Mike Freer has insisted he would never dilute his support for Israel and British Jews if he had his time as MP again – as he pledged not to abandon the community after stepping back from the Commons.
After 14 years as the MP for Finchley and Golders Green, the justice minister announced last Thursday that he wouldn’t seek re-election after facing years of threats, safety scares and an arson attack on his constituency office. Even this week, following the surprise announcement, a man was arrested over a “threatening and abusive phone call” to the MP’s office.
And while he insisted it’s hard to imagine that antisemitism and his pro-Israel stance haven’t contributed to some incidents over the years, the former Barnet Council leader told Jewish News: “More than 30 years ago I embraced the community and they embraced me. I wouldn’t change my stance or my approach.”
Expressions of regret that Freer had felt compelled to stand down came from across the political divide, with the prime minister’s spokesman describing the abuse he’d faced as an assault on democracy. “My inbox has been flooded with messages of support,” Freer said. “Every day I wonder if I made the right decision, it’s incredibly hard to walk away from a job you love. Have I allowed them to win? They’ve not silenced me but they’ve driven me out of a position of influence.”
In his three decades of support for the community his efforts that helped lead to increased security funding for communal buildings stands out. Following a visit to JW3 shortly after its opening in 2013, he realised there was a need for funding for commercial security guards at all communal buildings – and not just some schools. “I lobbied the David Cameron and Theresa May with the CST and others to introduce a Government grant although they recognised the need immediately.” That grant started off at £2m and rose to over £12m annually. In 2014, his support for Israel led to him resigning as a parliamentary private secretary to vote against a backbench motion to recognise a state of Palestine – arguing that such a move should only come at the end of a process rather than at the start.
On a national level, he was at the forefront of the push for gay marriage, and locally his achievements include successfully campaigning for a permanent breast screening unit at Finchley Memorial Hospital, which paved the way for a wider diagnostic centre.
The 63-year-old was first threatened the year after his election by Muslims Against Crusades before years later escaping “by the skin of my teeth” when it emerged Ali Harbi, the killer of Sir David Amess, had previously watched his constituency office. Freer had worn a stab proof vest at constituency surgeries and other public events since. But he had been planning to stand until a suspected arson attack on office around Christmas – a moment he describes as “the last straw” which made him realise that he could no longer put his husband through the worry of wondering if he’d return each day.
“As public figures to a large degree we accept we will face some abuse. For Angelo to worry when he sees me put on a stab vest is another thing. Angelo preferred me to drive to and from the Commons or would insist on collecting me from the station. If was on the street and someone stopped me I noticed I started to put distance between myself and them.”
Although he says it’s too early to know what challenges await him after the next Election, he vowed to continue standing up for Israel and the community in whatever wat he can. For now he plans to feed into Government ideas for tackling hate including the need for the Met to make more arrests in real time at pro-Palestine demos. Doing so at the demos rather than afterwards would create more of a deterrent, he insisted.
“Freedom of speech is important and I’m not expecting the government to create some sort of secret policing of social media but social media companies must act more rapidly to remove material.”
Freer said it was too early to say what will come next for him. Reflecting on his early days as an MP, he recalled that the concern of some that he wouldn’t be accepted by the local ultra-Orthodox community because of his sexuality never came to pass as they judged him work for the constituency and country. And the MP couldn’t be more effusive in his praise for his Jewish constituents.
“The resilience of the community is remarkable. It’s a back-handed compliment in a way as it’s a result of being a community constantly under pressure. The community is welcome, supports each other and takes great pride in being Jewish and the traditions but equally is very open to people who want to engage. From the great and the good or the local shul members, everyone has been fantastic.”
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