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Anti-Semitism - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:27 pm on 13th September 2018.

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Photo of Lord Popat Lord Popat Conservative 1:27 pm, 13th September 2018

My Lords, I start with a question: why me? Why have I taken it upon myself to bring this debate to your Lordships’ House? After all, I am not Jewish: why should anti-Semitism concern me? To that I answer: anti-Semitism concerns us all. The notion that it is solely a Jewish problem is as dangerous as it is wrong.

History is full of powerful words and actions, but silence can be just as formidable. When we are silent in the face of intolerance, we encourage prejudice. When we are silent in the face of falsehoods, we allow lies to become truth. When we are silent in the face of hatred, then hate will spread. I recall Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous words:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me”.

What we must understand here is that hate knows no bounds. We saw that in the horrors of the Holocaust, and we see it now with extremist terrorism and the rise of both the far right and the ultra-left. Anti-Semitism is a threat that goes beyond Jewish communities and party politics.

For me, this is personal. As a member of the British Hindu community, I understand the pain that prejudice brings. My family and I came to this country from Uganda more than 45 years ago to escape the brutal dictator Idi Amin. We were welcomed by this country, and the Jewish community was at the forefront in helping us to settle in the part of north London where I live today. For us, the Jews were a positive example of what immigrants can achieve by integrating fully into society. In them, we saw people who not only survived horrific persecution but thrived despite it. Our two communities continue to live side by side and we have a number of commonalities and shared values. We both attach importance to hard work, education, enterprise, family and faith. We also share an unshakable loyalty to the United Kingdom, this great country.

If you want an idea of how much Jewish people value their Britishness, I suggest you visit a synagogue, just as the famous diarist Samuel Pepys did in 1663. You will observe, as he did and as I have done on many occasions, that, during every Sabbath service, the congregation reads out a prayer for the welfare of the Royal Family and the Prime Minister. What greater expression of patriotism and love of this country? What greater testament to the UK’s values of tolerance and compassion from people who have suffered so much throughout history?

This brings me to an important point. Jews have long felt safe in this country. Regardless of what was happening elsewhere in the world, here in the UK—like us—they felt at home. During the Second World War it was this country that took in Jewish refugees and offered them a safe haven. In the last couple of years, with anti-Semitism on the rise in France, Hungary and other parts of Europe, many Jews expressed relief that they were living here and not elsewhere. Even a growth in recorded anti-Semitic incidents in the UK did not dampen the Jewish community’s feeling that they were fundamentally protected by UK values, laws and institutions.

So when my Jewish friends say that they fear for their children’s safety in schools, synagogues and universities; when they are afraid of openly identifying as Jewish, and when they start to question their future in this country, the rest of us have a duty first to listen and then to ask: “How has it come to this? Why has it come to this?” And, most importantly, “What are we going to do about it?”

One of the striking features of anti-Semitism is its capacity to reinvent itself time and again. The former Chief Rabbi, the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, is here and we look forward to listening to him later. He recently described it as a “virus”. Unlike the anti-Semitism of the past, which was rooted in religious and racial hatred of Jews, modern anti-Semitism is expressed through the anti-Israel and anti-Zionist movements. How many times have we heard that the problem today is not with Jews but with Zionists? Yet the connection between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is not always understood.

Zionism is the proposition that the Jews have a right to their own state in their ancient homeland. Anti-Zionism advocates the opposite. Present-day anti-Zionists also believe that the Jewish state is not only illegitimate but should be dismantled. They argue that they are simply standing up to colonial oppression and for human rights and that it has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. But would they also, on anti-colonial and humanitarian grounds, question the legitimacy of the USA, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Australia and most modern states in the Middle East—countries created through colonial intervention? Would they question the legality of practically the whole of Europe, the borders of which were shaped, destroyed and redrawn through centuries of war? There are many Hindu, Christian and Muslim countries across the world, but just one Jewish state. Why is Israel—this tiny strip of land the size of Wales—singled out for criticism with so much intensity and loathing?

It is important to emphasise that criticism of the Israeli Government is not anti-Semitic. This is healthy democracy. I am a Zionist and, like many of the most passionate Zionists I know, I am also a critic of Israeli policies. But here is the crucial difference. Once you begin to challenge a country’s right to exist; once you take to marching in the streets and on university campuses, calling for boycotts of anything and everything to do with a country; once a whole country becomes the subject of your obsessive hatred; then you have to ask yourself honestly, what is your motivation? Is it purely a moral reaction to the unjust policies of a Government, or are you driven by a deeper hostility? Is it a coincidence that every time there is a flare-up between Israel and the Palestinians, there is a spike in anti-Semitic incidents in the UK?

Look up Israel on social media and you will be shocked to see the level of hate directed against Jews. There are phrases such as,

“Zionists controlling the media, financial institutions and foreign policy”,

It is not long before you find yourself in Holocaust-denial or blood-libel territory. Both of these are integral to myths of Jewish power and influence. They are part and parcel of conspiracy theories that blame Jews for all that is wrong in the world. These age-old anti-Semitic tropes have found a new audience in both the far right and far left of the political spectrum. Whether it comes from the left or the right, make no mistake: today the word “Zionists” is code for Jews. Jews have long suspected it. Anti-Zionists have always known it. Recent events have exposed it.

So what can be done? First, it is essential to uphold the great effort which took place after the Second World War to ensure, through our Government and the rule of law, that anti-Semitism in all its forms will never be tolerated. Secondly, the Government must not allow the passage of time to soften our resolve against anti-Semitism. There is a generation of young people who did not grow up with the same awareness that many of us have of the Holocaust, but they are politicised in other ways. They must understand that hatred of Jews—hatred of any community—is a danger to us all.

As many noble Lords know, I am not a career politician or an activist. When I joined your Lordships’ House eight years ago, I could never have imagined that I would be standing before you in 2018—in living memory of the Holocaust—speaking about the hatred of Jews in this great country. But it is happening now and I will not go down as one of the good men in history who stood by and did nothing. I refuse to bear witness to hatred as it eats away at our social and moral fabric. I will stand up for my Jewish friends who love this country; who have given so much to this country and who ask for nothing more than to feel protected. All of us—Hindus, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and those of no faith— must stand up and speak out for the oppressed, whoever they are and wherever they are. As Pastor Niemöller warned, if we do not look out for each other, no one will look out for us. I stand here today to say, loud and clear, “Enough is enough”.