[Hywel Williams in the Chair] — Jewish Communities (350th Anniversary)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:02 am on 14th June 2006.

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Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Labour, Liverpool, Riverside 10:02 am, 14th June 2006

I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Dismore on securing this important debate. The only reason this debate is taking place is that he sought it and put forward the subject for discussion. He serves all his constituents extremely well. I know that he displays commendable knowledge and dedication towards his Jewish constituents and carries out his duties with absolute sincerity and success. I congratulate him on all the work he does, inside the House and out, for his Jewish constituents and for all those he represents.

The debate is an interesting one. In the contributions so far, we have heard a detailed history of the Jews in this country and heard a lot about the contribution of the Jewish community to British society as a whole. In my brief remarks, I would like to focus on the nature of the Jewish contribution to British society, and specifically consider the basis on which that contribution takes place, the lessons that can be learned with regard to other communities in Britain today and the contribution that can be made to the ongoing debate about the nature of British society, multiculturalism and citizenship.

The Jewish community is, and always has been, diverse. The origins of Jewish people in this country are diverse and there are social and economic differences between them, but there is a Jewish experience. That experience comes from the common bond most Jewish people have through a background of coming to this country as asylum seekers or, in some cases, what we now term economic migrants. Despite those differences—the individual differences and the differences of social and economic background—there is a strong sense of community, which is extremely important in understanding the notion of a Jewish contribution.

My hon. Friend and Mr. Scott both mentioned examples of individual Jewish successes in contributing to our society. These are just a few of the names that show the nature of individual contributions from Jews to British society: Professor Chain, the discoverer of penicillin; the late Judge Rose Heilbron, who was the first woman judge; Lord Winston and Jacob Epstein, who have both already been mentioned; and John Cohen, the founder of Tesco.

However, the contribution has a wider significance. An examination of the Jewish contribution to British society over the centuries shows that there is no incompatibility between being a proud Jew and a proud citizen. The lesson of the Jewish contribution is that integration, not assimilation, is the model. When we are discussing models of citizenship now and in the future in our multiracial, diverse society, that is an important model to which we should put our attention.

Reference has already been made to the experience of the first Jewish MP, Lionel de Rothschild, who was prevented from taking his Oath for 11 years after he was first elected. It was only after 11 years that he was able to take an Oath where he did not have to state the words

"on the true faith of a Christian".

In my area of Liverpool, the earliest records of the Jewish community go back to 1722. One of its proudest forebears was Herbert Samuel, Viscount Samuel of Toxteth and Mount Carmel, who was British Home Secretary twice, in 1916 and 1931, and was also the first British high commissioner in Palestine and Transjordan—a vital post, in which he served between 1920 and 1925.

We rightly concentrate today on the positive contribution of Jewish people to our society. We cannot ignore the great hostility that Jews faced in this society as immigrants and, indeed, as Jews. We should not forget that the Aliens Act 1905—the first immigration Act in this country—was enacted to stem the flow of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution from eastern Europe. After coming to this country, Jews often faced discrimination. That discrimination could relate to employment, and many Jews became active alongside non-Jewish people in the growing Labour and trade union movement. Discrimination could relate to housing. I remember being very shocked when my parents told me that when they tried to buy a house in Manchester in the mid-1940s, they gave a name that did not sound Jewish because they had been told that Jewish people were not allowed to buy houses in that area.

That discrimination spread to universities, where, until relatively recently, there was a quota of Jewish students allowed to join medical schools. Discrimination took many forms, and we are all aware of it in the social sector as well. The advent of Jewish golf clubs came about because Jews were deemed not fit to be members of other golf clubs and it was feared that they would take them over.

Discrimination has taken place against Jewish people on the basis that they are immigrants, and on the basis that they are Jews. The battle of Cable street was mentioned by my hon. Friend—an occasion that has an important place in the history books. However, there have been many other incidents, perhaps of a less grand nature, where fights took place in the school playground between children as Jewish children were told that they had killed Jesus. I would like to think that that is something of the past, but anti-Semitism has not really gone away.

What has the response to all that been? When anyone faces discrimination and prejudice, the response has to be to fight against it and hope that other people will join the battle, which might be individual or with others, and might be political. Jewish people recognise the need to be positive and show initiative, and to fight by showing what they can achieve. Education has always been seen as important because of the Jewish value of learning, and family and community support have always been an essential part of Jewish individual achievement. In short, Jewish people have been able to combine religious practice in great variety—there is no one mode of Jewish practice—with Jewish cultural identity and being British. None of those three things is static, and the Jewish experience shows that they can be combined.

I hope that my experience as a Jewish person and of the Jewish community has already assisted other minorities in our society. In the 1980s and 1990s, I was the leader of Lancashire county council. One of the first issues that I encountered when I became leader in 1981 was what I saw as the total neglect of and ignorance about the needs of Muslim communities in areas such as Blackburn, Burnley and Hyndburn. I found that there was little understanding of their needs. Their correct wish to maintain their identity and to have their religious and cultural needs met was fully understandable and acceptable, yet the authorities found it difficult to understand. Seeing things differently was considered to be hostile.

Because of my Judaism and my position as leader of the council, I was able to use my knowledge to assist the Muslim communities, and at the beginning of the 1980s we changed Lancashire county council policy. Dietary policy was changed to introduce halal meat to school meals, and we argued with the burial authorities so that, in accordance with Islamic law, Muslim burials could take place on the same day. I brushed aside statements and reports telling me that that was not possible. I knew that not so many miles down the road, in the Jewish communities of Manchester, burial on the same day was a given, and was accepted as a right of that community. I could not understand or accept that if it was a right for the Jewish community in Manchester, it should not be a right for the Muslim communities of Lancashire. That change was made, as were changes in policy on school uniforms.

I also worked with Adam Patel, who is now a peer, to found the Lancashire Council of Mosques to help Muslim communities in Lancashire to develop their identities and to extend their knowledge on the basis of maintaining their identities as members of a wider community and contributing to that community. The Jewish experience provides a model for how people can maintain their sense of identity, how it can change over time, and how maintaining identity can make people better and stronger citizens.

The Government's efforts to give support in matters of particular concern to Jewish people have been mentioned. I thank also the Speaker for his efforts in recognising the Jewish community, and for holding the special celebration to mark the 350th anniversary of the return to the UK of Jews. The Chief Rabbi spoke to the nation on the BBC this morning, and talked about this debate. He quoted Jeremiah urging Jews to contribute to the society of which they had become a part, and he drew attention to the origin of many Jews in this country as the asylum seekers of the past.

I hope that the Jewish contribution has shown the way forward for people to maintain their identities in a way that contributes to society as a whole. I hope also that that is a cause for celebration, as we discuss the future of citizenship and the direction in which our society should go.