'Sometimes you feel like you're hiding something'

Lewisham's Damien Egan speaks for the first time, saying he fears the reaction of some in his party


Damien Egan

One of London’s most senior local government leaders has spoken for the first time about his decision to convert to Judaism.

Damien Egan, the Labour mayor of Lewisham, also marks the first anniversary this month of his conversion by saying his party needs to do more to understand why many Jews now fear it.

“I think of myself as an open person and don’t like to hide anything and yet, at some points over the last year, you feel like you’re hiding something,” Mr Egan says.

“People do know I’ve converted, it’s not hidden, but it’s not exactly open either. I’d like to be more open and then feel I can speak up a bit more about issues as they’re happening.

“I think I’d really regret it if I looked back on my period as mayor and thought I didn’t really say anything; I’d be really disappointed with myself.”

Mr Egan, who was elected as Lewisham’s mayor last May, admits that he is concerned about the reaction to his conversion of some in the Labour party.

“Of course, it shouldn’t matter — and no-one should be interested because it shouldn’t be interesting — but it makes you anxious, which is difficult because I love the Labour party,” he says. “There’s something about this, though, where you’re seen as putting yourself outside of [the party]. Hopefully, people will judge me as a politician by what I do in politics and what I achieve as mayor.”

Born in Ireland but brought up in Britain, Mr Egan was raised in a family he describes as “cultural Catholics”. The former altar boy began to drift away from the Church in his late teens, although suggests it continued to remain an important part of his identity.

“I mentally knew I was a Catholic, as if it’s on a document somewhere rather than something you’re actually practising,” he says.

But, even as a “lapsed Catholic”, Mr Egan maintained “a kind of spiritual curiosity”. “I was always, growing up, interested in faith and thinking about all faiths.” Visits to Israel and conversations with Jewish friends sparked an interest in Judaism. “It was something I felt connected with, and wanted to know more about, but I didn’t feel any pressure as to when and where I’d explore that.”

That began to change three years ago when Mr Egan met his Israeli partner. “It wasn’t directly connected to meeting Yossi, but part of it was going into a relationship with someone and thinking now is the right time to explore that further, it felt natural.”

Nonetheless, Mr Egan argues, “conversion isn’t something where you’re finished. Yes, you’re Jewish but it’s the start of learning more. If I look at where I am, I feel a lot more confident in my Judaism now than I was a year ago. Hopefully, that confidence will grow in terms of how I live my Judaism in daily life and how that’s reflected in my values.”

Mr Egan pays tribute to his “fantastic rabbi”, Jason Holtz (who is now in America), and the “incredibly supportive second family” that has embraced him at Bromley Reform Synagogue.

His own family were understanding when he told them he was thinking of converting. “They were very supportive and also interested, especially as my shul feels very progressive and liberal,” he recalls. “When I talked about the values, it’s something they could also identify with, so I think that they got it.”

After winning last May’s election — Lewisham is one of four London boroughs with a directly elected mayor — one of Mr Egan’s early decisions was his choice of mayoress. He decided to ask Liane Segal to serve for his first year in office. Her history as someone who came to Britain on the Kindertransport reflected both the new mayor’s “Open Lewisham” programme — as a “sanctuary borough”, it is committed to taking in 100 refugee families — as well as his determination to take a stand against the growth in antisemitism.

That antisemitism has, of course, dramatically manifested itself in Mr Egan’s own party; a crisis which unfolded during the two years he was converting.

One of Mr Egan’s early engagements with Ms Segal was at the Holocaust Survivors’ Centre in Hendon where he was questioned about whether Jews would be safe if Labour wins the next general election.

“Standing there as a Labour politician, I could never imagine — I’ve been a member of the party for 22 years — that I would get asked those questions,” he says. “It’s deeply saddening.

“What the Labour party hasn’t recognised is that, for those people, they’ve seen what can happen in the most extreme ways,” Mr Egan argues. “Today we see rising antisemitism. It’s not like something in the distant past. We’ve seen shootings in synagogues. At my shul, as in synagogues around the country, we take it in turns for the security rota. It’s all real; it’s people’s actual lived experience. The Labour Party is failing to understand why people would be so scared.”

So what does he believe Labour needs to do? The leadership needs to begin, he believes, by talking to “all Jews, not just Jews that you feel comfortable talking to. It needs to understand why they feel as they do, and the hurt. It isn’t just offence that’s been caused — which would be bad enough — it’s about understanding why the fear is there and why people would feel they might not be safe.”

Labour, he adds, is not “going out of its way to understand” why some Jews are considering leaving the country if Jeremy Corbyn becomes Prime Minister. “It is hard to imagine a situation with any other group where Labour would have allowed things to escalate in the way that they have. I can understand why Jews and left-wing Jews wouldn’t want to vote Labour.”

So would Mr Egan feel comfortable campaigning for Labour in a general election if it is led by Mr Corbyn? He pauses. “As a leader in local government, it’s critical we get a Labour government. Our budget has just been decimated; hitting every single service of the council. The question is how does the Labour party get itself into a position where can we win an election and also have the support of the Jewish community?”

Although Mr Egan actively campaigns for Labour, he admits: “I will feel more confident and happy campaigning once work has been done around really going out to understand and reconcile with the Jewish community.

“Donald Trump has demonstrated you can win with this kind of division in society but the Labour Party shouldn’t want to.”

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