Ashley Perry is the only Brit standing for the Knesset at next month’s election. He talks to Jenni Frazer about his roots, making aliyah and party politics.
Running for parliament may well be in Ashley Perry’s genes. Just a month before he was born in 1974, his father, Woolf, ran – unsuccessfully – for the Liberals against Labour Housing Minister Reg Freeson in London’s Brent East.
Ashley Perry’s story might be different. He is the only British-born Israeli to be standing for Knesset in March’s elections – and may well be, as far as he can guess, the only candidate ever born in Britain to be running for election in Israel.
There have been several Americans over the years but no Brits. And though Perry is relatively low on the Yisrael Beiteinu list of candidates – he’s currently 20th on the list – the party’s commitment to the separation of executive and legislature may well see him shoot to a higher position.
As he explains: “We don’t want ministers to sit in the Knesset. We think that ministers can’t do their jobs and be inside the Knesset, the only exception being the party chairman.”
Based on the number of seats Yisrael Beiteinu won in the last election, Perry expects the party to get at least five ministerial portfolios – and those people, he says, would leave the Knesset list and make way for people – like him – lower down.
If Perry sounds like a well-oiled party apparatchik, it’s because he is. He’s earned his spurs by working as an adviser to a number of Israeli politicians, principally the controversial Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (with whom he plays a mean game of tennis) for the past seven or so years. His soothing British tones have become familiar to Israeli reporters as, like the lawyer he once planned to be (although his first degree is in history), he meticulously unpicks the misconceptions and rumours that swirl around Israeli politics.
Perry, who made aliyah in 2001 in the middle of the intifada, is a relative newcomer to Israel, but comes from one of the oldest English Jewish families. “We were a Sephardi family, whose original name was Perez, who were invited by Oliver Cromwell to come to Britain in 1656.”
Brought up in Mill Hill before studying at Carmel College, Perry did his history degree at UCL and then spent a year in New York, planning to study law.
But the draw of Israel was too strong and Perry, whose father had at one time been the only Briton on the executive of Keren Hayesod, made aliyah. “I really wanted to contribute,” he says. “People ask, what can Israel do for me, but I really wanted to know what I could do for Israel.”
For several years, he worked for advocacy organisations and political parties before a chance meeting in 2007 with Danny Ayalon, fresh back from being Israel’s ambassador to the United States.
Ayalon joined Avgidor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, and became Deputy Foreign Minister. Although the party was originally founded for Russian immigrants, Perry now calls it a party for all immigrants – and, as an “Anglo” immigrant, he is very comfortable within it. “I found it the greatest fit for me,” says Perry, who, among other things, was one of the founders of Honest Reporting.
Although he says he has “the greatest admiration” for the professional foreign ministry staff with whom he works, Perry feels that “the place I can be most effective is in the Knesset”.
He is a keen advocate of changes in the convulsive Israeli political system, backing Yisrael Beiteinu plans for a higher threshold of votes for Knesset elections, to try to whittle down the number of parties to a more manageable number. “We need greater government stability”, he says, an observation with which most politicians, from right or left, would surely agree.
Perry is bullish about some of his party’s more controversial stances. It has been accused, for example, of anti-Arab racism, but he rejects this, declaring that Yisrael Beitenu has “two members of the Arabic-speaking population in realistic spots on our list, one a member of the Druze community and one from the Christian Arab community, much higher than on any other party’s [list.] The only colour that matters to us is the blue of one’s ID card”.
In the previous Knesset, he says, it was his party’s MKs who “oversaw a major overhaul of the water and electricity infrastructure of Arab villages in the north, which were unduly ignored for too long.” He claims, in fact, that there is greater Arab and Druze support for Yisrael Beiteinu than any other non-Arab political party.
He is also robust about the allegations of corruption that swirl round Yisrael Beitenu, not least relating to party chairman Lieberman, who was cleared of a number of fraud and breach of trust charges in November 2013.
Perry says: “There is not a single person on the Yisrael Beiteinu list who is under any type of investigation and suspicion. We are proud of the fact that we don’t have anyone on our list ever convicted of any type of criminal offence”.
These days Perry, who lives in the West Bank settlement town of Efrat with his wife and four children, has a turbulent campaign in which he is addressing English speakers all over the country. The Anglo vote, he says, has been too often neglected in Israeli politics, but adds proudly that his party has an active English-language division that works for Anglo-Israelis all the time, not just before elections.
He is optimistic and confident about Yisrael Beiteinu’s chances in the March election, despite its current low showing in the polls. He says: “According to statistical analyses, Yisrael Beiteinu has consistently been the party most undervalued in the polls, as opposed to the actual results, in previous elections. I think that remains true in these elections, as we were polling around the same numbers in 2009, the last time we ran as a separate party, and we ended up receiving 15 mandates.”
For Perry, there are three big issues: “Zionism, aliyah, and hasbara [public relations]. We spend 20 per cent of the national budget, and on hasbara less than is spent on promoting yogurts. We can answer any of our detractors throughout the world but we need a better budget for public diplomacy.”
And he has one big dream, which he himself admits is not a vote-getter. “We should establish an international Jewish and Zionist school system of the highest calibre. It’s time for Israel to return the favour and help the diaspora to maintain itself.”
Diaspora Jews don’t have votes, of course: but Perry is looking to the long-term. Even if he doesn’t get into the Knesset this March, his is a name to watch.