House of Lords debate on anti-Semitism
12.19 pm Thursday June 20th
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, deserves the thanks of the whole House for securing this important debate and for the eloquent way in which she introduced it.
No one, as a consequence of their beliefs or who they are, should have to live their life in abject fear of racial or religious hatred, yet, as we have been reminded, recent research and reported instances of attacks show that far too many people do.
The rise in anti-Semitism, sometimes incubated within the walls of this Palace, is completely unacceptable.
I have watched with incredulity and dismay as Luciana Berger, who inherited some of my former Liverpool constituency, has been hounded and vilified.
It is truly shocking to read reports of Jewish homes being daubed with offensive graffiti and of the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, along with the promotion of hatred on university campuses and through social media. In 2018, the Community Security Trust logged 1,652 anti-Semitic incidents, a 16% increase.
I attended the recent launch of the ComRes polling data on anti-Semitism commissioned for CNN and referred to earlier. It was abundantly clear that we have become far too complacent about this cancer. Forty per cent of those surveyed said that anti-Semitism is a growing problem in this country today; 41% said that Jewish people are at risk of hate speech, while 49% thought that the Government should do more to combat anti-Semitism.
To the question why people were hostile to Jews, the answers ranged from the usual canards about Jews having too much influence, to antagonism towards Israel.
It was striking that half of the adults surveyed were unaware of ever having socialised with a Jewish person. Absurdly, one in five thought that more than 20% of the world’s population is Jewish. Disturbingly, less than half thought that Israel had a right to exist as a Jewish state.
Earlier this year, some of us heard Helen Aronson, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto in Poland, tell parliamentarians:
“It is vital that we do everything in our power to ensure that these things never happen again, anywhere in the world”.
To do that, we need much better teaching resources and, as the last survivors die, interactive learning hubs where their stories go on being told to future generations. We can also do far more to promote religious freedom, using initiatives such as the newly created United Nations International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief—there will be an event here in the House on 23 July to mark its creation.
In 1933, the Jewish writer, Franz Werfel published The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a novel about the loss of 1.5 million lives in the Armenian genocide.
Those mass murders led to Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish lawyer, 43 of whose family were murdered in the Holocaust, coining the word “genocide” and framing the genocide convention.
Werfel’s books and those of Stefan Zweig were burnt by the Nazis. Zweig’s The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European charts the rise of visceral hatred and how scapegoating and xenophobia, cultivated by populist leaders, can morph into the hecatombs of the concentration camps.
Zweig described how university professors were forced to scrub streets with their bare hands, how devout Jews were humiliated in their synagogues and how apartments were broken into and jewels torn out of the ears of trembling women. And the world remained largely silent.
The haunting question remains: can we do better and act more decisively in our own generation?
Speeches were limited to 4 minutes- an extended version of these remarks can be found
The first time, that I raised the issue of anti-Semitism in the House of Lords was in 2001. More recently I spoke in debates commemorating Kindertransport and during Lord Popat’s debate on the continuing upsurge of antisemitism in Europe and the UK.
Like my father and grandfather, I was born in the East End of London where Jews and other minorities historically lived side by side. But it was also where, in October 1936, in what became known as the Battle of Cable Street, Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists attempted to incite hatred against its Jewish residents.
It was a British harbinger of what, three years later, would become all-out war against Nazism. Like millions of others, my father and his four brothers enlisted , one of whom lost his life.
In later years, in the block of flats on a council estate where I grew up, our neighbour was a Jewish lady called Sadie Moonshine. Later, as a student activist in Liverpool the first candidates I campaigned for were Jewish.
Over all the years that have followed I have never forgotten my father’s insistence that we must protect and cherish the Jewish people from the visceral hatred which is represented by anti-Semitism.
That is a belief that has been entrenched by the Holocaust survivors whom I have met; by the site of extermination camps; and during visits to Yad Vashem.
Here in Parliament, a few months ago, in advance of Holocaust Day, I heard the testimony of Helen Aronson who survived the Holocaust as a teenager –
A survivor of the Łódź ghetto in Poland, Helen Aronson said:
‘It is vital that we do everything in our power to ensure that these things never happen again, anywhere in the world.
‘Children must be allowed to grow up safe and secure and not be wrenched from their homes, like I was.
‘That’s why it is so important that you, as members of parliament are here today and that we make a commitment to mark Holocaust Memorial Day every January.’
It should not need saying that no one should live in fear because of their beliefs or because of who they are. Difference is to be prized and upheld, and the political imperative which flows from this assertion is that wherever it manifests itself we must counter anti-Semitism.
No one should have to live their life in abject fear of racial and religious hatred, because of their beliefs, or because of who they are. Yet recent research and reported instances of attacks show that too many people do. The rise in antisemitism – sometimes incubated within the walls of this Palace – is appalling, totally at variance with British values and our way of life, and completely unacceptable. When Members of the Parliament and political parties are accused of antisemitism it sends a shocking message into the rest of society.
These acts of intimidation include nauseating online abuse and violence. I have watched with incredulity and dismay as Luciana Berger, who inherited some of my former Liverpool constituency, has been vilified and ostracised. But I have also seen reports of Jewish homes being daubed with offensive graffiti and the desecration of the resting places of loved family members laid to rest in Jewish cemeteries. And along with others, I have raised, in your Lordships House, the dissemination of hatred and prejudice on university campuses and through social media platforms.
I recently attended a discussion about a survey conducted by ComRes for CNN about European attitudes towards Jews and about the rise of anti-Semitism.
I am grateful to Andrew Hawkins, chairman of Com Res for detailing some of the headlines for me:
• Two in five (40%) of GB adults agree anti-Semitism is a growing problem in this country today, with a similar proportion saying Jewish people are at risk of hate speech (41%) and racist violence (38%) in this country. 49% thought that the government should do more to combat antisemitism in this country:
In asking why people were hostile to Jews the answers ranged from the usual canards about Jews having too much influence to antagonism towards Israel.
• I was also struck that half (49%) of GB adults are not aware of ever having socialised with a Jewish person; and, absurdly, around one in five (18%) GB adults think more than 20 percent of the population in the world is Jewish. And disturbingly that just less than half, 48% thought that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state.
• And as the last of the Holocaust survivors come to the end of their lives and a rising generation have less direct contact with those horrific events, it is noteworthy that only 46% believed that commemorating the Holocaust helps to combat anti-Semitism today; while, in a similar survey in the United States respondents under 40 years of age were 31% less likely to believe that the Holocaust even occurred.
Then when it comes to how Jewish people see themselves and anti-Semitism note that according to the Fundamental Rights Agency Survey conducted in May–June 2018 on nearly 16,500 people who considered themselves Jewish (and covering 12 EU countries that are home to over 96% of the EU’s estimated Jewish population):
– On average, 39% of all respondents experienced some form of antisemitic harassment in the five years before the survey. More than one quarter (28%) encountered such harassment in the twelve months before the survey.
– Across the twelve countries surveyed, 3% of all respondents personally experienced a physical attack because they are Jewish in the five years before the survey. In the twelve months before the survey, 2% of all respondents experienced a physical attack because they are Jewish.
– Across the twelve countries surveyed, 4% of all respondents said that their property was deliberately vandalised because they are Jewish in the five years before the survey; 2% experienced this in the twelve months before the survey.
Now recall, beyond Europe that the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, during the Shabbat morning service on 27 October 2018, claimed 11 lives.
In the UK, last year only, there were 1,652 antisemitic incidents logged by the Community Security Trust (CST), which has monitored antisemitism for 35 years. In 2018, another 630 potential incidents were recorded. The 2018 data constitutes a 16% increase from 2017 – the third year in a row in which the CST recorded such increase.
In the north of England especially, where I live, I have been concerned to note the pitiful absence of good educational projects to counter the increase in attacks fed by the increase in ignorance. The national curriculum may have a requirement to teach about the Holocaust but in many schools, this is either done half heartedly or not at all. Teachers would like to see an accessible interactive educational centre where the link between the Holocaust and today’s genocides and crimes against humanity can be clearly made.
In this 80th anniversary year since of the beginning of the World War II, which saw the deaths of over 6 million Jews., this is surely a perfect time for such an initiative – one which links the Holocaust to last year’s 70th anniversaries of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was Raphael Lemkin, a great Jewish lawyer, 49 of whose relatives were murdered in the Holocaust, and who coined the phrase genocide and drafted the Genocide Convention.
He did so after studying the genocide of Armenian Christians and Syrian Christians.
Although there are non-religious elements of antisemitism, in the context of the continued global attacks on freedom of religion or belief – I want to underline the religious anti-Semitism which targets Judaism and recall that it was Lord Sacks who rightly said that in our own times he does not understand why there is not popular indignation and political protest against the annihilation and genocide of Christian minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere. He is right when he poignantly reflects that “the hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews”.
Along with others I have been supporting the establishment of the UN International Day Commemorating Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief and we are organizing an event in the House of Lords on 23 July to mark its creation. A universal day to mark the suffering of those who are persecuted simply because of their beliefs is a modest but welcome attempt to change attitudes and challenge indifference.
As a child my grandfather, who in 1917 was a young soldier with Allenby’s army in Jerusalem when it was liberated, gave me photographs of Armenians whose lives had been taken by the retreating Ottoman forces.
Twenty years earlier Mr. Gladstone, at the age of 87, had made his last public speech. It was in Liverpool’s Hengler’s Circus, before an audience of 6000, and he described what he called the “monstrous crime” of the massacre of 2000 Armenians.
The Hamburger Nachrichten, responded: “For us [Germans] the sound bones of a single Pomeranian [German] grenadier are worth more than the lives of 10,000 Armenians.”
Nineteen years later 1.5 million Armenians were murdered in a genocide still unrecognized as such by the UK, let alone by Turkey.
In 1933, the Jewish writer, Franz Werfel published, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a novel about the Armenian genocide.
Werfel’s books were burnt by the Nazis, no doubt to give substance to Hitler’s famous remark: “Who now remembers the Armenians?”
In 1942 another Jewish writer, Stefan Zweig, published The World of Yesterday – Memoirs of a European.
Zweig’s masterful autobiography charts the rise of visceral hatred; how scapegoating and xenophobia, cultivated by populist leaders, can rapidly morph into the hecatombs of the concentration camps. As the history of the twentieth century graphically demonstrates, the hatred of difference invariably begins with anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews, but it never ends there.
Never doubt how quickly a relatively civilised and humane society, and a seemingly permanent golden age, can be ruthlessly and swiftly destroyed.
And consider that beyond the ugly spectre of Anti-Semitism appearing in main stream British politics, in 2019, for the first time since 1945, there are Nazis in the Reichstag; Austria has until recently had a coalition government which includes a party whose first leader was as an officer in the SS; Italy has a governing party which is home to fascist throwbacks; while some “yellow vests” in France mighty more appropriately wear black shirts after recently being involved in anti-Semitic abuse of the French philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut; while the far right has captured seats from Sweden to Spain.
Project Hate can be seen in the Anti-Semitic memes which accompany digital Nazism – even the live streaming of mass murders courtesy of multi-media outlets. Other shades of viral hatred – from anti-Semitism to homophobia and overt racism – readily and effortlessly morph from virtual reality into violence.
“The greatest curse brought down on us by technology is that it prevents us from escaping the present even for a brief time. Previous generations could retreat into solitude and seclusion when disaster struck; it was our fate to be aware of everything catastrophic happening anywhere in the world at the hour and the second when it happened.”
And that was 1945. Now it is live streamed and in every living room and on every mobile device within seconds – including pre- arranged broadcast of mass shootings: St. Bartholomew’s Eve Massacres courtesy of Facebook and Google.
The use of social media to spread violent ideologies had a tragic outcome on March 15th with the horrific deaths of nearly 50 Muslims gathered for Friday prayers in Christchurch, New Zealand. But we also saw the same hatred of difference at work in the Synagogue in Pittsburgh where 11 Jewish worshippers were gunned down; and in Lahore where 75 Christians were murdered as they gathered to celebrate Easter; and deaths, day after day in Northern Nigeria, following the genocide of Christians and Yazidis and other minorities in Iraq and Syria.
In a presentiment of what lay ahead Zweig wrote that “Europe in its state of derangement had passed its own death sentence” and yet the elites kept turning a blind eye, hoping that the problem would simply go away – leading him to remark: “We are none of us very proud of our political blindness at that time and we are horrified to see where it has brought us.”
Zweig saw how, in the face of indifference and the desire for a quiet life, the thin veneer that separates civilised values from mob rule very quickly cracked. He describes how university professors were forced to scrub streets with their bare hands; devout Jews humiliated in their synagogues; apartments broken into and jewels torn out of the ears of trembling women.
He says, “one man had succeeded in deadening every idea of what is just and right by the constant attrition of excess “Hitler’s most diabolical triumph.” In 1938 the conscience of the world kept quiet “or murmured just a little before forgetting and forgiving.”
On meeting groups of fleeing refugees, Zweig says” They (the Jews) were told don’t live here with us but no one told them where they were to live.”
He concludes his remarkable account of those tortured years be saying
“I knew like the patriarch Lot, in the Bible, that all behind me was dust and ashes, the past transformed into a pillar of bitter salt.”
The haunting question remains: can we do better in our own generation?