It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate Theresa Villiers on having secured a very timely debate. It is extremely important, at this stage of all stages, to be reminded of the true history of the middle east and the part that the Jewish community played in it. I will say a little bit more about that in a minute.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her tour d’horizon of the middle east and north Africa, as well as her remarks about the near-total extinction of an ancient civilisation and the fact that this is the first debate we have had in this House on this subject. She also pointed out that Jews lived in that region for more than 1,000 years before the religion of Islam was founded. It was a thoughtful, well-researched opening speech, and I am grateful to her for it. The right hon. Lady also quoted the former Chief Rabbi and my relative through marriage, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks—a wise and incredible man, who did such a lot to represent the Jewish community of this country.
We then heard from my hon. Friend Dame Louise Ellman, who always makes an excellent contribution in every debate that I hear her speak in. She mentioned that Jewish people have always been a part of the middle east, which is absolutely right. We heard from Robert Halfon; we then heard from my hon. Friend Mr Lewis, who made the point that any future peace plans must include the history of Jewish refugees and the loss faced by those refugees. We also heard contributions from the hon. Members for Hendon (Dr Offord), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Henley (John Howell), and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). I am very grateful for the points that they made.
I have a personal interest in this topic. My earliest memories of my own family’s history centre on photographs of my late father, taken outside a mosque in Tangier. When my grandfather was a refugee from the Nazis during the occupation of Paris in 1940, my grandmother remained in Paris; he was in Spain. He crossed the water to Morocco, where he found refuge in Tangier. His own brother was the mayor of that city at the time, which shows the part that Jews played in north Africa and, indeed, the middle east. My father’s origins were Ottoman, from Salonica and Istanbul, so the cuisine that we enjoyed as children was always middle eastern and Turkish cooking—something that I found strange when I went to the homes of my English friends at school. Having mentioned my great-uncle, I will add that on the street where I lived in north-west London, my best friend’s family had fled from Cairo. The Sharma family had found refuge in London, and the parents and grandparents still spoke very good Arabic; their main language was French, which meant my family could communicate with them. Their stories about having to flee from Nasser’s Egypt always remained in my mind.
A few years ago, I went to Kurdistan in northern Iraq; I went to Erbil. The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet mentioned the part that the Kurdish people have played in helping Jews escape from the hostile environments they found themselves in after 1947. It was a pleasure to hear from so many Kurdish contacts and interlocutors about their respect for the Jewish people, and the fact that if Israel were able to establish an embassy in Baghdad today, there would be one in Erbil tomorrow. They are great supporters of the Jewish people, and they feel a great sympathy because of the plight and persecution that they have unfortunately had to experience.
Over successive waves of persecution in the 20th century since 1948, up to 850,000 Jews—some estimates are close to 1 million—were expelled from mainly Arab countries. Most of those Mizrahi, as they are called in Israel, took their refuge in that country; their descendants comprise approximately half of all Israeli Jews. To many Israelis, the issue of refugees remains one of the outstanding obstacles to peace that must be resolved in any final status negotiations. The plight of Palestinian refugees, as we have heard, is well known, but Israelis rightly believe that less attention is given to former Jewish refugees.
As it happens, just before I came to this debate, I had a meeting with Dr Saeb Erekat from the Palestine Liberation Organisation. I told him about this debate and that we would be discussing Jewish refugees in the middle east, and asked him what he would do about that. He asked me to say quite openly that the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Palestinian Authority believe that just as Palestinians should have their rights to return with full compensation, so should all Jewish refugees. I thought that was very interesting.