Euro Charedi who is passionate about Ukip
MEP candidate Shneur Odze: “Jews get a poor hearing in the European Parliament”
Did you do a double-take? If so, you are not the only one. Shneur Odze is the first to admit he does not look like a typical politician.
But the strictly Orthodox father-of-four hopes to become the first British Jewish member of the European Parliament for five years when voters go to the polls next month.
A former Conservative Party local councillor, Mr Odze will stand for the UK Independence Party in the north-west region. His chances of securing a seat in Brussels are better than you might think.
In the last European election five years ago, Ukip secured two and a half million votes, a 16.5 per cent share, and saw 13 MEPs elected. Its appeal and profile have risen ever since.
I was concerned about the party’s image — everyone saw them as xenophobic
The north-west region returns eight MEPs to the parliament. Ukip will be up against the three main parties, plus candidates from the Green Party, the English Democrats, the Pirate Party, and Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party.
Mr Odze feels confident of success — albeit with a twist. His intention, in line with his party, is to pull Britain out of the European Union, and thereby do himself out of a job.
“I want to get there to be a short-lived MEP. Once you surrender power to Brussels, there’s no getting it back,” he explained.
Mr Odze’s politics may surprise some — Ukip’s anti-immigration stance has attracted criticism from some Jews. But, he says, the party is a suitable fit.
“I’m standing for all the reasons every Ukip candidate is standing. But of course I have a vested interest in Jewish issues — shechita, brit milah. These are EU-related issues.
“In the European Parliament there are very few Jews. We get a poor hearing. I hope to be right in the forefront of the issues. The European Parliament has many extreme groups. The growing far right is a massive issue.
“When you talk to current MEPs there’s a great indifference to Jewish issues. There’s a lot of naivety and ignorance about issues affecting Jews and Israel — like terrorism. I’m fighting for the same things as Israel — independence, democracy, the rule of law.”
The 33-year-old, a committed Lubavitcher, was elected to Hackney Council at the age of 21.
He said: “My political involvement came partly through passion, partly through a sense of duty. There were a lot of issues going on in Hackney at the time. We had to fight for every Tory vote. Ukip was not on the radar for me at all, and was virtually non-existent in London back then.”
Those early days were not without controversy. In 2004 he was suspended from the council after raising concerns about postal voting abuses. “I was a whistleblower. No one likes a whistleblower. Two members of council staff gave me some information and I told the local paper about fraud among Labour members. I was effectively run out of the council and run out of town.”
After marrying his wife, Chavi, Mr Odze moved to Manchester and again stood for the Conservatives. But after several election defeats he became disillusioned and drifted away from politics.
“I thought the Conservatives had lost their purpose. There was a horrible atmosphere in the party,” he said. “It was just after David Cameron went to Istanbul and called Gaza a prison camp. There was no need for it. Cameron also withdrew his patronage of JNF. It was very cynical and I thought he had lost it. So I left politics behind.”
But a chance encounter with Ukip’s deputy leader and current north-west MEP, Paul Nuttall, made Mr Odze think again. “Paul is your archetypal skin-head, with a thick Scouse accent. But we started talking and I thought ‘wow’. He did not talk about left and right, he talked about Britain and he was so passionate,” Mr Odze said.
“I got involved with Ukip but I was concerned about the party’s image. Everyone saw them as xenophobic and racist. But I met lots of Ukip members and I saw there was no reflection of what Ukip was accused of. People were talking about all sorts of political issues. That greatly reassured me.”
Mr Odze admits he had doubts about the party’s true interest in him, but does not believe he is a token Jew. “My selection was by the membership, one person, one vote. They put me here. For every member to think alike — ‘let’s choose a token Jew’ — would have been very cunning.”
Mr Odze was the focus of media attention in February amid claims an internal party row had broken out because of his refusal to shake hands with women. To do so would go against his Orthodox beliefs.
He has tried to take the positives from the incident: “I’m grateful for it because it’s brought me a lot of support and interest. There’s been no antisemitism to my face. I saw plenty of racism in the Conservative Party. But I’ve had nothing to my face in Ukip.”
As he stands on the cusp of becoming Britain’s highest-profile strictly Orthodox politician, what does Mr Odze’s family make of his career choice?
“I try to keep them out of it. But politics is about helping the community. I don’t mind my children seeing that their father is passionate about that.”