Anti-Semitism - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:14 pm on 20th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 12:14 pm, 20th June 2019

My Lords, I come from a country with no history of anti-Semitism, namely India. In the 11th century, the maharajah of Travancore-Cochin made a declaration to Joseph Rabban, who was leading Jews from Syria into India, offering him all the facilities of a local potentate. He could collect taxes and ride in a palanquin, and his people could follow their own customs. As a result, Jews have flourished in India, and I was taught by a Jew who was a professor of English literature. In business they have flourished too.

There are Jewish characters in the literature, and they are always represented as decent, well-behaved, clean and tidy, good at making money and loyal to the country. These views of what it is to be Jewish spread, and it is also striking that Mahatma Gandhi’s closest friends were Jewish—Polak and Kallenbach. In the 1930s, he even suggested that several Jewish refugees could come to India as, he said, “In a population of 300 million, what is a few hundred thousand?” The British Government said they could not come because they needed work permits. Anyway, this was my brief history, not having been exposed to the history of the Holocaust and systematic Jewish persecution. I heard about that when I came to England about 45 years ago, and I have been very bothered about this whole question.

This systematic persecution of a whole people lasted over 2,000 years, culminating in the Holocaust, when millions were humiliated, despised, made into the objects of stupid experiments and dehumanised. The question that I have asked myself is: why is there anti-Semitism? What are its causes? From where does it spring? Some light was thrown on this in the 1980s, when people said that Indians will have a Jewish future and Afro-Caribbeans will have an Irish future. That set me thinking about whether the Indian experience of being thrown out of four countries—Sri Lanka, Myanmar and all that—can throw some light on what happened to the Jews. In trying to understand this, I will submit a few observations that I have made over the years.

Anti-Semitism springs from a variety of factors. Some are specific to a particular historical period; some are common to all historical periods. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester said, the Jews have been accused of killing our Lord—deicide—and this is not assuaged by simply talking about Judeo-Christian tradition, because to talk about Judeo-Christian tradition is to reduce Judaism to a mere precursor to Christianity. It is to assimilate it into Christianity and not to appreciate its autonomy and identity.

There is also the intolerance of difference. Jews, in my view, were the first multicultural people who asked for their laws, dress and other things to be respected. In a society where multiculturalism was resented, obviously, the Jewish community was resented. Then, of course, a highly successful community, in all walks of life, is resented for obvious reasons. There is also a deep sense of guilt about what happened in the Holocaust. Every European nation was involved in this, not just Germany. Other countries also co-operated in rounding up Jews and treating them abominably. There is a sense of guilt—every time they think of the Jews, they think of the Holocaust and they note there is a sense of guilt. Nobody likes to be reminded of a horrendous period in one’s history.

There is another factor that is specific to our age, which is Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, which should not go unmentioned. The relationship between the two is basically that between the lion and the mouse. What are Palestinians? If Israel wanted, it could snuff them out in a few seconds. Here is a country with enormous soft power and enormous strength. It should have the sense of security and self-confidence to say to helpless people, “You send out rockets and do silly things, but we are prepared to be magnanimous and forgiving. Let us open a new chapter in a peaceful relationship”. Such an act of generosity and self-confidence would do a great deal. A community that has suffered so much could easily turn its suffering into a signal of sympathy with suffering elsewhere.