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10.21 am

Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (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 the hon. Member for Ilford, North (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
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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 the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (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.

10.27 am

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Hendon (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
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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
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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 the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (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 the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) reminded us of the United Kingdom’s role in establishing the state of Israel, and the hon. Member for North Cornwall (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:

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’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.

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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:

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:

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

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:

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

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10.38 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Meg Munn): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing this important debate and on his representation of his Jewish community and constituents and, generally, the way in which he represents all his constituents. It is no exaggeration to say that he is indeed legendary in this place.

All hon. Members who contributed to the debate have added to its richness. They shared their experiences and knowledge, and I have certainly learned a great deal. It is always a pleasure to take part in a debate in which there is cross-party support—in which parties come together to speak loudly from this House about an important issue. I commend the speeches of the Front-Bench representatives, and I thank the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for his generous comments and his moving contribution.

This debate takes place at an appropriate and opportune time. It is appropriate, as it provides an opportunity for the House to recognise the contribution that Jewish communities have made to our culture, society and economic success, and it is opportune, as the Government have recently consolidated their work with faith communities under the auspices of the new Department for Communities and Local Government. My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government has lead responsibility for race, faith and cohesion following the reshuffle, and I am supporting him in that work, as part of my cross-cutting equality brief.

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the resettlement of Jews in England, following their expulsion by Edward I in 1290. It is an important anniversary in our country’s history, a time to remember and celebrate. Jewish communities are part of the fabric of British life and have been for more than three centuries, and they have made a huge positive contribution to our society. During that time, they have been part of an extremely vibrant political culture, with people such as Benjamin Disraeli and Karl Marx, and political events, such as the 1936 battle of Cable street, which stopped Oswald Mosley’s fascists marching in the east end of London, and to which my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon and for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) referred. Mainstream political parties have all had distinguished members from the Jewish community in this place contributing to the nation’s governance.

Jewish contributions to British society have enriched it in many fields, including business and finance, arts and sciences, industry and technology, medicine and law, academia and the media, politics and public services, the armed forces and charitable endeavours. Indeed, it would be hard to find an area of British life that has not benefited from Jewish input, and hon. Members have given us other interesting and detailed examples.

As a community, the Jews have been able to integrate into the life of the country without losing their distinctive identity as Jews. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside described that well. The Jewish community is an example of how members of an immigrant community can succeed as individuals and as a community, and make a huge positive contribution to the country at large.

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The Government value the Jewish community in this country. Over the past year, ministerial colleagues have attended the League of Jewish Women’s human rights day, the Rabbi-Imam conference, the 350 years of British Jewry event, the Holocaust Educational Trust dinner, and holocaust memorial day. As has been said, yesterday evening the Prime Minister attended an event at the Bevis Marks synagogue commemorating 350 years of British Jews in the UK.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon spoke of the experiences of Jews before and after the second world war. Holocaust memorial day is about commemorating all the communities that have suffered as a result of the holocaust and Nazi persecution. It is about demonstrating that the holocaust is relevant, by having the day as a focus. National and local events help people to think about the ongoing repercussions on our society of that tragic time.

The UK holocaust memorial day was first held in January 2001, and has been held on 27 January every year since. A different part of the UK hosts the national event each year, and it has been held successively in London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Belfast and London again. Holocaust memorial day this year was held in Cardiff, showing that the issue is important to all parts of our country. The success of holocaust memorial day has enabled it to go from strength to strength and to play a major role in commemorating all the communities that suffered as a result of the holocaust and Nazi persecution.

Hon. Members have rightly reminded us that anti-Semitism still exists and continues to arise in different forms and in different shapes throughout the country. The Government deplore all forms of racism and are committed to tackling anti-Semitism. We welcome the Community Security Trust report for 2005, which highlighted a decrease in the number of ant-Semitic incidents, but we cannot become complacent. Violent attacks on Jewish people have outnumbered incidents of damage to Jewish property for the second year in a row.

Government and the police work closely with the Jewish community. The police and officials from my Department work closely with the Community Security Trust. Attacks on individuals, synagogues and Jewish cemeteries are completely unacceptable. British Jews, like all people in this country, must be able to live their lives free from verbal or physical attack. The Government have a shared responsibility to tackle anti-Semitism and all other forms of racism and prejudice against lawful religious traditions.

In recent years we have strengthened both the legal framework against race discrimination and the criminal penalties for offences such as incitement to racial hatred, and racially or religiously aggravated assault or criminal damage. Additionally, in a July 2003 policy statement, the Crown Prosecution Service gave a commitment to prosecute racist and religious crime fairly, firmly and robustly. That sends a clear message to perpetrators that they will not get away with threatening, violent or abusive behaviour towards members of racial or religious groups.

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