Aye! To 150 years of Jewish MPs
Lionel de Rothschild led the way in July 1858. We look at what our politicians have achieved
Next week will mark 150 years since the first Jewish MP entered Parliament.
On July 26 1858, Lionel de Rothschild took his seat in the House of Commons, after an eight-year battle.
Though four times elected as Liberal MP for the City of London, he refused to take the Oath of Allegiance until he was allowed to swear on the Old Testament with his head covered.
He is said to have opened the door for over 200 subsequent Jewish MPs. They have held every office in government, apart from prime minister — although Michael Howard did become leader of the opposition. Many have pushed through historic reforms on issues ranging from homosexuality to capital punishment.
During the 1970s, seven per cent of the government was made up of Jewish MPs — the highest in history.
Derek Taylor, co-author with Lord Janner of Jewish Parliamentarians, which charts every Jewish MP, said: “It is a tremendous example that we have succeeded but not given up our beliefs and background.”
Lord Janner said of de Rothschild’s appointment: “It was a great moment in the history of British Jews and if he had not opened the door then many of the 200 or so since him would not have got into the House.”
Robert Halfon, Jewish Conservative parliamentary candidate for Harlow, said: “Being Jewish helps you to be an MP because of the Jewish tradition of tzedakah, meaning charity and service to others. That is exactly what being an MP is, and a large part of why Jews have been successful in political life.”
Ivan Lewis (Labour), who represents Bury South, said: “It was the beginning of the end of bigotry, unacceptable prejudice and discrimination and it marked a new acceptance of the Jewish community.
“Since then, Jewish parliamentarians have made a major and profound contribution to British politics. They have been able to concentrate on Jewish issues as well as on serving their constituencies.”
Lee Scott, former UJIA campaign director and now Conservative MP for Ilford, said: “We have given 150 years of service to all communities, not just the Jewish one. The impact we have had has been across the board and there have been some tremendous achievements.”
He denied that Jewish politicians were seen as single-issue MPs whose main concerns related to Israel and Jewish matters. “I hope I’m not seen as a single-issue MP. Of course I speak up about Israel and Jewish issues, but I have always tried to look at all issues in a moral way. I think most MPs do.”
Stuart Pollack, director of CFI, agreed. “It is important to remember these MPs are elected by their constituents, not because of their Jewish status.
“What Lionel de Rothschild did was to allow Jewish people to integrate and be involved in society. He led that fight. His legacy is that today we have very committed MPs who remember their heritage but also represent their constituencies.”
Louise Ellman, Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, said that Jewish MPs were now able to combine their religion with being British, without compromising either. Jews were successful in political life because “they like debating, they like argument and they like action, but with a strong concern for social justice.
“Hence the saying ‘two Jews and three opinions’.”
A few who made an impact
-Michael Howard, Tory leader, 2003 to 2005
-David Miliband, current Labour Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
-Malcolm Rifkind, Foreign Secretary from 1995-97
-Sydney Silverman, Labour MP responsible for the abolition of capital punishment in 1965
-Leo Abse, a Labour MP for nearly 30 years who pushed through reforms on homosexual relations in 1966
-Leslie Hore-Belisha (British Liberal, then Conservative), who Introduced the driving test and in 1934 the Belisha beacon
-LibDem peer Lord Lester, whose two Private Members’ Bills became the models for the Human Rights Act 1998
-Lord Lawson, Chancellor from 1983-89
-Edwina Currie, Junior Health Minister from 1986-88
-Leon Brittain, Home Secretary from 1983-85
-Lord Emmanuel (Manny) Shinwell, a minister in the two pre-war Labour governments. In 1938 he slapped a Conservative MP who had shouted: “Go back to Poland, you Polish Jew”