He’s no Joe Lieberman

Imagine waking up one morning to discover that Dracula is Jewish. Imagine, too, that he has been elected unopposed to become leader of the British Conservative Party. Confused? Unless you have been reading the British press during the last fortnight, you would be.

The unexpected emergence of the Transylvanian Tendency in British political life has proved to be the mainstay of innumerable articles and outlandish if ingenious headlines. It has become the staple subject matter of enthusiastic cartoonists who can hardly believe their luck.

This is not a black comedy or an unfathomable instance of English humor, but the ascendancy of Michael Howard to the leadership of Her Majesty’s Opposition and possibly the next prime minister, should Tony Blair’s run of bad luck continue.

Michael Howard ne Hecht is the first professing Jew to lead the Conservative Party, which was not noted in the past for its affection for the Jews.

And why the satanic image? Ann Widdecombe, his articulate second-in-command at the Home Office, which is responsible for internal affairs in England and Wales, memorably commented that her boss had “something of the night” about him. This cutting remark remained and defined Howard – hence the Dracula appellation.

Michael Howard is a product of Margaret Thatcher’s era and best known for being a tough, unloved home secretary under prime minister John Major. He is also credited for being a progenitor of the unpopular Poll Tax in 1990.

Howard was formally acclaimed leader of the Conservatives on November 6 – one day after bonfires and fireworks up and down the land still commemorate Guy Fawkes’s failure to blow up Parliament in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

His rise to the leadership represents a remarkable comeback for Howard when it seemed that he was on the verge of leaving politics altogether. Instead, he has been greeted as the savior of the Tories, the man with cabinet experience whose forensic debating skills in Parliament are feared.

After the intervening interregnum of Conservative leaders John Major, William Hague and the unlamented Iain Duncan Smith, Howard is seen a figure of authority around which all Tories can unite and who will lead them on the road to victory.

His father, Bernat Hecht, left Romania as a penniless 22-year-old in 1939. He became the hazan (cantor) of the synagogue in Llanelli in Wales and changed his name to Bernard Howard.

His son Michael went to Cambridge University, became a young Turk in the Conservative Association, graduated as a successful barrister and was then elected to Parliament. In the 1970s he married the non-Jewish Sandra Paul, a glamorous model – her fourth marriage, his first. A rags- to-riches soap opera to captivate the ordinary citizen – and to suggest what could be if you really apply yourself.

Significantly, it has been the Conservatives who have voted for both the first woman and now the first member of an ethnic minority to head a British political party. Labor and the Liberals, who loudly proclaim egalitarianism, are nowhere in sight of achieving such goals.

We have learned that the young Howard read as his bar- mitzva portion Pinhas and that he taught in the local heder. Yet until recently Howard maintained a privatized Jewishness. True, he occasionally frequented Jewish organizations and joined the Conservative Friends of Israel, but he was perceived to be a Jewish Englishman rather than an English Jew.

On the other hand, although not shomer Shabbat, he is not an incidental Jew.

Will Jews vote for him – as one of their own? In the 1960s there were nearly 40 Jewish MPs in the British Labor Party; now there are a mere handful. This reflects the social mobility of the Jews, perhaps.

Yet there is no Jewish vote. Jews in poor areas tend to vote Labor while the majority who have moved up the socioeconomic ladder vote Conservative or Liberal. Jews, like non-Jews, often vote according to their pocket.

Perhaps the reason for the Jewish unease at the coronation of Michael Howard is that he is unwittingly representative of a community in transition. He is a Jew who this year preferred the synagogue on Yom Kippur to the Conservative Party Conference, yet whose son has embraced Jews for Jesus.

The real model for Michael Howard may be Sir Herbert Samuel. As High Commissioner for Palestine and the true author of the 1922 Churchill White Paper, Samuel was still pro-Zionist, but his true adherence – as history has shown – was to the British Crown and the Liberal Party.

Jerusalem Post 14 November 2003

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