Anti-Semitism - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:38 pm on 20th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Harries of Pentregarth Lord Harries of Pentregarth Crossbench 12:38 pm, 20th June 2019

The Runnymede report on anti-Semitism had as its title some very telling words of Conor Cruise O’Brien—A Very Light Sleeper. Sadly, since that report was published in 1994, particularly in the past two years, there has been a terrible increase in anti-Semitic incidents and verbal abuse. This has been well set out with facts and figures from other noble Lords and I will not repeat what they have said, except to stress that I find this deeply disturbing and totally unacceptable.

For nine years, I had the privilege of being chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews, which continues to do so much good work to combat anti-Semitism and put the State of Israel in proper, true perspective. However, there is no doubt that the historical link of churches in this country with those in the Middle East, and the fact that many Christian aid agencies work there, mean that the State of Israel is, as we know all too well, a source of continuing tension.

My starting point is some words of an American scholar, Paul Van Buren, who surveyed all the Protestant church documents on the subject of Israel since World War II and concluded:

“Because the state of Israel is in part the product of the ancient and living hope of the Jewish people and is of deep concern to almost all Jews, disregard for its safety and welfare is incompatible with concern for the Jewish people”.

That, I stress, is the bare minimum: disregard for the safety and welfare of Israel is incompatible with concern for the Jewish people.

In this connection, I find it very disturbing that the word Zionist has become so tendentious in modern times. The hope of returning to Jerusalem has been part of the soul of Judaism ever since the first century, when the Jews were expelled from their country. It gathered pace in the 19th century with the emergence of what we think of as Zionism, a noble movement expressing the legitimate desire of the Jewish people to return to their historic homeland with the freedom to create a society of their own. The word Zionist should not be used as a term of abuse. When it is, we have to ask why.

The excellent new book by the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, is entitled Anti-Semitism: What It Is. What It Isn’t. Why It Matters. She is quite clear that there can be legitimate criticisms of the policy of particular Israeli Governments without these being anti-Semitic. It is always important to note that the fiercest critics of particular Governments come from Israel itself and are often echoed by Jews in this country. There is, however, no doubt in her mind—or the minds of many of us—that legitimate criticism has too often recently morphed into an anti-Zionism tinged with anti-Semitism.

It is clear, as the Government repeatedly state, that the settlements are illegal under international law, but that criticism must not be allowed to detract from the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Whatever criticism there may be of recent legislation on the position of Arab citizens in Israel—and the noble Baroness is very critical—it is not true that Israel is a racist state. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism contains 11 examples. One states:

“Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour”.

We are right to hold Israel accountable to the high standards of David Ben-Gurion, who said:

The State of Israel will prove itself not by material wealth, not by military might or technical achievement, but by its moral character and human values”.

If we judge that particular policies sometimes fail that test, we need to bear in mind that Israel safeguards fundamental human rights not even acknowledged in some of the surrounding countries.

The present increase in anti-Semitic attacks and verbal vitriol, both in the UK and abroad, is deeply worrying, totally unacceptable and must be countered at every opportunity.