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Unpacking the appointment of an ‘unapologetic’ Israel supporter as Britain’s Health Secretary

June 28, 2021 at 7:01 pm

Newly appointed Health secretary Sajid Javid leaves St Thomas’ Hospital after a visit on June 28, 2021 in London, England [Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]

Sajid Javid made a surprise comeback to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s cabinet this weekend following the resignation of Matt Hancock. The former health secretary fell on his sword a day after his secret affair with an aide was exposed by British tabloids. The appointment of Javid, who has served in several ministerial positions since being elected in 2010, sees him return to the front-line of British politics 16 months after leaving the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer over a dispute with Johnson’s then-chief adviser, Dominic Cummings.

The son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants, Javid is one of only four Conservative Muslim MPs to be elected during the 2019 UK general election which saw the Tories win a commanding 82-seat majority. Despite Javed’s background, hailing from a poor immigrant family, his ascent in politics has been swift as it has been remarkable. The 51-year-old is the first Muslim to hold not one but two of the UK’s great offices of state: chancellor of the exchequer and home secretary.

Javid’s background has been the subject of much discussion. On the one hand, he epitomises the great British dream of meritocracy where a hardworking boy who once lived above a shop in a rough neighbourhood is able to elevate himself to one of the highest offices in the land, despite facing racism and discrimination. One the other, in climbing the career ladder within a political party seen by many to be institutionally racist, has meant that Javid’s background and faith have remained a constant throughout his political career.

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For instance, during the 2019 Conservative leadership contest, which he lost after being eliminated in the fourth round receiving only 34 votes to Johnson’s 157, he spoke about how overcoming racism while growing up in Bristol has made him a leading candidate to be the next British Prime Minister. Javid also put his rivals on the spot over Tory party Islamophobia after calling on the main candidates to back an independent investigation into anti-Muslim racism within the Conservative party.

After much toing and froing, last month a highly critical independent inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative party found institutional failings in how it handled complaints of anti-Muslim prejudice. Writing in the Times, a day after the publication of the inquiry, Javid said that prejudice towards Muslims is “significantly more widespread than for other minorities” and raised concerns over research findings that a quarter of the public would still feel uncomfortable being represented by a Muslim MP. Javid urged the Tories to get its “house in order” while pointing out that “prejudice [against Muslims] is reflected in every part of society.”

This narrative is seen as having served Javid well as he himself is seen as a victim of Islamophobia. In 2019 when Javid was snubbed to the state banquet held in honour of the US President Donald Trump, even though some more junior ministers attended, it was seen by many as an example of a deep-rooted problem he often highlights. Though Javid tried to maintain a straight face, describing the snub as “odd” and that he did not like it, others, including the former Conservative Party chair and the first Muslim to be appointed to a cabinet post, Sayeeda Warsi, were quite certain Javid’s background was the reason why he was overlooked.

Nevertheless, Javid has been criticised for playing to his roots when it serves his political agenda. He has been careful to point out that his wife is Christian and that “the only religion practised in [my] house is Christianity.” At times, Javid has downplayed racism experienced by Muslims. In the past, he opposed the Muslim Council of Britain’s (MCB) calls for an inquiry into Islamophobia within the Conservative Party and dismissed their claims to represent British Muslims.

Cartoon - Criticisms of Israel labelled as antisemitism

Criticisms of Israel labelled as antisemitism – Cartoon [Carlos Latuff/Twitter]

Javid’s refusal to allow British teenager Shamima Begum to return to the UK also opened him up to criticism and that he was playing to the Islamophobic Conservative base. Careful not to be seen as a weak candidate, many thought he had exploited the plight of the stranded 21-year-old to further his political career. Javid, who at the time was serving as the Home Secretary, stripped Begum of her citizenship. Under international law it is illegal to deprive anyone of citizenship if it would leave them stateless; however, Javid, a front-runner in the Tory leadership contest, did exactly that using the dubious claim that she had Bangladeshi citizenship through her parents. Begum was born in the UK and had never been to the former British colony.

On the issue of Israel and Palestine, Javid has been an ardent supporter of the occupation state. “Israel has a right to security and a duty to defend its people, just as much as we do” he tweeted as Israel launched its latest onslaught on Gaza in May which killed more than 250 Palestinians including women and children. He asked his followers to imagine “living in London while terrorists indiscriminately fire 1,000s of rockets at your family’s neighbourhood.” Javid made no mention of the tension in occupied East Jerusalem where Palestinian families faced eviction and the threat of violence from mobs of far-right Israelis rampaging through Palestinian neighbourhoods calling for “death to Arabs.”

As the Time of Israel pointed out, Javid’s connection with Israel and his “unapologetic” support for the Zionist state may have blossomed at University. At Exeter, he became close friends with Robert Halfon, an activist in the Union of Jewish Students 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.Two years after becoming an MP, Javid is described as having stolen the show at the Conservative Friends of Israel Annual Lunch when he delivered a passionate speech in support of Israel.  “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.”

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Since Javid’s speech at Conservative Friends of Israel, several human rights groups have denounced Israel as an apartheid state. In April, Human Rights Watch (HRW) joined a host of other prominent groups to declare that Israel is committing the crimes of apartheid and persecution. In January, Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said that Israel “promotes and perpetuates Jewish supremacy between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.” Both echoed the findings of UN’s 2017 report which concluded that Israel was indeed practising apartheid.

More recently two former Israeli ambassadors to South Africa echoed the sentiments in an article drawing parallels with the system of racial segregation in South Africa which ended in 1994 and Israel’s practice of apartheid in Palestine.

Given his colourful record, it is not hard to imagine what Britain’s policy toward Palestine would look like if Sajid Javed were to become foreign secretary in the next cabinet reshuffle.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.