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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:21 am on 14th June 2006.

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Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 10:21 am, 14th June 2006

I, too, congratulate Mr. Dismore on securing this debate, which has ranged widely around the contributions that the Jewish community has made to British life and indeed the connections between the life of this country and Jewish communities overseas.

I noted in the Library pack for this debate an article written by a scholar claiming that this date was not necessarily the most significant in the history of the Jewish community in this country. I was therefore interested to hear the hon. Gentleman speak about the case that made it acceptable again at that time for members of what was a small Jewish community to practise their faith openly. It reassured me that this date is significant. Whether the anniversary is for 350, 400 or 300 years, the important thing is that we are having a debate today and that there is a celebration this year of the immense contribution that the Jewish community has made to British life and to global Jewish culture. A prominent example of the latter is the political influence that the Jewish community exercised to ensure that the British Government supported the establishment of the state of Israel.

I was interested to hear the contribution of Mr. Scott, who is no longer present, as my father's family is from the east end of London, and they grew up as part of a diverse community. My father's first teaching job was in Ilford, and he trained as a teacher in Golders Green, so there is also a connection with an area not too far from Hendon. We heard particularly moving words from the hon. Member for Hendon about his discussions with those people who experienced the most appalling persecution in Europe during the second world war. As an A-level history student, and a fairly difficult person to affect emotionally at the age of 16, I remember visiting the Imperial War museum and seeing some of the footage of the British Army arriving at and liberating the camps, and the effect that that had on me. It is impossible to imagine the suffering that the Jewish community throughout Europe experienced during that period, and it was moving to hear the hon. Gentleman's experiences of and discussions about that.

Like every European community, we have had our own periods of persecution in which episodes of anti-Semitism were overt, although they took place further back in our history. We heard from the hon. Gentleman about the terrible persecution in York.

In the contribution from Mrs. Ellman, we heard how low-level discrimination in our society is equally damning of us as a community. Although it may be less obvious, we must never forget that it devalues us all.

The Jewish community's resilience and determination to practise its faith reminds me of the Catholic tradition in which I grew up, although the two faiths may have slightly different views on the role of Oliver Cromwell in certain stories. As the hon. Lady said, the Jewish community as a minority paved the way for others in integrating or maintaining the role of its unique tradition. The Jewish community has contributed famously to the worlds of business, science and the arts, and, as we have heard, to sport and to the military.

All parties have had prominent Jewish politicians. As we heard, the first Jewish MP, Lionel de Rothschild, was elected four times before he was allowed to take his seat in 1858. He was from the Liberal tradition. The first non-baptised, Jewish Cabinet Minister, Herbert Samuel, joined the Cabinet in 1909, as I had understood; the hon. Member for Hendon said 1908, and I bow to his research. Samuel went on to lead the Liberal party and, I am told, to appear in the first televised party political broadcast. I shall leave it up to other hon. Members to decide whether that was an achievement.

There are debates within the Jewish community about its degree of assimilation. It is clear that living among and interacting with other cultures brings challenges, but it also provides the opportunity to celebrate uniqueness in Britain's diverse culture. The celebration taking place this year marks the re-emergence of the British Jewish community 350 years ago, and more than that, it provides the entire British community with the opportunity to show its appreciation of the contribution made by the Jewish community and individual Jewish citizens.

The community has not often sought the limelight, and I hope that schools, councils, villages, towns and cities will take the opportunity to thank the Jewish community. I hope also that the community itself will proudly acknowledge its achievements in Britain, and look positively to the future.