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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:27 am on 14th June 2006.

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Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 10:27 am, 14th June 2006

I add my congratulations to Mr. Dismore on securing this debate and on introducing it in a generous and illuminating fashion. We had a wonderfully expansive trot through the history of the Jewish community in the United Kingdom, and we thank him for that. I welcome my friend, the Minister, who will make the Government's winding-up speech—so we have little doubt that the high quality of this debate will be maintained right to the very end.

I have had the good fortune to be long acquainted with just what the Jewish community means to this country. I was born and brought up in Bury when, as is well known, the Jewish community was already a fixed part of north Manchester life. When driving into Manchester through Whitefield and Prestwich, the synagogues, the visible symbols of the Jewish community, were obvious and proud. My school, Bury grammar, had long benefited from a distinctive Jewish community. Over the decades, countless boys have emerged to contribute to all sections of British society through their skills and application. From within my generation, there have been such literary notables as Colin Shindler, author of the wicked and, in my view, deeply unfair book "Manchester United Ruined My Life"; and Simon Kelner, possibly the finest and most innovative newspaper editor of the modern day, and whose form prefect I once was.

There is one man in particular, however, who bridges my childhood and adult life as the epitome of dedication to public life. His life and career was a wonderful example to me and many others. He is Michael Fidler JP, and woe betide anyone who forgot the JP. Michael was born in Salford, the fourth child of two Lithuanian Jewish émigrés who ran a hardware shop. They subsequently established their own waterproof garment factory, and Michael became its managing director. He was chairman of the National Joint Clothing Council of Great Britain between 1953 and 1957. While serving his trade and profession he served his faith. He was a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews from 1942, and its president between 1967 and 1973. He also had a distinguished masonic career.

As an independent councillor, he became the first Jewish mayor of Prestwich in 1957, but he joined the Conservative party and was the MP for Bury and Radcliffe between 1970 and 1974. I shall remember for ever my excitement and elation, as chairman of Michael's young Conservatives, when he held his seat in February 1974 by just 300 votes after three recounts, little realising that barely nine years later I would be his Conservative successor. He distinguished himself in Parliament by fighting hard for his constituency, perhaps making his greatest contribution by ensuring that Bury and Rochdale retained their historic individual identities. In the midst of all that, he still had time to be the founder of the Conservative Friends of Israel, of which he was the director until his death in 1988, and which is now so ably run by Stuart Polak. Michael was just one man, but the life of that one man—and he was so rightly proud of every part of it—and of Maidie and the family epitomise the contribution made by Jews throughout this country to business life, community life, politics and international relations, particularly in ensuring vital support for the existence and independence of the state of Israel.

I have been lucky to experience at first hand the contribution of the Jewish community. As the Member of Parliament for Bury, North until 1997, I was able to see still more of that contribution in education, welfare, family life, community life, business and politics. Perhaps nothing during that time was more poignant to a child born after the heartbreak of world war and holocaust, but whose soul had been touched by visits to Yad Vashem and by the writings of Elie Wiesel, than attending the annual remembrance service of Jewish ex-servicemen in Prestwich with my good friend and colleague David Sumberg, who was the MP for Bury, South. I still cherish those memories.

I hope that you will forgive these personal reflections, Mr. Williams. Perhaps they help to explain why I am so proud on behalf of the Opposition to respond to the debate and to discuss the contribution of the community on a wider scale. We have heard several excellent contributions this morning. They highlighted particular themes that run through the community's contribution to Britain during the past three centuries. There were personal reflections from my hon. Friend Mr. Scott and Mrs. Ellman, who both drew on personal experiences to illuminate their remarks. My hon. Friend spoke with humour, emotion and not a little passion about the family experiences that had brought him to this place, and the hon. Lady used her considerable local government experience to draw some valuable and too often unheard parallels between the experience of the Jewish community and that of other minorities in Britain.

My hon. Friend Mr. Hollobone reminded us of the United Kingdom's role in establishing the state of Israel, and Mr. Rogerson rightly took this opportunity to remind all communities to celebrate the contribution of the Jewish community to life in this country.

Perhaps I might emphasise three trends throughout the centuries to make a point about the Jewish contribution to community life. Speaking just a few days ago at the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the leader of my party stated:

"To me the greatest strength of the Jewish faith—and the Jewish community—is the primacy of your values and how you live by them. Treasuring the close bonds of family life, truly understanding that they are the cornerstone of a healthy and vibrant community. That community also recognises the central importance of education and a good schooling. The greatest gift you can give someone is the means to help them look after him or herself and a good education provides the tools for independence."

That closeness of community and that shared culture, which is so generously made available to anyone who inquires after it and is taken into the home of Jewish friends, is a fundamental characteristic well known to our society.

If culture has been important, so too has been the remarkable character of significant individuals who have made a contribution. Many of them have already been mentioned this morning. A visit to a cheerful Jewish website, of which there are many, produced an entertaining list of the top 10 UK Jews. The list comes from TotallyJewish.com's top 10 list of Jews who have influenced Britain. It is not a bad list: it includes Peter Sellers, Brian Epstein, Benjamin Disraeli, Isaiah Berlin, Michael Marks, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Winston—contributions that have been mentioned by many others this morning. I was particularly delighted by the recognition of Rosalind Franklin, a representative of Jewish women of achievement. Too often forgotten, she was the woman at the heart of the discovery of DNA.

If character and culture have been of significance, so too has been the wisdom of those whose thoughts and words stop us in our tracks and make us look at the world differently. I have had the good fortune to meet and listen to both of the last two Chief Rabbis. They have made a huge impression on us all with their depth of understanding of the importance of fixed and firm values in the midst of a rapidly changing world. Such wisdom is drawn from a perspective influenced by the tragedies of the Jewish people's experience of the 20th century and the later struggles for the existence and very life of the state of Israel. Their words, directed often with gentle humour but deep insight, have illuminated contemporary discussion of the place of faith in modern life and communities. They represent many other writers, artists and philosophers, too numerous to mention, who have helped shape the modern world and culture that we now take for granted.

Arthur Hertzberg stated:

"Community cannot survive on what it remembers; it will persist only because of what it affirms and believes."

Those of the Jewish faith in Britain have something special to contribute. What they affirm and believe encompasses a sense of purpose born from the pain of their existence, which is perhaps why so many of them have tended to raise their voices on behalf of others. Wiesel stated:

"No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately."

An article published on the website of the Board of Deputies of British Jews about the Jewish community in the United Kingdom concludes:

"The Jews have never just been a people like other peoples. Jewish survival is a miracle. It defies the trends and logic of history. Logically the Jews should have been no more than a footnote of history disappearing centuries, even millennia ago. With our endless problems, crises and catastrophes which have perennially cascaded through Jewish history, we are indeed (in Simon Rawidowicz's famous phase) 'the ever dying people'."

We are all the richer in this country because that Jewish community survived. We recognise that it survives not on its past or on its history, but on its relevance and engagement with contemporary life. Nor do we forget that the embers of anti-Semitism, which may have been dampened much lower than in medieval times, are still capable of being inflamed. With the recent votes for fascist parties such as the British National party, we know that they need vigorous and effective combating.

The key to the relationship of the Jewish community with the rest of society is the relationship of that community with God and its creator. That relationship gives us in the book of Micah a phrase which, when applied to individuals, communities and nations, and when remembered, is a universal code by which we can all live:

"He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

We wish Godspeed to the Jewish community in this country for many years to come.