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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Vying to be the first Israeli-British MP in the U.K.

Alon Or-Bach.

A self-described ‘Londoner above all else,’ Israel-born Alon Or-Bach aims to represent Labor in Margaret Thatcher’s old seat of Finchley and Golders Green.

Alon Or-Bach ticks a lot of boxes when it comes to attractiveness in a politically-correct environment. He’s young, an immigrant, Jewish, progressive, tech-savvy and gay, all of which may serve him well as he seeks to be selected as a parliamentary candidate of the British Labor Party. On the other hand, he is hoping to run in the north London constituency of Finchley and Golders Green, currently held by the ruling Conservative party and, no less importantly, for 33 years the constituency represented by Tory icon, the late prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
This is probably the most “Jewish” area in all of Britain, so a guy with a name like his would surely have a fighting chance here? But, many of those Jewish voters are Orthodox Jews and neither Or-Bach’s political nor personal orientation will be their cup of tea. Did we mention that he’s also Israeli?
British Jews have been heavily involved in politics for generations. They have served in all senior offices of state, including prime minister (though Benjamin Disraeli was baptized at twelve so he may not count), the current leader of the opposition and at least 20 Jewish members of parliament, which is about seven times their proportion in the general population. Moreover, it was only last month that four more Jews were made members of the unelected House of Lords. But if Or-Bach wins the vote at the local party branch on Sunday evening, he will have a chance of being the first-ever Israeli-British MP.
Not that his Israeli roots – Or-Bach immigrated with his family to Britain at the age of four – are the first thing you notice upon meeting him. That would be his age; he just turned 30 and looks even younger. But before you say he seems absurdly young to become a parliamentarian, it’s clear from his opening sentence that he is already a consummate politician, which is hardly surprising since he joined the Labor Party at 16, which means he’s been involved in politics half his life. He supported the party even earlier but says that the experience that motivated him to join was being called a “foreigner” in a history class at his secondary school.
He is eager to emphasize particularly his experience as a local campaigner and promises to fight in parliament mainly on issues of transport, living standards and education. Despite the fact that the Conservative Party currently holds the seat with a sizable majority, he believes that the economic slowdown and the Cameron government’s austerity plans will cause a shift. “The crunch will be living standards,” he says. “Finchley and Golders Green may be characterized as affluent areas, but there are a lot of people who are hurting and struggling here. That’s what the next elections will be about.”
The hopeful candidate has been endorsed by a number of the trade unions which are influential within the party. How does Or-Bach feel about the fact the unions have also supported boycott motions against Israel? “I have a lot of shared values with the unions,” he says. “But I will call them out on things I disagrees with.” In general, he tries to avoid controversial foreign policy issues and keep his campaign local, but says “you can have legitimate concerns about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and you can debate the issues without making people feel uncomfortable.”
His campaign highlights the fact that, like many Londoners, he was born abroad, but he doesn’t see himself as a spokesman for the country of his birth. “I always felt I have different bits of identity and above all I’m a Londoner. But I always have that connection to my Israeli part, to being born in Tel Aviv, to my Hebrew which is especially good when I’m talking about food. It’s a part of me.” He doesn’t feel that his Israeli part has ever been an obstacle to him in politics, “but you do hear crass opinions sometimes and I take the opportunity to educate people about how complicated a place the Middle East is.”
Like many secular Israelis living in London for a long time, Or-Bach hasn’t felt the need to join a synagogue though he insists he sees himself as part of the Jewish community.
And he isn’t worried about Golders Green’s Haredi voters turning against him: “Above all I think that people vote on bread and butter issues and they will judge me on my merits.”