Jewish Refugees from the Middle East and North Africa

Part of Modern Slavery Act: Independent Review – in Westminster Hall at 5:35 pm on 19th June 2019.

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Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 5:35 pm, 19th June 2019

I am pleased to be able to contribute to this debate. I commend Theresa Villiers for securing it. I also commend her not only for the content of her speech, but for the tone in which she delivered it.

In 2010, I had the great privilege of being present when Kate Adie was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of St Andrews. In her doctoral address, she surprised a lot of the media studies students in the hall by telling them that if they wanted to follow her career path—possibly with fewer attempts on their life than she had experienced—they should not do a degree in media studies but a degree in history. Her logic was very simple. She said, “How can you possibly hope to explain to people back home what is happening in a faraway country today if you don’t understand what happened in that country, and to it, in the past?” This debate, and particularly the opening speech by the right hon. Lady, has brought that comment home again, because it seems to me that too many people who speak very forcefully about what should happen to solve the problems in the middle east are either unaware of its history or—perhaps even worse—only aware of part of that history.

When we look at the recent history of Israel and of the Jewish people, it is very easy to be overwhelmed by the scale and the horror of what happened in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, and to lose sight of the fact that at any other time what was happening to Jews in other parts of the world would have been seen as a catastrophe on a global scale. That is because 850,000 people were forced out of the only homes they had ever known—homes that they could demonstrate their families had lived in for hundreds, and possibly even thousands, of years. An unknown number of people were killed—certainly hundreds, but probably thousands. By today’s standards, that was ethnic cleansing. Indeed, I would argue that by today’s standards that was a genocide and it deserves to be recognised as such. And those people who fled for their lives to try to escape from that genocide should be recognised as refugees, just as those people who are currently fleeing from Yemen, Syria and other conflict areas should be recognised, and looked after, as refugees.

One of the sad things in any conflict is that civilians always lose in any conflict; they are always the ones who become refugees. And it is unusual for there to be an armed conflict where there is only one group of refugees; we almost always find that there are refugees from both sides. As the right hon. Lady forcefully reminded us, and as others have commented on, two entire populations of refugees were created as a result of the conflict in the middle east in the 1940s and 1950s. Both those populations deserve equal recognition; the members of those populations all had equal rights and they all suffered appalling losses and appalling treatment. All of their stories deserve to be heard and remembered.

As well as looking at what we need to do now to try, as far as possible, to restore the rights of all those who were persecuted in the past, we also need to look at what we should be doing differently now to stop such persecution from happening again. I liked the comment earlier that hatred against the Jews does not stop with the Jews, and eventually becomes hatred of somebody else. I think that is a lesson that we take too long to learn. When we allow hatred and persecution of any minority in a society to become normalised, that hatred and persecution very quickly spreads to a different minority, whether that minority is based on religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other characteristic.

If we tolerate and allow people to demean, dehumanise and vilify anyone else because of their religion, colour or nationality, we are allowing the start of another process of persecution against a minority at some point. In welcoming today’s debate, and associating myself with a huge amount of what the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet said in her opening comments, I desperately hope that in 50 years’ time, there will not be some Parliament somewhere talking about a massive persecution against a population of refugees that happened because we did not do enough to stop it from happening in our world today.