Half a lifetime ago, two furious Jewish students wrote to the JC to complain about John Bercow, now the new Speaker of the House of Commons.
In 1986, Mr Bercow, then 23, was the ambitious new chairman of the Federation of Conservative Students, sporting a Rambo T-shirt and pursuing, the JC said, “a hard-line aggressive policy with the accent on machismo”.
But it was Mr Bercow’s fraught relationship with Essex University Jewish Society which was under the spotlight. He had joined the society at the same time as becoming involved with the union’s Conservative Association, but the Jewish students were unhappy about some of the Conservatives’ bedfellows. There were endless allegations of links between the Conservative students and extremist right-wing organisations such as the British National Party or the National Front. At one point, Mr Bercow was secretary of the Immigration and Repatriation Committee of the hard-right Monday Club, and a close associate of the extreme right-wing Conservative MP Harvey Proctor.
He complained that the Jewish Society had summoned him to a meeting and asked him to explain his views. He had refused, he said, because “I resented being put in the dock”.
But after the JC profile of Mr Bercow appeared, two students who had chaired Essex JSoc during his time at the university wrote to denounce him. He had never participated in JSoc events, they wrote, but “when challenged about the racist activities of the far Right of the Tory Party, whose company he seems happy to keep, John Bercow would always reply, ‘I can’t be racist, I’m Jewish.’” The students, G Yaron and D Marks, declared: “It appeared to the executive of the Jewish society that Judaism was being adopted as a useful tool to serve political ambition.”
That charge of expedience has hung around Mr Bercow all his political life as he moved away from being an Enoch Powell anti-immigration supporter to become first an ardent Thatcherite and latterly a maverick Tory who resigned from Iain Duncan Smith’s shadow cabinet over the issue of gay adoption. The final straw, according to exasperated Tory colleagues, was his agreement to act as an adviser to Gordon Brown on children with speech, language and communication needs. Mr Bercow, one of whose three children, Oliver, has been diagnosed with autism, produced a well-regarded report in 2008 which prompted the government to pledge £52 million to raise the profile of such children within the educational field. (Mr Bercow and his wife, the Labour-supporting Sally Illman, have two other children: son, Freddie; and daughter, Jemma.)
Son of a taxi-driver, Mr Bercow was barmitzvah at Finchley Reform Synagogue and has expressed his Jewish identity in a variety of ways. He first went to Israel in 1983 with the Federation of Conservative Students and has been a member of the Conservative Friends of Israel for 30 years. He has taken part, as an MP, in a day trip to Auschwitz and in April this year he visited Nightingale care home in south London.
In 2004 he took part in a Christian Aid visit to Gaza. As the shadow International Development spokesman, he said the visit had brought home “the daily reality of life in Gaza and the West Bank. People here have a constant fear that they will be the victim of military action, detention or assaults on property. We would all say that the present stance of the Israeli government is unfair and will not produce peace”.