The victory of Sadiq Khan (Labour) in the London mayoral race means that he will become the British capital’s first Muslim mayor. His margin of victory (he won 56.8% of the vote) and the sheer number of votes that he garnered (1,310,143: more than any previous London mayoral candidate) demonstrate that his support runs well beyond the 12.5% of Londoners who identify as Muslim.
Regardless of this strong show of support, Khan’s election has elicited consternation among some commentators and observers in the UK and beyond, who don’t quite know what to make of the fact that a British Muslim man will soon become the leading citizen of London. Khan is viewed by some to be somehow foreign or even threatening to the culture (and security!) of the UK. In its last desperate moments, the campaign of his Conservative opponent attempted to take advantage of these reservations by insinuating that Khan had secret links to and sympathies for Muslim extremists.
These fears and tactics are of course nothing new, and they are certainly not particular to the UK. The election of Sadiq Khan bears some commonalities with another contentious election of a minority figure to the mayoralty of a major European capital: that of Ernesto Nathan as mayor of Rome in 1907.
Ernesto Nathan was born in London in 1845 to Moses Meyer Nathan (a German-Jewish banker and naturalized English citizen) and Sara Levi Nathan (an Italian Jew from the city of Pesaro). Ernesto moved with his mother and siblings to the Italian peninsula in 1859 after the death of his father.
Nathan took his political inspiration from Giuseppe Mazzini, the great Italian patriot and fervent liberal republican. He won the Rome mayoral election by uniting leftist liberals and republicans, radicals and socialists into a coalition known as the Blocco Popolare (Popular Bloc). This at a time when the more conservative politics exemplified by the first prime minister of Italy, Count Camillo Benso of Cavour, held sway. Nathan was not only a Jew, but was also a high-ranking Mason, and the son of a German-English businessman, while the mayor of Rome had until that point always hailed from the families of the land-owning aristocracy of Rome.
Nathan’s campaign and election resulted in a foreseeable backlash of many Romans who viewed his origins and politics with skepticism owing to deeply held prejudices. An example can be found in a 1907 article from La civiltà cattolica, one of the oldest and most established Roman periodicals of the time:
[Ernesto Nathan] is the first non-Roman mayor, indeed, he is not even Italian since he was originally an English subject, native of London, and did not become an Italian citizen until . […] In any case, as a republican or monarchist, Jew, Mason and Popular Blocist, his presence at the head of the City of Rome is an indication of the level to which we have descended, and it is a sign of that to which we have been dragged against our will.
Now, over a century later, Ernesto Nathan’s six-year tenure as mayor of Rome (1907-1913) is remembered as a paradigm of buon governo (and Rome is not exactly a city that has lent itself well to good governance). Among his many achievements were great improvement in public education (including the construction of schools and playgrounds, the institution of kindergartens and libraries, and the strong defense of secular education by blocking the incursion of any kind of religious education in public schools), development of the transportation and power infrastructures, and an expansion of the decision-making power of citizens through direct referenda and the creation of neighborhood associations.
Let us hope that the initial skepticism in some circles of Ernesto Nathan’s fellow Londoner, Sadiq Khan, will give way to appreciation of a successful tenure. And let us hope that Sadiq Khan will prove to be honest, fair and tzadik, as his name denotes.
*Daniel Leisawitz, professor at Muhlenberg College (Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA). The artwork is by Abraham Cresques a 14th-century Jewish Spanish cartographer.