John Bercow discussed the challenges and privileges of being the first Jewish Speaker of the Commons when he addressed the Yad Vashem UK Foundation dinner on Tuesday.
In discussion with Times executive editor Daniel Finkelstein, Mr Bercow told the 180 guests at the Imperial War Museum that he had been happy to accept the Christian traditions that come with the role because of their importance to MPs.
“We begin with prayers and I really value that because I know it means a lot to members. There’s also a Speaker’s chaplain and he’s a Christian and a fantastic man. I don’t think being Jewish has impacted on being able to do my job, though I’m certainly proud to be the first Jewish Speaker. I’m certainly not naïve enough to think that any time anyone criticises me it is antisemitic — you must have broad shoulders. However, if anyone thinks antisemitism is a thing of the past, it certainly is not.”
Mr Bercow also reminisced about his barmitzvah at Finchley Reform Synagogue and revealed that he had occasionally had his Jewishness questioned because his mother was a convert. “When I was younger, I once asked my dad about this, and he said: ‘Listen son, you’re quite Jewish enough for the Nazis’.” He was now “pretty agnostic”.
The Speaker also answered questions on the role of the press and heckling in Parliament, which he did not want banned. “It would be hard to enforce unless parties agreed to sign up to it.” But speakers should be allowed “the basic courtesy of being heard”.
The £100k-plus raised will go to Yad Vashem’s museum and Holocaust educational work at its Jerusalem centre.