Greater even than the United States.)
Melanie Phillips, who once wrote her column for the liberal Guardian, writes that she detected a rigid double standard in the way the newspaper treated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She protested that headlines and front page display gave prominence to stories of Israelis killing a handful of Palestinians, but stories of Muslims murdering thousands of other Muslims were relegated to small print and hidden on page 7.
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.