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Palestine: Recognition — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:04 pm on 29th January 2015.

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Photo of Lord Winston Lord Winston Labour 6:04 pm, 29th January 2015

My Lords, I would like to take a slightly different tack in this debate: I want to talk about Joseph ben Ephraim Karo. He was a very distinguished scholar who was born in 1488. His family was expelled from Toledo in Spain by Ferdinand II and Isabella I as a result of the Alhambra decree. Most of the family died on their travels across the Mediterranean. Rabbi Joseph Karo, as he later became, survived and ended up writing one of the most important books of Jewish literature, the Shulchan Aruch, which is still regarded as the definitive description of Jewish law. Among other things, it is a model of moral attitudes to other people, which is one of the issues that it discusses.

After Portugal we lose exactly where Karo went, but after travelling through Turkey and, briefly, Greece, he went finally to Israel—where he intended to go all the time—landing in a place now called Tzvat, or Safed, in the north of Israel. There he established a synagogue, which I have visited, and his tombstone is there. I think that my family are the 21st generation of his direct descendants. They came to this country in 1680 and I regard myself as totally British in every way, respecting British values in absolute terms and delighted to be here rather than anywhere else. However, I am also a Zionist.

Karo lived in Safed, which I for the first time in 1958, at a time when Israel was the most liberal democracy anywhere in that part of the world, an extraordinarily socialist democracy that believed altruistically in the right of all people to live. Incidentally,

I was very surprised to hear the right reverend Prelate talk about the status of Christians in Israel; after all, in Israel Christians are protected in a way that they are not in any other part of the Middle East, so it was a shock to me that he felt the way that he did.

I have been many times to Safed since 1958 and saw the gradual erosion of those principles as the reality of constant threat ground Israel down and threatened it more and more. It started with the fedayeen.

Safed is six miles from the Syrian border—a walk—and we know what is happening on the other side of that border. About 10 miles to the north is Lebanon, where we know that there are child soldiers, of whom we have seen photographs only this week in the British press, carrying automatic weapons and machine guns. One absolutely understands the horrible situation of the Palestinian people; no one could possibly tolerate what has happened to them, and no one can do anything other than despair at their plight and their despair and the shock that they suffer. The problem seems to me to be rather well expressed by the situation in the town of Safed at the time when Karo lived there, when were around 14,000 Jews. We know that, incidentally, from a Syrian who visited him, one Yahya al-Dahiri, who wrote a very interesting essay about Safed.

A state has a duty to protect its citizens. Seeing people being beheaded on the border across the way, seeing absolute anarchy in all the states surrounding them and hearing the kind of language that the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, referred to from the people who are currently in charge in Gaza—which of course Israel evacuated—the Israeli Government, wrong though I think they are, continue to dig their heels in. As my noble friend Lord Davies said, we cannot possibly give way to the idea of recognising a Palestinian state at this stage; I believe strongly that it would make the situation worse, and would justify the continuation of the kind of threats that we have seen.

I think that there are few people in this Chamber who read Arabic; I know that the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, does. Anyone who does will know that since 1948, six and seven year-olds have been subjected to the worst kind of anti-Semitism in the writings they are given in their schools—far worse than anything that the Nazis put out at the time of Auschwitz. We have to say that that really is a very serious problem.

There is hope. A few months ago, I went to a wedding in an Arab village in Israel and there an Arab man was hosting a strictly Jewish, kosher wedding. He had a partnership with a kosher caterer to make certain that his guests loved what they saw. It was a terrible tragedy for him because, as noble Lords might remember, in the Middle East last January there was a massive snowstorm. The reason why the bride had chosen that Arab village was that it was a totally safe, wonderful place where one felt completely at ease looking over the hills—but at one moment, all his vines were destroyed in the snow. He then went out and replanted them, because he wanted to try to satisfy that Jewish bride.

There is hope in Israel. We have to try to nurture that hope, and I do not believe we can do it by strengthening what are already the resolutions that are going to lead to violence.