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Grant Shapps becomes first Jewish UK defense secretary in 30 years

The son of immigrants who fled to Britain from pogroms sees his family history as an integral part of his political approach.

Grant Shapps. Credit: Rory Arnold/No. 10 Downing Street via Wikimedia Commons.

The United Kingdom has appointed its first Jewish defense secretary in more than three decades.

Grant Shapps, a Conservative politician, replaces Ben Wallace, who resigned from the role amid last month’s reshuffle of key posts in the government of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

“It is a huge privilege to be appointed defense secretary and be responsible for the men and women of our Armed Forces,” Shapps wrote in the Daily Mail on Sept. 2. “It’s a responsibility that I won’t bear lightly.”

In the article, Shapps described his ancestors moving to Britain in the early 20th century after fleeing pogroms.

“At the end of the 19th century, my family fleeing persecution and pogroms in Eastern Europe sought safe haven. They found it here in Great Britain,” he wrote.

“They found it here in a country that for the past three generations gave them opportunities that they could never have dreamt of. They found it here in the nation that gave them the gift of freedom,” he added. “A gift I will do everything I can to preserve to pass on to generations to come.”

Unlike Wallace, Shapp, who turns 55 this week, lacks prior military experience. Critics have complained that he may not back salary rises for the defense sector.

In the article, Shapp hit back at those charges. “I’m not new to international security. From my time chairing Cobra and serving on the National Security Council, I’ve come to appreciate the dangers our nation faces,” he wrote. “Though I might be new to defense, defense is in the DNA.”

Most recently, he has served as secretary of state for energy security and net zero. Previously, he was the transport secretary and home secretary. He was sacked from David Cameron’s cabinet in 2015 after claims he used alter-egos to shape his online profiles.

The last Jewish Brit to hold the role was Sir Malcolm Rifkind, appointed in 1992 by Tory Prime Minister John Major. He served in the role for three years.

A former B’nai B’rith Youth Organization president, Shapps has described himself as “agnostic” but told British media in 2010 that he feels “totally Jewish.”

“I am totally Jewish. I don’t eat pork. We only buy kosher meat, and we don’t mix meat and milk. I like being Jewish, and I married a Jewish girl,” he said. “It’s like a way of life, and it’s good to be able to instill some of that sense of being in your kids.”

He has publicly supported a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, arguing that “it is absolutely inevitable that Palestinians will, and have to, have their own state.”

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