Religious Intolerance and Prejudice - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:55 pm on 17th October 2018.

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Photo of Lord Kestenbaum Lord Kestenbaum Labour 6:55 pm, 17th October 2018

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for introducing this debate. It is indeed timely following the Home Office data published yesterday, which reported a steep rise in religious hate crime.

Such reports are never just about the welfare and health of one group; more fundamentally, they ask us what kind of society we wish to be. When it comes to religious tolerance, my community always knew exactly what kind of society this is and must be, and that knowledge is profoundly personal. As my name, Kestenbaum, indicates, home until the traumas of the 20th century was Germany. Leipzig and Frankfurt were our origins, and I distinctly remember listening to my grandmother’s recollections of our terrified family hiding under the bed on Kristallnacht on 9 November 1938, almost exactly 80 years ago—the night my family saw every synagogue in Germany, including their own, the renowned Breuer Synagogue, burn to the ground, and the night that discrimination against Jews became the persecution of Jews. We all know what happened next.

As Europe was poised to exterminate its Jews, thereby committing the greatest crime in all history, my family fled for their lives and, after a circuitous route, arrived in Britain. It was here that as children we Jews learned that the blessing of this country is that it does not expect you to make a choice between loyalty to one’s faith and loyalty to the national interest, while both are pursued with dignity. We also learned one more thing: that when a society turns on its Jews—indeed, on any faith group—it is always a sign of wider ill health, as shown so graphically in yesterday’s report.

As the Minister said, paradoxically it is reports such as these that display not only the shameful aspects of our society but the best too, for in combating hate crimes Jews and Muslims have worked together in common cause, with joint endeavours around the security of synagogues and mosques, and, more positively, joint endeavours in education programmes in schools to combat religious prejudice.

Yet, despite all this, the Jewish community of Great Britain, my community, is witnessing something so improbable and shocking that it defies belief—that is, the emergence of anti-Semitism out of the shadows and from the margins into the political mainstream. For we always knew that, although anti-Semitism has been a constant lurking menace, it can be contained as long as it is never sheltered under the umbrella of political legitimacy. Although this has never been a political fault-line between parties, we have watched with horror as membership of the Labour Party has been infiltrated by those who hate Jews. Its leadership has approached concerns over anti-Semitism in its ranks first with silence, then with denial, then with indignation and, finally, with what felt like grudging, half-hearted attention—to the point at which Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Mirvis, said that the Jewish community and its concerns had been treated with “unprecedented contempt”.

With that in mind, and in light of yesterday’s report, noble Lords might reasonably ask: how does it feel to be a Jew in Britain today? My answer, unimaginably, is that we Jews in Britain, for the first time in centuries, feel anxious, uncertain and fearful. It is profoundly not what we ever expected this society to be. It is certainly not what we thought would happen to a political party—let alone the Labour Party, whose leadership has become incriminated in fostering a culture of disdain towards the Jews of Britain. We see daily the online perverted depictions of Jews—perversions which too often go ignored or unchecked. We see the resurfacing of all the old anti-Semitic tropes—the same obscenities too grotesque to mention—but this time from a place that none of us in this House, on both sides ever, thought possible; it comes from those who call themselves members of the Labour Party. This has left Jews uneasy, unsettled and fearful, not least because the social media revolution has given voice to the most extreme and the most vicious, allowing that hatred to be magnified, multiplied and, too often, unsanctioned.

It has often been suggested by some on the left that calling out blatant displays of anti-Semitism from the left is a betrayal of the Labour Party. As my noble friend Lord Hain indicated, the betrayal is quite the opposite: it is conducted by those who choose to align themselves with anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers and then feign righteous indignation when doing so. That is the betrayal, for that has enabled and emboldened the anti-Semites in the Labour Party. As my noble friend Lord Hain said, it has given them the two things that they always craved and were always denied: it has given them space and it has given them a voice. Ultimately, those who are guilty of ignoring anti-Semitism are those who are personally responsible for the virus spreading.

But there is one final outrage: a unique phenomenon, which we have never seen in this country, where it is the victim who stands accused rather than the perpetrator. It is too often said that these Jews are exaggerating, fabricating and are in hock to some extreme right-wing press. In those very accusations rest the most potent, toxic and dangerous five words in the English vocabulary: “The Jews are to blame”. Consider the unprecedented act last summer of 68 rabbis right across the community, in good faith and in sorrow, writing a letter to the Labour Party begging it to adopt the conventional definition of anti-Semitism. The online frenzy in response to that called for those rabbis’ political allegiances to be scrutinised in search of some kind of conspiracy.

Let me be absolutely clear: the majority of Jews protesting about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party are anxious about anti-Semitism. That is it—nothing more, nothing less. It is the online intimidation, along with the offline contempt, which turns that anxiety into fear. So this debate provokes the question: what type of society stands up against this new culture of prejudice and discrimination? What must we do?

In conclusion, I propose two simple steps. First, if Jews have a heightened attention to the alarm bells of prejudice then there is good reason for that, so symbols, allegiances, empathy and actions matter. When the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury goes out of his way to meet Chief Rabbi Mirvis at his home on the eve of Jewish new year to express his concerns personally and sincerely, that matters. It felt as if the Archbishop had visited every Jewish home in the country, and that mattered. Simple acts of compassion and kindness can rebuild trust and mend bridges. Until the leadership of the Labour Party equally finds a way to understand the concerns of Jews in this country and until it can sincerely empathise with those concerns, no amount of party disciplinary procedures, reviews or organisational restructures will help. Too often, Jewish fears have been met not by empathy and understanding but by the violence of the online crowd, by cries of smears and by a political leadership which, at the very least, has been an enabler.

Secondly, and finally, we—the people of all faiths and none, and those of all parties and of none—must stand against prejudice, for we are all at risk; we are at risk of our common humanity, of our religious freedoms and, above all, of the society that we know we must build together.