Rory Stewart for JN Oct 2019 from Jenni Frazer
Politician Rory Stewart is said to speak up to 11 languages, but until now Yiddish has not featured on the list. And yet Mr Stewart, one of 21 MPs thrown out of the Conservative Party over Brexit disagreements, and who has now declared his intention to run as Mayor of London in May 2020, has promised to learn Yiddish — a pledge made to the Jewish News in the wake of his first walkabout in the Jewish community.
Mr Stewart, who came fifth in his bid to become leader of the Conservative Party earlier this year, became famous for his #RoryWalks campaign in which he would pitch up in different parts of the UK and talk to people — something which has become unusual for many politicians.
He has now put that experience to good use in his meet-the-people encounters, and on Monday he visited Golders Green and the Jewish Community Centre for London, JW3.
For those who think of him only as an Old Etonian who worked as a diplomat, spent time working in Afghanistan and Iraq, and was once tutor to Princes William and Harry, there was a surprise — because Rory Stewart has a fascinating Jewish family history.
His Jewish great-grandparents came from what was Romania and became Austro-Hungary. His great-grandmother lived in Suceava, and her husband was living in what was the Ottoman Empire. “They both moved to New York in 1880 and to London in 1900. My Jewish great-grandfather had a number of businesses spread across Europe, and from his letters, I found that he spoke Yiddish and German and Romanian, probably a smattering of Turkish, but also certainly French and English”.
Mr Stewart’s great-grandfather and his son corresponded in “a mixture of Yiddish and English right up until the 1930s, when my great-grandfather died.” Laughing, he said: “I don’t really speak any Yiddish but it would be a good thing to focus on”.
His empathy with the Jewish community has another factor: the mother of his New York-raised wife, Shoshana, is Jewish”.
So Mr Stewart had an interesting calling-card with which to meet members of the Jewish community and hear their concerns. In his visit, co-ordinated by the Jewish Leadership Council, he was introduced to leaders of JLC member organisations such as the London Jewish Forum, Jami, Mitzvah Day, the Union of Jewish Students and JW3. But — being Rory Stewart — he was keen to get out on the street in Golders Green and hear the concerns of potential voters in the mayoral election. He also visited the Carmelli Bakery for the by now traditional smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel, which he wolfed down in his campaign car, after buying some kosher gingerbread men to take home to his two small children.
Mr Stewart was, he said, “in listening mode”. He said that the major anxieties of Jewish voters, about their security, was of primary importance. “The job of mayor, I think, is to provide good transportation, a clean environment, and to ensure that people feel safe”. He seemed appalled when JW3 chief executive Raymond Simonson told him of the half million pound annual budget needed to provide security for the centre; and he was plainly moved by conversation with Union of Jewish Students president Esther Offenberg and sabbatical officer Bradley Langer, who told him about the high levels of antisemitic abuse on some university campuses.
He said he was not yet ready to provide a quick-fix response to the problem of antisemitism. “The really honest answer is that I need to spend more time listening and learning. I think there are easy answers, but they are probably not full answers”.
Asked if he had been aware of the level of antisemitism, Mr Stewart said he believed “one of the things which hasn’t worked is British reporting of this. Frequently the details are never quite put across clearly enough. I was asked by a non-British friend to explain about antisemitism in Britain and I pulled up a number of articles — I kept finding that, for whatever reason, journalists didn’t feel comfortable citing individual cases”. But he had now spoken to a former Labour councillor who had told him about groups of people “sitting at the back of meetings and muttering under their breath about Jews — or shouting Jewish speakers down. It’s so important to speak out against this”.
Mr Stewart, who has visited Israel “many times”, made it clear that he did not think it was the business of a London mayor to make foreign policy. “The role of a mayor is to champion their city, and to represent the city on the international stage, and get investment by leading trade delegations. I continue to support the two-state solution [for Israel and the Palestinians] but at the same time worry about whether it’s achievable. But I don’t really approve of a mayor being involved in foreign policy. My whole philosophy in life is to begin with the local issues, the ones I can actually affect and solve”.
In Golders Green, Mr Stewart said, the issues raised had been crime and house prices. “I was also very struck by people’s sense of whether or not they could identify as Jews in the street”.
With a grin, Mr Stewart revealed that he had already learned “of the huge part played by food in the Jewish community. A number of people have very kindly invited me to their homes already.”
He now plans to build on his new contacts by working with Mitzvah Day in November and is set to speak at JW3 in the coming months.