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Anti-Semitism - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:22 pm on 13th September 2018.

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Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 2:22 pm, 13th September 2018

My Lords, we have been treated to a debate of incredible quality and I thank my noble friend Lord Popat for his stirring, thoughtful and perfectly crafted speech, which set the tone for the whole debate. I also pay tribute to members of the Labour Party, in particular the noble Lords, Lord Beecham and Lord Mendelsohn, who have shown considerable courage in criticising their own leadership—and rightly so.

I will try to deal with some of the issues that have been raised. I agree very much with the importance of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition. I am very proud that this country and this Government were the first in the world to adopt the definition in 2016. I also thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham and through him the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for their work and for the actions of the Church of England this week in adopting the definition, which sets out an important signal of where British faiths are and where the great mass of people in this country are.

In preparing for this debate, part of me said that the issue was so important that I should not be party political. Another part of me said that it was so important that I did need to be party political. That part won out. But it is not an unqualified criticism of the Labour Party—far from it. It is not really the Labour Party but the leadership of the Labour Party. It is impossible to think that the Labour Party of Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock—now the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock—Tony Blair, John Smith, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband would be where the Labour Party is today. We know that that is not where the bulk of the Labour Party is. It is certainly not where its leadership in this House is, or where this House is at all. But it is a problem that needs addressing and needs addressing quickly. I also should have thanked the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, for what he, too, said about the Labour Party and the need to act.

But the issue extends beyond that; of course it does. As the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, correctly said, there is the issue of online cyberactivity. We have acted, and let us be clear that there is much more to be done, not just in relation to anti-Semitism—although certainly in relation to that. There are issues, too, with Islamophobia. I hope and believe—and I work with my noble friend Lady Williams on this—that the party will move to a definition of Islamophobia. We will be doing that in considered time with others because it is important that we demonstrate that this is broader than anti-Semitism.

But this debate is rightly on anti-Semitism. I am pleased that, given the paucity of the time that we have had for contributions, we will have another debate in government time before Christmas. I know that my noble friend Lord Polak withdrew from the debate because time was so pressured. It was important that noble Lords were able to speak as they did, so very powerfully. That is why I am left with little time myself—but I will write to noble Lords on specific issues that they raised in this debate.

I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Sugar, for what he said about the state of British politics, and I, too, will say something about the importance of education and more broadly about Holocaust denial. In the last 10 days, I have returned from Bosnia-Herzegovina. I travelled to Srebrenica, which, as I have said to people, was both a harrowing and awe-inspiring thing to do. I met some truly extraordinary people there. It is extraordinary that such a thing could happen in a country where people were living side by side, just as the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, was talking about—I thank him for his contribution and for being here. Noble Lords should believe me when I say that he does know what he is talking about, and anyone who says otherwise is not listening properly.

It is important to recognise that, in parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Balkans, there is still denial of a genocide that happened such a short time ago. Despite DNA identification of more than 6,000 victims, which is pretty conclusive in legal terms, as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, would know, there are still people denying that there was genocide in that country. We have this too of the Holocaust, which is something that we must confront as a House. Very powerfully that message must go out as it has today.

I was moved too when my noble friend Lady Altmann talked about the contribution that the Jewish population had made to Britain. That community is as much a part of Britain as I am or as all of us are, and it is important that we recognise that and the massive contribution it has made to our society, as my noble friend Lord Sterling also said.

It is difficult to think that we are where we are now. Not long ago and not far away, we witnessed the most dreadful tyranny that the world has ever seen—the most odious ideology driven against the Jewish community and others. This country then was a beacon of light, and so it must remain. But these things are very fragile, as I know from my recent visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina, and we heard most powerfully from my noble friend Lord Popat about that too.

My noble friend Lord Finkelstein, who alas is not in his place, wrote of his unswerving commitment to this country and his feeling of safety and security here. Yet he said that he found himself understanding how those who used to fear the knock on the door were fearing that knock on the door now. There were hints of that in the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, and in the understanding of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, when she talked of the importance of the state of Israel. It has to be seen very much in that context.

So let us be clear about the united message that is going out from this House today. It was led by many speakers in the debate, with important contributions from the noble and right reverend Prelate, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool. The message is that in this country we remain totally committed to tackling anti-Semitism alongside other religious hatreds and doing whatever is needed to remain a united country of all faiths and no faith. That is the message that must go out powerfully to all politicians and to all people throughout this country.