Faith, Politics and Me - Robert Halfon
In her occasional series, Seun Matiluko catches up with politicians to discuss faith and how they balance religion with politics. Here, Robert Halfon, Conservative MP for Harlow and education minister, talks about being Jewish in the current climate
I’m joined by Robert Halfon on an unstable Google Meet call from his Westminster office. Before we start our conversation he asks how to pronounce my name – a question I am often asked – and when I explain its Nigerian origins he starts reminiscing about his student days at Exeter University where he spent some time studying Nigerian politics, “so much oil money but so much wasted”.
Halfon, who has known he wanted to become an MP since he was 10 years old, is Ashkenazi on his mum’s side and has Italian-Libyan Jewish heritage on his father’s side. This is part of the reason why he feels “British not English”. Despite this, Halfon’s family have long had connections with England – “I have an ancestor, distant in the past, that was a famous Italian rabbi… King Henry VIII asked him for advice on his divorce.”
He grew up in a practising Jewish family and was raised going to a United Synagogue in London. As a child, he felt a typical service was “nice but… very long… but there would be lots of food at the end… one good thing about being Jewish is you get a lot of food. There’s a thing at the end of a service called a Kiddush where they serve whisky, wine and loads of cakes and balls and dumplings… And I of course, however young, would down the whiskies when no one was looking… to this day I love whisky!”
As an adult though, Halfon says he’s “not as observant” in his Jewish faith as he “should be”. “I see it more as an identity thing and, also, I’m a political Jew… I said this to my father: ‘I do the political stuff, you do the religious stuff.’”
What does it mean to be a “political Jew”? “I know what it means… but to express it… I support the Jewish cause by campaigning in every political environment that I’m in.”
As of late that has meant supporting Israel – “my father lives there… my brother lives there” – and standing against antisemitism in a moment when “it’s pretty awful” to be a British Jew.
“You can’t walk the streets on the weekend in London without fear… I’ve described it as an invisible ghetto that’s… slowly being drawn. Jewish communities have retreated behind that ghetto. They’re not leaving their houses. They’re telling their kids take the Star of David off your school uniform… It was bad under the Corbyn era… but this is beyond the scale.”
Although my conversation with Halfon had taken weeks of organising, we end up meeting soon after 7 October and the start of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. As we spoke, protests were happening across the world – including in London – due to concerns about the treatment and rising death toll of Palestinian civilians in the war. Suella Braverman, the former home secretary, was fired from government after describing pro-Palestinian protests as “hate marches”.
While Halfon won’t call them hate marches – “I believe in free protest” – he does say that “some of the things that are going on… you know, where they’re saying ‘keep the world free’ with a picture of the Star of David… I don’t get it, really… That is pretty grim.”
At the Department of Education, Halfon says they “are going to try and explore an antisemitism charter for universities”. However, he stresses, it shouldn’t just be left up to Jews to clamp down on antisemitism. He points to an image on the wall of his office of Sophie Scholl, a German anti-Nazi protester who, alongside her brother Hans and other members of the White Rose resistance movement, was executed by the Nazis in 1943. “Where are the Sophie Scholls today? Who are the non-Jewish people [who are] going to… proactively, not just reactively… stand up against antisemitism?”
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