Charlotte Nichols who’s been the MP for Warrington North since last December, recently gave an interview to Wrenna Robson of the Social Review, some of which is reprinted here. And you can find the complete interview on the Social Review website, https://www.thesocialreview.co.uk/
Wrenna: Do your religious lives and your political lives intersect much, or are they fairly separate? Do you feel your politics is informed by your Jewishness, and if so, how?
Charlotte: I think they’re completely connected – many of the core tenets of my Judaism are what drives my politics, particularly around concepts like tikkun olam and the centrality of gemilut hasadim. Now obviously, in practical terms Judaism isn’t a missionary faith and only Jewish people are obligated to keep the mitzvot so it’s not about trying to impose my world view or practices on others who don’t share my beliefs – I’m very clear on that distinction when it comes to policy making.
But to me, Judaism is about sanctifying life on earth rather than securing a reward in a world to come, and that kind of… time pressure of this mortal life where waking up tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, really focuses me on trying to get the kind of big changes that we really need to see as a society to make it work better for everyone.
Wrenna: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense: very much trying to bring that spark of divine change into the world, and living that out?
Charlotte: Yeah exactly. I think it also has made me connect with others much more deeply than I used to, as you can envisage that spark of the divine in everyone. Particularly when it comes to things around interfaith and community work, that sense of connection is so important and trying to find common ground with others.
Wrenna: I know you’ve spoken recently about the importance of social care and of course that very much is in line with that ethos of gemilut hasidim. What do you see the future of social care in this country as being? Do you think there are Jewish lessons to be learned here too?
Charlotte: For sure. I have a friend who refers to Moses as ‘the first shop steward’ and indeed there’s a lot we can learn from Torah and later Jewish thought on collective bargaining, worker’s rights and our social contract with one another that is incredibly relevant today as despite the incredible contribution made by our care workers, they are among the most poorly paid and poorly treated groups within our workforce. It’s also interesting how increasingly services like social care and the NHS are being looked at like charity, rather than part of our social contract and I think there’s a lot of interesting thought around tzedekah that’s really relevant here too. Fundamentally, I think social care in this country has to be brought into a national care service that sits alongside the NHS, and which has the dignity and quality of life of those receiving care as it’s core purpose rather than the profit motive. I don’t see how it can be sustained in its current form in either a practical or a moral sense.
Wrenna: That makes a lot of sense. You mention some interesting thoughts about tzedekah that you think applies here: could you expand or recommend somewhere to read more?
Charlotte: Trying to think of a good way to boil it down but like:
Tzedekah is typically translated as “charity” but it’s a deeper concept than that, coming from the same root as “tzedek” (justice)- so it can be understood as something more akin to righteousness or social responsibility, rather than charitable giving. There’s some philosophical thought around altruism and philanthropy as something that serves the individual and implies a potentially problematic power relationship between the benefactor and the recipient who is reliant on their continued goodwill. Our elderly and vulnerable should not rely on that ‘goodwill’ of individuals, but should be sustainably provided for by the state? If that makes sense?
Wrenna: That does make sense! Thank you. So, how have you found being a Jewish MP and so in the public eye, but also being a Jew by choice?
Charlotte: It’s one of the first things trolls across the political spectrum go for when they’re trying to upset me, which is really difficult because it’s something that is so central and goes right to the heart of my sense of self. There’s this idea that I converted to achieve some sort of political end that implies a kind of flippancy about conversion that I think anyone with any understanding of how rigorous conversion knows just isn’t the case. When it comes from other Jewish people, it’s particularly hurtful because it plays to that insecurity of at what arbitrary point you’ll be Jewish ‘enough’ to talk about your experience of things like antisemitism without people throwing your conversion status in your face, and for some people the answer is ‘never’ which is a bitter pill to swallow.
That said I think my Judaism has really helped me in my role not least in providing a space for taking myself out of my own head a bit through prayer, reflection and in fulfilling certain practices, but the community of support both at home and in London (albeit experiencing this virtually with both communities at the moment). It’s also meant I’m finding a new richness to my interactions with other faith communities in the constituency I represent, by being able to share in marking celebrations with them and learning about the differences and similarities in our respective traditions.
Wrenna: How do you find practical things in the job of being an MP interact with wanting to, for instance, welcome in Shabbat on a Friday evening? There’s a lot of traveling back at the weekends in the job, right? It’s not a “normal” job by any means, from what I can tell!
Charlotte: As a new MP, I’m still trying to get the work/life balance right. During the election period and the first few months of trying to hire staff, set up two offices, and buy a house, I was easily working 18 hour days every day just to keep my head above water, and spending half your week at one end of the country and the other half in the other complicates matters enormously in trying to establish any kind of routine.
Sometimes it’s just not possible to practice my faith the way I would in an ideal world, but generally though, wherever I am, I try to make sure to leave the office on a Friday by sundown and to light Shabbat candles if nothing else and not to put too much pressure on myself. Before lockdown, usually I’d travel back home on a Thursday, but if the House was sitting on a Friday (which is usually about once a month), I’d stay in London on the Friday evening to go to the Kabbalat Shabbat service at Westminster Synagogue.
The longer I’ve been in post though and being able to build a really talented and supportive team around me, the more I’m confident that I’ll get to a place where there doesn’t feel like there’s any kind of tension between being Jewish and being an MP. I’m just not there yet!
Wrenna: Very honest answer and I wish you well in finding a resolution to that tension!
Charlotte: I had near enough cracked it before Coronavirus messed everything again.