Too Jewish ? and not Jewish enough

Published in the Jewish Chronicle, April 22 2005

One big mistake anti-Semites make is their assumption that Jews operate as some kind of shadowy, masonic network constantly helping each other. It?s a myth, and for proof one need look no further than politics.

When Joe Lieberman was named as Al Gore?s running mate in the 2000 US presidential election, it was assumed that he would have at least one group of voters in the bag: his fellow American Jews. True, there was huge Jewish pride that one of their own had been deemed fit to serve in the White House. Jews kvelled at the notion of a vice-president who would have to walk to Capitol Hill for his own inauguration because it fell on Shabbat.

But there was also some anxiety. Maybe, feared some, the presence of a Jew in such a powerful role would stir anti-Semitism. Others worried that Lieberman would ?bend over backwards? to prove he was acting in American, rather than Jewish, interests and would, therefore, take a tougher-than-usual line on Israel.

Still others were concerned that Mr Lieberman was, wait for it, too religious. Always liberal on the separation of church and state, these US Jews disliked the candidate?s constant references to his faith, suspecting that he might try to mix theology with government.

These misgivings came to the surface four years later when the senator ran for President. Surely, said some pundits, Mr Lieberman could count on the Jews. No, he could not: Jewish Democrats went for John Kerry, John Edwards and Howard Dean ? but not for Lieberman. He pulled out of the race when it had barely begun.

Now, a year later, British Jewry has its own Lieberman moment. On May 5, we?ll have the chance to elect our first professing Jewish Prime Minister. Once again, there is some pride in that fact. ?Son of refugees set to lead Tories,? was the JC headline, beaming with naches, when Michael Howard took charge in November 2003.

But that doesn?t mean Jews will vote for him. Busily promoting a book, I?ve spoken before a dozen-or-so Jew-ish audiences in the past couple of months, from Brighton to Edinburgh, and Howard?s name has come up often. Each time, the mood has been unfriendly towards him, usually on the ground that he, as the son of immigrants, should know better than to play politics with immigration.

Yet if liberal Jews are disappointed that a fellow Jew is taking a hard line on asylum, there is little comfort for Howard on the right of the community. Those who monitor such things report that Orthodox Jews are voting Lib Dem, rather than Conservative ? partly because they dislike Howard?s personal affiliation with Liberal Judaism.

They fear Howard?s elevation to Number 10 would represent a boost in status for Progressive Judaism itself. Faced with the rabbi of St Johns Wood?s Liberal Jewish Synagogue becoming the chaplain to Downing Street, they would rather have a non-Jew in the job and save themselves the aggravation.

The irony is that both groups, on the left and right, are faulting Howard for not being, in their eyes, Jewish enough. If he were more Jewish, say the liberals, he would have an open heart to migrants seeking a new life. If he were more Jewish, say the Orthodox, he would join a different shul.

Whatever the motives, this Jewish refusal to swing behind Howard confirms a fascinating historical shift. For most of the last century, British Jews aligned themselves with the centre-left, mainly voting Labour or Liberal. Margaret Thatcher ? MP for Finchley, lest we forget ? put an end to that in the 1980s, regularly winning two-thirds of the national Jewish vote.

Under Tony Blair, the pendulum has swung back. Not only has he won the support of some of Anglo-Jewry?s most generous donors, he has also bagged large numbers of Jewish votes. (Even Thatcher?s old seat has been Lab-our territory since 1997.) Now, it?s estimated, Labour and the Tories enjoy equal standing in the Jewish community ? with Labour having a slight edge.

Contrast that with the US, where no pendulum swings: there the Jews have remained steady in their attachment to the Democrats. In 2004, while Hispanics and other ethnic groups broke their historic allegiance, the Jews stayed loyal, more than 80 per cent of them backing Kerry.

The explanation is not complicated. First, the Demo-crats never varied their rock-solid support for Israel. In the 1980s, when British Jews broke from Labour, a large factor was the perception that Labour was increasingly unsympathetic to Zionism.

Second, since the Democrats were never a socialist party, there was little friction between a left-of-centre political affiliation and personal affluence. You could be a millionaire Democrat without raising an eyebrow.

In Britain, until the 1990s, the opposite was true. When people became better off, they cut their Labour ties and voted Conservative ? almost as a sign that they were getting on and moving up.

Today?s Labour party is more like the US Democrats: Blair is avowedly pro-Israel and so is his probable successor, Gordon Brown. And it?s been a decade since anyone accused Labour of hostility to those who have done well.

So Jews feel comfortable enough to return to the political party they once called home. Maybe they?ll come back to the Tories one day ? but probably not till there?s a nice, non-Jewish boy in charge.