Anti-Semitism - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:44 pm on 20th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State 1:44 pm, 20th June 2019

He could, yes. I tripped somewhat on that one.

On a serious note, this is deeply disturbing. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, and all noble Lords made the point that in the same month that we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings, which marked the beginning of the end of the Holocaust, we still have to hold this debate on anti-Semitism. As the noble Lord, Lord Harris, reminded us in his powerful remarks, it shows the need to continue to act on this important issue. It is also clear to me that this old evil continues to blight the lives of Jewish communities throughout the world.

At this point, I pay tribute to two of my noble friends from when I took on my first ministerial job in the Department for Communities and Local Government. I of course refer to my noble friend Lord Pickles—should I call him my noble chum?—and my noble friend Lady Warsi. They encouraged me to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau as one of my first trips as Communities Minister. I travelled with a group of students. I am proud of the commitments that Governments have made, both at that time in the coalition Government and subsequently in the Government I now serve in, to continue on the platform of education that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, referred to. I deliberately went with those schoolchildren because I saw for myself what that history would mean to their lives, and the importance of investing in their education early so that tomorrow, when they take leadership of our great country and all the different industries and sectors that define the modern, diverse United Kingdom, they do so with a recognition of the horrors of the past, but having learned from them so they build that cohesive, collective, progressive country we all desire to see. I am grateful to both my noble friends in that respect.

As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, looking around the world and right here in the UK in 2018, the Community Security Trust logged a record high of more than 1,600 anti-Semitic attacks. The USA has suffered appalling fatal shootings in synagogues. People have been attacked simply for practising their faith. In Australia vandalism and intimidation have afflicted Jewish communities, and in the Middle East and elsewhere tensions remain high.

Several noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord Leigh, Lord Polak, Lord Gold and Lady Berridge, the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, mentioned Malaysia. As many noble Lords will recall, Malaysia is a member of the Commonwealth. I am a Minister of State for the Commonwealth and assure them that we were the first to object most vociferously to its holding of the Games, since it sought to ban athletes who wanted to participate, because they were from Israel. I am proud that we did. In response to the recent statement by Malaysia’s Prime Minister, I will digress with a personal anecdote. Many years ago, as I undertook political life and people got to know me, after a while one came forward and said, “You know what, Tariq? You are just normal”. I did not take that as an insult. What they alluded to was that, yes, I was of Indian-Pakistani heritage and Muslim by faith but those things that impacted me as a citizen of this country—as a proud Brit—were exactly the issues that mattered to anyone else. However, when Prime Ministers of other countries come to our country and try to disturb, divide and then dismiss these important issues, we need to stand up and make it clear that they may express those views, but we will oppose them bilaterally. It is important that our institutions also recognise that wherever they find any form of bigotry or—yes—anti-Semitism, they must reject it in its entirety.

My noble friends Lord Leigh and Lord Sheikh and other noble Lords talked of tackling global anti-Semitism. In a couple of weeks’ time it will be a year since I was appointed the Prime Minister’s special envoy on freedom of religion. It is a great honour, but it would be remiss of me not to recognise, as many noble Lords have also, the important work of the UK’s special envoy, my noble friend Lord Pickles. He raises the subject of anti-Semitism directly with other Governments, many of whom recognise, as we do, the need for specific and collaborative action. Earlier this week, as we heard from my noble friend, he attended in Bucharest the first international meeting of special envoys tackling anti-Semitism, along with members of the World Jewish Congress. In March he was in Poland, in discussion with community leaders.

I did not expect a Brexit question, but my noble friend Lady Altmann managed to weave one in—congratulations on that. I assure her, and my noble friend Lord Pickles, that I am working very closely with Ján Figel, the European Commission’s FoRB envoy. We continue to raise these issues, and will continue to collaborate in post-Brexit Britain.

These channels of communication are vital, because we must never retreat into fearfulness. We must step forward. If we ignore this issue, it will not go away. The theme of next January’s Holocaust Memorial Day is “stand together”. That is what we all must do and the Government are determined to do: stand with people of all faiths and none. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, the worst humanitarian crimes of history have occurred when groups were singled out, marginalised and scapegoated. I am delighted that he has joined us for this debate today, although when he was sitting next to the noble Lord, Lord Singh of Wimbledon, I felt that on those Benches we had our own little “Thought for the Day” going on.

The fundamental democratic values of individual liberty and mutual respect must at this juncture in 2019, as we have heard from many noble Lords, lead us to collectively stand together with our neighbours to call out marginalisation of any community, wherever we see it. I note very carefully the challenges that the Labour Party has faced, which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, spoke about. Equally, as I look towards my party, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Warsi, and her campaign to ensure that if there are bigots in our party, there are people calling out instances of Islamophobia for what they are. They must be investigated fully.

I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Singh. It is important that we act collectively on this issue. He referred to more recent examples, but the history of the Holocaust teaches us that if we ignore these crimes, they become crimes against humanity; therefore, we must stand together to defeat any kind of prejudice, wherever we see it. The UK Government have been at the forefront of calling out prejudice and discrimination in all its forms. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, referred to my speech at the UN General Assembly last year. Education is so important. Interestingly, I was interviewed afterwards and the journalist said, “Minister, despite being a Muslim, you’re very strong on anti-Semitism”. I corrected him, saying that it is because I am a Muslim that I am strong on anti-Semitism because of the common humanity that unites people of every faith. As we have heard time and again, and as my noble friends Lady Warsi and Lord Sheikh have said, the greatest test of an individual is standing up not for the rights of yourself but for the rights of others. Through our diplomatic activity, we actively promote freedom of religion or belief. Indeed, in my role as special envoy I have prioritised the need to tackle discrimination on the basis of religious or ethnic identity in all our posts, wherever we find it—be it through collaborative work at the United Nations, through our work at the OSCE or with the EU. Ministers and senior officials regularly raise individual and community cases with Governments directly, and challenge practices and laws that discriminate on the basis of a person’s belief or religion.

Let me say a word about Israel. I have visited Israel as a Minister, but I have also visited Israel privately, with my family. As we were rightly reminded by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, Israel is a country that brings together communities of all faiths, as I saw when we visited Jerusalem. As I saw when I visited Haifa, it is a country that protects those minorities who are often persecuted elsewhere. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, that because of the strength of that relationship, when it comes to those challenges—when it comes to some of those questions she has raised with me—we are able to raise them bilaterally. We will continue to do so, because being a democracy means being transparent and responsive in defence of any challenge that may be posed, but it is a strength of the relationship that the United Kingdom—