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Meet the Orthodox Jewish candidate who wants to be Ukip's first Manchester mayor

Shneur Odze is running against Andy Burnham in the metro mayor elections. 

According to a 2015 YouGov poll, Ukip voters are more likely to agree with anti-Semitic statements than the Conservatives, Labour or Lib Dems. 

But from the close-fitting black skullcap perched atop his head to the full, free-flowing beard flecked with grey, Shneur Odze, Ukip's candidate for Manchester Mayor, wears his Orthodox Judaism with pride.

And he is no rank and file party member, but a close confidante of both former Ukip leader Nigel Farage and new leader Paul Nuttall.

Odze is running against the firm Labour favourite, Andy Burnham, for the Manchester metro mayor. And Ukip’s popularity is growing. 

Of 11 local election seats contested in May 2016, the party won the second highest vote-share in nine of them - and they were snapping at the heels of the top party in wards across the wider 10 boroughs of Greater Manchester.

Odze himself stood in Salford, coming second to Labour’s 1,580 ballots in Broughton with 368 votes.

He admits he was unsure about joining Ukip, which he once perceived as "BNP in blazers". He said: “I thought it wasn’t going to be the party for me because they would be anti-Semitic [at the start]. I was convinced of it.”

Having previously served as a councillor in Hackney, north London back in the noughties - for the Conservatives - Odze lost his passion for the party and spent some years in the political wilderness.

On his return to politics, he found himself to the right of his original position. He ran to be the Ukip candidate in 2014’s London mayoral selection, but lost out to Peter Whittle.

Now he is settled in Salford with his wife and children, and the 33-year-old Lubavitcher - a strain of Orthodox Jews descended from a village in Belarus - is enjoying his return to the fray.

Odze describes his interest in people and making a difference to real lives as the crux of his mayoral candidacy in a contest which heralds the devolution of England's regions from Westminster’s grip.

“I wasn’t surprised that Ukip were willing to take me as a member per se,” he says of his Damascene conversion from true blue to Kipper purple. “[But] I was very concerned that they were racists, or anti-Semitic, and that I was a bit of a fig leaf. It took a long time to get over that.”

Rather than immigration, his main political stamping ground is the NHS - Odze was a public governor of the University Hospital of South Manchester in Wythenshawe for six years until 13 months ago - transport, housing and employment across the region, as well as putting police back on the streets.

He insists that Ukip have never pushed him forward, instead allowing him to take his own steps into the limelight.

But he has willingly basked in that fame, and seems to enjoy being a member of a party many wouldn't have associated with Orthodox Judaism.

He says that occasionally "the average Joe Public would have at the start had a double take” at the the uniform of his faith, but he has never had an issue in Ukip. 

"In all parties, particularly in Ukip, anyone who stands out seems to do well," he says. “In the MEP selection we had Amjad Bashir, Steven Woolfe - we’re a colourful party. We attract people of character and charisma.”

Oh, yes - Steven Woolfe. The mixed-race Ukip MEP, once tipped as a leader, instead quit the party, describing it as “ungovernable” after a colleague punched him. As for Amjad Bashir, he defected to the Tories.

Indeed, June's Brexit vote was something of a high for Ukip in 2016. Since then, the party has been consumed with factional infighting, with Ukip leader Diane James quitting after just 18 days in the job, and later leaving the party altogether. Farage was forced to take the helm again, before Nuttall was elected to the post. Meanwhile, Theresa May's Tory government has hoovered up some of Ukip's most popular policies. Support for Ukip in the polls has hovered around 13 per cent. 

Odze - Chair of Ukip’s Friends of Israel grouping - dismisses Woolfe's criticisms, and quips that Ukip don’t mind how “far out you are” - meaning unusual - “just that you’re not far right”.

“It’s showbiz, it’s people who don’t fit into the straitjacket of the other mainstream parties," he says. “We’ve attracted a lot of other people at the time who had been deselected by other parties.”

As far as Ukip's future goes: “The number of times that people have said ’this is a disaster for Ukip, this is the end’, and it isn’t. 

“I was concerned when we were at 1 or 2 per cent in the polls. Paul Nuttall said that we were going to overtake the Lib Dems and everybody laughed at him. Well, as they say, the rest is history. “

Odze insists that Ukip is the only party that can challenge Labour. "We’re attracting Labour voters. The question is how many more and to what extent," he says. “All Andy Burnham’s been going on and on about for months and months is migration and Brexit, because he knows we’re the only people who can beat him."

“Of course Andy’s the favourite. But look at Donald Trump. Look at Brexit.”

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How conspiracy theories about the Salisbury attack tap into antisemitic tropes

Rather than blame Russia for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, some are questioning the intentions of Labour MPs. 

Shortly after the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, guests on the BBC’s Newsnight programme discussed the reaction of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The Twitterati went into meltdown. Was the image of the Labour leader amid a Kremlin skyline part of a mainstream media plot to depict Jeremy as a “Soviet stooge”? Was the hat he was wearing “doctored” to look more Russian?

Much of the conspiracy material circulating online recently – and indeed the story on Newsnight about Corbyn – flowed from the shocking attack that has left Skripal and his daughter in hospital and affected many others. The government, and now EU leaders, have blamed Russia for the attack. Yet among some sections of the online left, there seemed a reluctance to point fingers. But if Russia didn’t do it, how could the matter be explained to fit a pre-existing worldview? Jews such as myself wondered how long it would be before the finger pointed at us. It wasn’t even a week before political space had been created which emboldened some to pursue the notion that not Russia but gangsters, Britain’s own research lab or yes, Israel were more reasonably the brains behind the poisoning.

One of the voices that gained traction in relation to the spy attack story belongs to former British diplomat Craig Murray, who took exception to the speed with which Russia was declared responsible. Picking up on the government line that the toxin was “of a type developed by Russia” he penned a blog entitled: “Of a type developed by liars” building on his previous piece “Russian to judgement” which contained numerous allegations, including that “Israel has a clear motivation for damaging the Russian reputation so grievously”. Murray’s work was picked up by left-wing news outlet The Canary and Evolve Politics, among others. The latter also quoted Annie Machon, a former MI5 agent who has previously supported 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Murray’s view soon entered the mainstream, with the Guardian referencing it and one Labour MP sharing a Murray tweet declaring: “Wow, if this is true Theresa May has some very serious questions to answer”. The spotlight on Murray’s theories was a worrying development given that not long before, Murray, had been speculating about another matter.

After the Labour MP John Woodcock introduced to Parliament an Early Day Motion that unequivocally accepts the Russian state’s culpability for the poisoning, Murray tweeted: “Remarkable correlation between Labour MPs who attacked Corbyn in EDM wanting no investigation into Salisbury before firmly attributing blame, and parliamentary Labour friends of Israel, I wonder why?” One can read into this statement what one wants, but to me it seemed to imply that rushing to judgement on Moscow might benefit MPs supportive of Israel, which in conspiracy world are in its pay. Certainly that’s what a number of online hounds sniffed. But rather than one type of conspiracy, Murray was apparently pointing to another. “A conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Cobyn, perhaps. If you think I was accusing them of being part of a conspiracy to kill Skripal, you are daft,” he tweeted. In short, he seems to be saying, whilst there was not a conspiracy of MPs to be a part of any plot to kill the double agent, the EDM “perhaps” represented a conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. 

Others were bolder. One Labour activist, writing about the aforementioned EDM, declared it was “worth noting one of the people sponsoring this motion is a named CIA asset”. Though unspecified, the asset referred to was believed by some to be Ruth Smeeth MP. This seemingly centres on Smeeth being named in a single diplomatic cable from 2009, released by Wikileaks, in reference to her views, when a parliamentary candidate, about an early election being called by Gordon Brown. 

Entirely unrelated to these particular tweets or Murray’s writing, Smeeth also happens to be an MP who has spoken out about antisemitism, and was forced to accept police protection following antisemitic abuse she has received online. She and another MP, John Mann, have both received antisemitic death threats. I stood next to Mann at Labour party conference as a delegate berated him, calling him a CIA agent for taking on this “antisemitism nonsense”. For me, this interaction underlined the causality between some conspiracy theories and antisemitic activity (Mann is not Jewish, but has been a prominent opponent of antisemitism in the party). 

Though it is difficult to reduce to a simple guide, allegations of Israeli conduct that draw on classic antisemitic tropes should be avoided. In recent years this has included suggestions of “organ harvesting” which draw on the antisemitic blood libel, or those that speculate about political control, such as suggestions that “the Israeli tail wags the US dog.”

Certainly, the centrality of Israel to conspiracy theory has a long history. In Mein Kampf, Hitler alleged: “All they want is a central organisation for their international world swindler, endowed with its own sovereign rights and removed from the intervention of other states.” Of course, this type of global antisemitic conspiracy theory predates Hitler. The antisemitic hoax, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is decades older. Russian in origin, it purported to reveal a meeting of Jews seeking to manipulate governments, foment war and subvert the morals of society. Today, we see a similar sentiment. Indeed, Russian president Vladimir Putin suggested that Jews, or other ethnic minorities, might be behind electoral interference in America. A US lawmaker recently blamed a Jewish elite for controlling the weather and closer to home, one of the Twitter accounts that popularised the Corbyn hat conspiracy, has also shared antisemitic conspiracy theories.

With conspiracy theories transposing from the far right to the extreme left online, it is unsurprising that before long Rothschild conspiracy (secret Jewish plot) memes were posted on Labour party supporter and other forums in relation to the Salisbury poisoning. Indeed, antisemitism itself tends to attract the acrid smell of conspiracy theory. When such an act is alleged, cries of “smears” and “witch hunt” follow. Only recently, The Times reported on an MIT study which revealed that a false-news tweet is 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than a true story. Maybe this is why allegations of Mossad collaboration with Nazis or Hitler’s support for Zionism have been so widespread.

People cannot necessarily be held responsible for falling for conspiracy theories. Trust in government is at an all-time low. Spin, scandal and economic sorrow have left people looking for alternative heroes and whomever is deemed most reliable on social media timelines will do. Conspiracy theories play into prejudices. They empower and embolden people to feel a step ahead, they provide a scapegoat and a self-satisfying rebuttal loop. Those that do know better meanwhile are perhaps worried to tackle others for fear of attack, hope for better times ahead or most worryingly, see populist conspiracy as a Trumpian route to power.

Last week, we helped organise the first ever one man show in parliament: Marlon Solomon, who will return to Edinburgh with his show “Conspiracy Theory: A Lizard’s Tale” this year. As he reminded us this week, it wasn’t so long ago that a Labour MP was stabbed to death by someone with a warped view of reality. Obsessive and distorted hatred of Israel and Jews has an effect. Conspiracy theories matter. They have real-life consequences for people. It is incumbent upon leaders across the political spectrum not to normalise or sanitise conspiracy theories, or conspiratorial antisemitism, nor to allow us to think we can “trust no one”. But then, as the conspiracists will tell you, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Danny Stone MBE is the director of the Antisemitism Policy Trust.