The Con­ser­va­tive MP con­vert­ing to Ju­daism

Tory MP An­drew Percy tells Jenni Frazer about his jour­ney to Ju­daism

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - CON­VER­SION JENNI FRAZER

THE CON­SER­VA­TIVE MP An­drew Percy went home two weeks ago af­ter a typ­i­cally busy week in the House of Com­mons — and lit his Shab­bat can­dles. Be­cause on March 16, Percy con­verted to Ju­daism, and as he said: “It was the first time I could say, I feel prop­erly Jewish.”

The 39-year-old politi­cian re­counts his ex­tra­or­di­nary jour­ney in a typ­i­cal, mat­ter-of-fact way, with much laugh­ter and fre­quent re­minders that “I am a North­erner and we don’t like to talk about our feel­ings”.

But he will al­low that he “felt re­ally elated” af­ter his ap­pear­ance be­fore the Lib­eral Beth Din, about which he ad­mits he felt re­ally ner­vous. They could have turned him down, he con­fided. No one who has spo­ken to him, how­ever, could doubt his sin­cer­ity and gen­uine com­mit­ment, which finds its ex­pres­sion on two fronts.

The first, which led ul­ti­mately to his be­com­ing Jewish, is a whole­hearted com­mit­ment to sup­port of Is­rael. And the sec­ond is a bona-fide pri­vate sense of spir­i­tual ful­fil­ment when he talks about Ju­daism.

An­drew Percy’s start in life could not have been more re­moved from the main­stream Jewish com­mu­nity if he had planned it. He was born in Hull, the son of a school sec­re­tary mother and a foundry worker fa­ther. “My dad lost his job and for nearly 18 months we [he has an older sis­ter] were on ben­e­fits and so­cial se­cu­rity un­til he found an­other job as a mar­ket gar­dener. It was much less pay, but he only re­tired a cou­ple of years ago at the age of 70. He’s just a re­ally hard worker.”

The fu­ture Min­is­ter for the North­ern Pow­er­house went to “a tough school” — Hull’s Wil­liam Gee com­pre­hen­sive — and says that he was of­ten asked if he was Jewish when he was there. “I think maybe it was be­cause I was big and fairly dark­skinned,” he says, but then re­mem­bers that “one of my aun­ties al­ways said the fam­ily was Jewish way back. She re­mem­bered go­ing to sy­n­a­gogue with her mother. My other aun­tie said it was rub­bish.”

Just the same, he was cu­ri­ous, did some re­search and found, some­what to his amuse­ment, that his fa­ther’s side of the fam­ily had once lived in a dis­trict in York called Jew­bury. “It was at the end of the 19th cen­tury and they ran a board­ing house, but my aun­tie still said it was rub­bish.”

Be­ing a mem­ber “of any mi­nor­ity, whether po­lit­i­cal or re­li­gious, is not un­usual for me”, he says with some feel­ing. This is be­cause when he be­came a Hull city coun­cil­lor, he was one of only two Tories “out of 60”. What had at­tracted him to the Con­ser­va­tives?

It was, says Percy, to do with his fa­ther, who had never been very keen on the trade unions in Hull. “He thought they were OK for ben­e­fits but he didn’t like the way they dis­rupted things with strikes. He would see other work­ers los­ing wages when the unions called a strike, but the union bosses still got paid. I think I was brought up like that, lis­ten­ing to him; and Hull was a very Labour city, and I didn’t sub­scribe to their view of do­ing things.”

He has, he says, a sim­ple po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, some of which em­anates from see­ing other kids at the Wil­liam Gee school dis­rupt­ing lessons and not work­ing. His be­lief is “that you work hard, you re­ward peo­ple fairly, and you pun­ish wrong­do­ers”.

An­drew Percy read pol­i­tics at York Univer­sity, fol­lowed by a law con­ver­sion course in Leeds. His orig­i­nal am­bi­tion had been to be­come a bar­ris­ter: “But I thought it would take too much money, so I de­cided to be a so­lic­i­tor.”

But he re­alised, he says, that the law was not for him. In­stead he de­cided to pur­sue his pas­sion for his­tory, and be­came a his­tory teacher, af­ter a brief stint work­ing in the US for the New Jersey state se­nate. He sup­poses, look­ing back, that he must have en­coun­tered Jews there, but wasn’t pay­ing much at­ten­tion to peo­ple’s re­li­gion at the time.

Nev­er­the­less, he says: “I was al­ways con­scious of the Jewish com­mu­nity in Hull. The leader of the coun­cil, be­fore I was born, was Sir Leo Schultz, a tow­er­ing fig­ure and the son of Jewish im­mi­grants. [Sir Leo led the coun­cil from 1945 to 1979 with a two-year break.] And there’s lots of Jewish heritage in Hull, it’s part of the Jewish migration trail.” He even re­mem­bers learn­ing about Chanu­cah in pri­mary school, but agrees that in Brigg and Goole, his con­stituency, you can prob­a­bly count the Jewish pop­u­la­tion on the fin­gers of one hand.

With great rel­ish he tells me that he has a mezuzah up on his Goole con­stituency home and was asked by some­one “whether it was to pro­tect my se­cu­rity as an MP. I said it was, sort of!”

Percy says he was fre­quently mis­taken for be­ing Jewish long be­fore his con­ver­sion. And, long be­fore he ever vis­ited Is­rael — his first visit was with the Con­ser­va­tive Friends of Is­rael in 2011 — he was a sup­porter of the Jewish state.

“For my birth­day in 2009, one of the col­leagues I taught with bought me a book about the Is­rael De­fence Forces. I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in mod­ern world con­flicts, the Sec­ond World War and the Holo­caust at the cen­tre of that. But I was also in­ter­ested in what hap­pened af­ter that, and the for­ma­tion of the state of Is­rael. I was a nat­u­ral sup­porter of Is­rael from the be­gin­ning and felt con­nected to it. There was one Labour mem­ber of the Hull coun­cil who was re­ally anti-Is­rael, and I al­ways knew I was pro-Is­rael.”

In 2010, Percy be­came MP for the York­shire con­stituency of Brigg and Goole and the Isle of Ax­holme, beat­ing the Labour in­cum­bent by a 5,000 ma­jor­ity, which he has now in­creased to 11,000. Once he en­tered parliament he grav­i­tated to­wards the Con­ser­va­tive Friends of Is­rael and vis­ited for the first time in 2011

— “and I fell in love with the place im­me­di­ately.”

Oddly, for some­one who had been bap­tised in the Church of Eng­land and who had at­tended a United Re­form Sun­day school, the Chris­tian sites in Is­rael left Mr Percy feel­ing some­what un­moved. “But I was ex­cited when we vis­ited the Jewish sites. And I re­mem­ber walk­ing back to our ho­tel in Tel Aviv one night, with the breeze com­ing in from the Mediter­ranean, and think­ing about the sur­vivors of the Holo­caust who had ar­rived there. You feel the vi­brant city all around you and there is a sen­sa­tion of hope be­ing re­stored, of prom­ise be­ing ful­filled.”

On the same trip, the group went to Yad Vashem. “I had all these thoughts swirling around in my head. I thought, what if my aun­tie was right and we were Jewish, does that mean some of my rel­a­tives were in­volved in the Holo­caust, vic­tims that I never knew I was con­nected to? It felt very mov­ing, very spe­cial.”

At that stage, how­ever, the fur­thest thing from Percy’s mind was con­ver­sion to Ju­daism. “I thought, I need to come back and ad­vo­cate for Is­rael, deal with some of the ig­no­rance, be pre­pared to put my­self out there.”

I had anti-Is­rael hate even be­fore I be­came Jewish

He be­lieved that it was nec­es­sary to be as well-in­formed as pos­si­ble to deal with the “one-sided de­bate” on Is­rael. “I started to tweet but the hate and the vit­riol out there…” He tails off, and some­what rue­fully re­veals that he was on the re­ceiv­ing end of an­tisemitic abuse, even be­fore be­com­ing Jewish.

Un­de­terred, the MP be­gan to be more and more con­nected to Is­rael, vis­it­ing fre­quently, some­times with CFI and some­times ex­tend­ing his time in the coun­try, mak­ing pri­vate vis­its and trav­el­ling from north to south. He also, un­usu­ally, be­gan learn­ing He­brew, “be­cause it didn’t make sense to me not to be able to ex­change a few words with the Is­raelis I was meet­ing”.

Af­ter a time, he says, “I re­alised that I wasn’t just feel­ing a con­nec­tion to Is­rael, but to the whole Jewish com­mu­nity. I had an op­por­tu­nity to go to a ser­vice at the Re­form sy­n­a­gogue in Hull, and they were pleased to see me and asked me to re­turn when­ever I liked. So I started go­ing to ser­vices and I re­ally en­joyed them.”

By de­grees, he found him­self im­mersed in Jewish cul­ture and think­ing about his in­ner spir­i­tual life. He re­alised, he says, that he missed Is­rael when he was not there — but he is also deeply com­mit­ted to serv­ing his con­stituency.

Be­cause he spends so much time

in Lon­don he de­cided to con­tact West­min­ster Sy­n­a­gogue and told its rabbi, Thomas Sala­mon, that he was con­sid­er­ing con­vert­ing. “He was lovely and wel­com­ing. He said, we do these con­ver­sion classes, so come along, see how you feel. To be­gin with, I wasn’t sure: I won­dered if I was turn­ing my back on my heritage, but very quickly I felt that this was a com­mu­nity I wanted to be a part of, and that I wanted to do the whole con­ver­sion process.”

His par­ents, Percy says, were “won­der­fully sup­port­ive” of his de­ci­sion. “Once I’d de­cided, that was it.”

At West­min­ster, be­cause it is an in­de­pen­dent sy­n­a­gogue, con­verts can choose whether to take a Lib­eral or a Re­form course. Percy was at­tracted by the Lib­eral route, but over­all liked the mes­sage be­ing sent out by Pro­gres­sive Ju­daism. “I liked the idea of men and women to­gether, and I also liked Pro­gres­sive views on so­cial is­sues, on same-sex mar­riage, on con­verts — those val­ues just spoke to me. And the ques­tion­ing na­ture, the ques­tion­ing of your­self, of re­li­gion and how it fits in the mod­ern era, I am like that in pol­i­tics and I wanted to be like that in ev­ery as­pect of my life.”

He told the Con­ser­va­tive Whips’ Of­fice, be­cause he needed to be free on Wed­nes­day nights, and he says they were im­mensely help­ful. He also men­tioned it to the few mem­bers of his con­stituency who are Jewish, but thinks that most of the rest will be supremely un­both­ered by his choice.

For his con­ver­sion, he was obliged to write es­says about why he was drawn to­wards Ju­daism, and about the fes­ti­vals. “I said my favourite was Shavuot, be­cause it used the Book of Ruth, who was, of course, a con­vert.” Laugh­ing, he adds: “Plus, of course, there’s cheese­cake. But ac­tu­ally, as a con­vert, I’ve learned the im­por­tance of food, which seems to un­der­pin the en­tire faith. I think that’s a prin­ci­ple wholly agreed by Ortho­dox, Re­form and Lib­eral.”

If I ever have chil­dren I want them to be Jewish

His whole phi­los­o­phy, he says, is “to take things and peo­ple head-on. They can throw any­thing they want at me, it won’t make any dif­fer­ence to me.” At no stage did he think, what am I get­ting my­self into? In­stead, says Percy, “be­cause of my sup­port for Is­rael, peo­ple nat­u­rally as­sumed I was Jewish any­way”.

As a sin­gle man, he does not have, so far, the in­stant Jewish fam­ily net­work avail­able to those in his con­ver­sion class who were mar­ry­ing Jews. But he is sure of one thing: if he does have chil­dren, “I want them to be brought up Jewish”.

He is very clear that his sup­port for Is­rael is sep­a­rate from his de­ci­sion to em­brace Ju­daism, though one grew out of the other. And, full of mis­chief to the end, he asks me: “You haven’t asked me the ques­tion. Ev­ery­one I tell about my con­ver­sion, they are very nice, and then you can see the thought mov­ing across their faces. What about…?”

I tell him that I have as­sumed that if he had some­thing to tell me about brit mi­lah, he would have said so by now. Percy bursts out laugh­ing. “I tell peo­ple, don’t worry, it was a long-stand­ing tradition in our fam­ily.”

He ar­rived at the doors of Ju­daism ready for any­thing — in ev­ery sense. Our com­mu­nity’s new­est re­cruit is a very happy man.

PHOTO: CFI

An­drew Percy (far left, above) with fel­low Tory MPs Bob Black­man and Matthew Of­ford view Ha­mas rock­ets in the Is­raeli town of Sderot in 2015

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