LONDON — Sajid Javid, Britain’s new home secretary, is an unapologetic friend of Israel and a longstanding ally of the Jewish community.
Javid is the first Muslim to hold one of the UK’s three great offices of state. Aside from the prime minister, his only equals in the cabinet are the chancellor of the exchequer and the foreign secretary.
His promotion this week increased speculation about, and cut the odds on, him succeeding Theresa May in Downing Street.
Javid’s background is hardly typical for a Conservative politician. His father, Abdul, arrived in Britain in 1961 with £1 in his pocket. He settled in Rochdale in the northwest of England, working first in a cotton mill and then as a bus driver. The family later moved to Bristol, a city in the southwest, where Javid and his four brothers shared a two-bedroom flat above the shop their parents had taken over.
The values of entrepreneurialism, self-reliance and education were drilled into Javid, a self-confessed “naughty” school boy. His mother would take her sons to the library on a Saturday morning and tell them to read the books, as they weren’t going anywhere else.
“That’s what got me into reading,” the home secretary told one interviewer. “It probably wasn’t the most positive way to do it. But there you go.”
Javid’s father — whose 24/7 work ethic earned him the nickname “Mr. Night and Day” — had little sympathy for the unions which dominated Britain in the 1970s and the strikes which frequently crippled the country.
“If these people want to get paid more why don’t they work harder,” he would tell his son. Like millions of other Labour-voting, working-class Britons, Abdul voted for Margaret Thatcher in 1979.
Javid acquired his father’s Thatcherite politics and adopted his heroine’s go-getting philosophy. At age 14, he arranged a £500 loan from Abdul’s bank manager to invest in the stock market and began reading the Financial Times. He dismissed his teachers’ suggestion he become a television repair man, and secured a place at Exeter University — the first member of his family to go to university.
At Exeter, he became close friends with Robert Halfon, an activist in the Union of Jewish Students and fellow leading light in the university Conservative association. Halfon later became political director of Conservative Friends of Israel and is now a senior Tory backbencher and vocal supporter of Israel in parliament.
Rejected for a job in the City of London — “let’s just say the [interview] panel made it pretty clear my face wasn’t going to fit in there,” he later recounted — Javid instead went to work for Chase Manhattan Bank in New York. By 25, he had become the bank’s youngest-ever vice president. He later joined the board of Deutsche Bank, where he made his millions.
Javid’s ascent in politics has been as rapid as it was in banking. Four years after entering parliament in 2010, David Cameron appointed him to the cabinet as culture secretary. He was later promoted to business secretary. As a close ally of former chancellor George Osborne, an archenemy of May, many thought Javid would be fired when the prime minister entered Downing Street in 2016. Instead, she shifted him sideways to run the Communities and Local Government department.
Last week, with her government rocked by a scandal over its treatment of British citizens who came to the UK from Commonwealth countries after the war, May turned to the son of Pakistani immigrants to clear up the mess.
Although on the right of the Tory party on economic issues, Javid is socially liberal and backed the introduction of gay marriage. Taking charge of a sprawling department which is responsible for fighting terrorism, tackling crime and securing the UK’s borders, he has promised a less hardline approach on immigration than that favored by May, who ran the Home Office during Cameron’s premiership.
‘There is only one place I could possibly go — Israel’
Javid’s path — both socioeconomic and political — is one with which many British Jews are familiar, and perhaps helps account for the rapport he appears to have struck up with the community.
Two years after becoming an MP, Javid stole the show at the Conservative Friends of Israel Annual Lunch when he delivered a passionate paean to the Jewish state.
“I am a proud, British-born Muslim, and I love my country more than any other place on earth,” he began, before declaring that, if he had to go and live in the Middle East, he would not choose Dubai, with “its vibrant city life and soaring skyscrapers,” nor Saudi Arabia, “a fabulously wealthy nation and the birthplace of the holy Prophet Mohammed.”
“There is only one place I could possibly go,” he continued, “[to] Israel. The only nation in the Middle East that shares the same democratic values as Britain. And the only nation in the Middle East where my family would feel the warm embrace of freedom and liberty.”
“For a British Muslim, this was an extraordinary and courageous intervention in the world of Israel advocacy,” noted the Jewish Chronicle’s political editor.
Indeed, so well did Javid’s speech go down with CFI’s audience that when one guest suggested the young MP might be a future prime minister, another reportedly replied: “Of Britain, or Israel?”
Nor has Javid pulled his punches in the intervening years. In each department in which he has landed, the pugnacious minister has proven himself a dogged supporter of Israel and enemy of its detractors. As the director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding griped when Javid was promoted to the Cabinet in 2014: “His overly pro-Israel stance will bring into question his ethical judgement given Israel’s appalling human rights record.”
At times, Javid appears to relish the opportunity to stick it to Israel’s opponents. Last September, when addressing a World Jewish Congress meeting in London, he delivered a none-too-subtle riposte to Palestinian demands that Britain use the 100th anniversary of its adoption to apologize for the Balfour Declaration.
“To apologize for the Balfour Declaration would be to apologize for the existence of Israel and to question its right to exist,” Javid responded. “Here in Britain we will not merely mark the centenary, we will celebrate it with pride.”
BDS: A media campaign full of sound and fury
For good measure, he also launched a characteristic barrage at the BDS movement.
“For all its bluster, the BDS campaign is most notable I think, for its lack of success. Trade is booming, tourism is soaring. The media campaign is full of sound and fury, but to the majority of Britain today it signifies nothing,” he suggested.
Javid concluded with what sounded like a challenge to his critics: “As long as I’m in government, as long as I’m in politics, I will do everything in my power to fight back against those who seek to undermine Israel.”
Few could dispute that the new home secretary has lived up to that commitment.
Last year, he used his post as communities secretary to announce a crackdown on local councils which try to impose boycotts of Israel. At the Business Department, Javid hailed a “golden era” for trade between Israel and the UK, and, offering a free-market twist on an old kibbutz slogan, praised Israel for making “business boom in the barren desert.”
And, as culture secretary, he attacked a London theater’s decision in 2014 to boycott the UK Jewish Film Festival because it had been sponsored by the Israeli Embassy.
“The moment I heard about the … ban I knew I couldn’t just let it go,” he later told the Union of Jewish Students’ annual conference. Pledging to always “stand up and resist calls for boycotts of Israel,” he denounced them as “nothing more than a smokescreen for the oldest hatred.”
Javid’s speech to UJS was perhaps one of the most pro-Israel speeches delivered by a British minister in recent years. Its mockery of those who back BDS while professing to support artistic freedom — “but only if it’s not backed by Israel … but not for Jews” — was combined with a moving account of visiting Auschwitz for the first time with schoolchildren from his constituency. Javid also made clear that his loathing of anti-Semitism has, in part, been shaped by his own experience of racism.
Javid has led the fight against anti-Semitism from the front during his two-year stint as communities secretary. His department has pumped money into initiatives to tackle hate crime, including a new project led by the Holocaust Educational Trust, to, as Javid put it, “tackle prejudice and intolerance on university campuses” by funding student trips to Auschwitz.
His condemnation of “dinner party anti-Semites” who “can’t condemn the murder of Jewish children in France without a caveat criticizing the Israeli government” and calls for people to challenge anti-Jewish hatred — “ultimately, we have to be prepared to do that most un-British of things; we have to make a scene” — have earned him plaudits from leading communal figures.
In recent weeks, Javid has spearheaded the government’s response to the allegations of anti-Semitism which have roiled the Labour paty. Last month, he led a high-profile parliamentary debate in which he accused Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn of “a deeply worrying lack of leadership and moral clarity” on the issue.
An easy target for hate speech
Javid’s politics, religion and race have made him a target for both the far right and the hard left.
“If you have a look online you’ll find no shortage of people saying that because my parents were born in Pakistan, I must be some kind of Homeland-style Al-Qaeda sleeper agent,” he quipped to the Community Security Trust in 2015.
In March, he was one of five Muslim MPs targeted as part of a racist “Punish a Muslim” campaign. Married to a Christian, Javid is not a practicing Muslim but does not hesitate to speak of his pride at his Muslim “heritage.”
His appointment as Home Secretary appeared to set off a new barrage of abuse from hard left activists who used the racial slurs “coconut” and “Uncle Tom” to attack him. Some specifically focused on his support for Israel. “You Ain’t No Muslim, Bruv. Only the Tories could appoint an aggressive Zionist as the 1st Muslim Home Secretary,” declared one Internet meme.
“This is what Muslims who do not ‘conform’ to regressive views get — abuse, bigotry and hate,” Tweeted the Muslim hate-crime charity, Tell MAMA in response.
Javid himself angrily challenged Corbyn this week in parliament to denounce the attacks, saying they were part of the same “hostile environment” which had allowed anti-Semitism to flourish in the party.
Trial by fire?
The Home Secretary’s pro-Israel credentials will face an early test in his new department. Next month sees the annual Al Quds Day march in central London. Last year’s event — where pro-Palestinian activists carried Hezbollah flags and chanted anti-Semitic slogans — sparked fury in the Jewish community and a campaign to stop similar occurrences in the future.
Britain currently only proscribes Hezbollah’s military wing. This allowed marchers to escape arrest for carrying the terror group’s flag by saying they were demonstrating their support for its political wing.
Lobbying by both Labour and Conservative MPs calling for Hezbollah to be banned in its entirety has thus far been rebuffed by the Home Office. During a parliamentary debate on the issue in January secured by the chair of Labour Friends of Israel, Joan Ryan, the government’s stance was supported by the opposition frontbench.
Last month, London’s Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, who has also supported the campaign to bar Hezbollah, urged Javid’s predecessor, Amber Rudd, to use the Home Secretary’s powers to ban the march altogether, suggesting it was “unacceptable that through the heart of our city, we have got people marching whose flags and slogans cause distress to Londoners of Jewish faith.”
Javid has now become the focus of campaigners, with both the Labour MP Louise Ellman, a vice-chair of LFI, and the Conservative backbencher Matthew Offord this week writing to the Home Secretary to call on him to give his “personal attention” to the issue with the march barely one month away.
But while the power to proscribe Hezbollah rests with the Home Secretary, the Foreign Office — which is allegedly keen to keep open channels with “moderate” elements in the terror group — is likely to be resistant to any such move.
If Javid decides to act, it will not just be his commitment, but also his Whitehall street-fighting skills that will be tested to the full.
Journalist and writer Robert Philpot is the former editor of Progress magazine and is now a contributing editor to it. He previously served as a special adviser in the Northern Ireland Office and Cabinet Office.