When Benjamin Disraeli entered Parliament in 1837, Jews were barred from taking seats in the House of Commons. The future Tory leader, from an Italian-Jewish background, owed his seat to his baptism as an Anglican at the age of 12.
One hundred and sixty years later one might have thought that the experience of multi-cultural society would have dimmed the religious prejudice of the public, especially given that the current Conservative Leader, Michael Howard, is a practising Jew.
But yesterday a survey uncovered a widespread refusal among the voters to support a Jewish person as a British prime minister.
A poll published in the Jewish Chronicle today found 47 per cent of people were unable to agree with the statement: "A British Jew would make an equally acceptable prime minister as a member of any other faith."
According to the ICM poll, 18 per cent of the 1,007 people surveyed disagreed. Of those, 11 per cent disagreed strongly. Another 28 per cent were either neutral or "don't knows". The survey also found that 15 per cent of people, or about one in seven, believed the scale of the Holocaust had been exaggerated. The poll found 20 per cent of people did not think that Jews made a positive contribution to political, social and cultural life, while 18 per cent believed that Jews had too much influence in Britain.
The findings were greeted by some MPs with horror. But Jewish leaders insisted relations between their community and the rest of British society remained good, and said that a Jewish prime minister would be quickly accepted. Religion has long been a notoriously touchy subject in politics. Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's former director of communications, once told an American journalist: "We don't do God", when the journalist asked about Tony Blair's beliefs.
A spokesman for Mr Howard declined to comment on the survey.
In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said that it was "worrying and disappointing" that so many people believed the Holocaust had been exaggerated. Jim Murphy, the Labour MP for Eastwood and a board member of the Labour Friends of Israel, said that he found the findings "nauseating".
Mr Murphy, who represents the majority of Scotland's Jewish community, said: "It is sickening to think that almost one in five people believe that anyone of the Jewish faith should be disqualified from high office because of their religion. You would like to think that such anti-Semitism is confined to the extreme right wing."
Mr Murphy added: "It is experience, political beliefs and character that are the criteria for office, whether they worship in a chapel, church, synagogue or mosque."
The Council for Racial Equality (CRE) warned that the findings were accompanied by an increase in anti-Semitic feelings.
A spokeswoman said: "Sadly, the response to this question comes as no surprise at all. We have seen a rise in anti-Semitic feeling of late. You can gauge it anecdotally from the range of complaints that come through to us at the CRE. And you can see its consequences in the desecration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. A person's race or faith should not be a barrier to political office."
Neville Nagler, director general of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said there was unease at the effects of tension in the Middle East on the British Jewish community.
But he insisted that the survey was not symptomatic of an underlying anti-Semitism in British society and said that he took heart from the findings. Mr Nagler added: "I read this survey as saying that 82 per cent of people are content to have a Jewish prime minister or they would not mind if there was one. There have been many Jewish cabinet ministers.
"If there were a Jewish prime minister, I'm sure he or she would be judged on their policies and what they were doing for the whole of Britain. I suspect that the fact that they were Jewish would be very quickly forgotten."Reuse content