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29 Jan 2009 : Column 479

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I am sorry to keep labouring this point, but what the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said, and has just been reiterated, is of critical importance. The Pope has made a decision to take someone who is an unrepentant denier of the holocaust—one of three people who were excommunicated for other reasons—back into his Church, not because that person denies the holocaust but in spite of the fact that he denies it—a denial that has recently been repeated. Can the Minister impress on his colleagues the importance of the Government taking a firm view and expressing it in no uncertain terms? I am sure that British Roman Catholics, British Jews and, indeed, British people of no religion whatsoever will be absolutely horrified about what His Holiness the Pope has done.

Mr. Khan: I pay tribute to the role that the hon. Gentleman has played with regard to David Irving when he went to Oxford. We all know the protestations that the hon. Gentleman made about his disgust at that happening. Let me put it to him this way. Having spoken, as he has, to many survivors of the holocaust and bereaved families, and being aware of the psychological trauma that goes through communities in relation to hate crime, I am caused great concern by the fact that somebody who can deny that the holocaust took place can hold high office or be invited to august institutions to debate the subject. Many Members in this House will share the feelings that the hon. Gentleman has expressed and find the promotion of such a person highly unsavoury. I will turn to the issue of holocaust denial later in my short opening remarks, because it is still, 64 years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, raised by so-called academics and opinion-formers.

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): As the Member for Chipping Barnet, I have the great honour of representing constituents who include survivors of the holocaust. Does the Minister agree that as, sadly, fewer and fewer survivors are left to tell the story directly, it becomes more and more important to educate younger generations about the holocaust so that we can learn lessons, dispel the lies told by holocaust deniers, and try to counter anti-Semitism, the upsurge in which has already been mentioned?

Mr. Khan: The hon. Lady raises an important point, although I think that I am in danger of taking 12 interventions when I am still on the first page of my speech. I will come on to the important role that the Holocaust Educational Trust plays. This week, I had the pleasure of going to the Holocaust centre in Newark.

Let me return, if that is permissible, to my speech. The shared resolve that I mentioned about four minutes ago must be not only to learn more about the holocaust and genocides and other recent atrocities, but to learn from them. I am sure that hon. Members join me in committing afresh to ensuring that the lessons at the heart of Holocaust memorial day are both remembered and applied. It is hard to find words with which to speak meaningfully and sufficiently of the holocaust: tragic; evil; devastating; depraved. But the more we speak of the holocaust, and the more we learn about it, the more we must accept that none of these words by themselves is adequate. Perhaps because we can never understand the horror, we can properly say only that it is incomprehensible.

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Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is being very generous with his time. Of course, we commemorate the holocaust through Holocaust memorial day, but does he agree that while the day is being celebrated in schools and town halls throughout the country, it is important that children and other people recognise that genocide and racism are rampant in the world right now; that we must be careful that we do not only talk about the past, but try to learn lessons from, for example, Rwanda and Darfur; and that young people, in particular, must be aware that they are not only commemorating the past but should be learning lessons for the future?

Mr. Khan: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. When I was at the Holocaust centre on Monday—the hon. Member for Buckingham will know about the fantastic work that it does through the Aegis Trust and the all-party group on genocide prevention—a phone call was received for Dr. Stephen Smith from colleagues in Darfur, where a village had been surrounded by people who may well have committed further genocide. Let us be clear: the victims there are Muslims, so the idea that the victims of genocide are only Jewish people is not true. There are lessons that we can learn about contemporary genocide where the victims have been Christians, Muslims, Jews, those of other faiths, and those without faith. We need to learn that lesson across society.

It is the sheer enormity of the holocaust and Nazi persecution that is difficult to comprehend. The victims of the holocaust were Jews, Roma and Sinti Gypsies, black people, Slavs, disabled people, gay people, political opponents, Jehovah’s Witnesses and trade unionists. However, our inability to comprehend must never become an excuse for reluctance to remember. We must never forget the great horrors that haunted this continent in the last world war and have done so since. Even though the scale of the Shoah was unprecedented, since world war two the same cycle of evil has been played out—if such things can be measured—in Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and Darfur. The list goes on. As I said, the victims of genocide have been Muslims, Christians, Jews, and those of other faiths and none. It is precisely for this reason—because the list does go on, and because evil does recur—that the holocaust should be written in our present, not just consigned to the past.

Let me deal with the issue of holocaust denial. Holocaust denial and obfuscation are anti-Semitism masked under a veil of pseudo-historical revisionism. It is a gross insult to the victims of Nazism and to survivors of the holocaust. The best weapon against holocaust denial is education. The memory of the holocaust needs to be preserved and its contemporary lessons passed on to future generations. I pay tribute to the Holocaust Educational Trust, whose work with schools and communities has had a big role to play in this. Karen Pollock and her team do remarkable work all year round, not just around Holocaust memorial day and week.

John Bercow: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Khan: With the hon. Gentleman’s charm, how can I say no?

John Bercow: I am extremely sorry to interrupt the Minister, who has been incredibly generous. As he will know, holocaust deniers often try to conjure up an
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image of themselves as being in some sense a victimised minority. Will he take the opportunity to point out that David Irving had his day in court when he chose to pick a fight with Deborah Lipstadt, the author of “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory”, and lost because he had lied and distorted the record? He got it wrong, and he was exposed: we should keep reminding ourselves and others of that fact.

Mr. Khan: As someone who has spent my life, in Parliament and before, defending human rights and civil liberties, I find it offensive that someone like David Irving uses freedom of speech as an excuse to propagate such hurtful lies. It causes huge distress, not only psychological but physical, to victims of the holocaust when they hear people such as him saying the things that he does to the audiences that he has been given.

It is essential to hear the voices of survivors, who have shown the resilience of the human spirit, and essential to honour the memory of the victims, whose stories we must not forget. To truly learn history’s lessons, it is essential that we ensure that the baton passes from the citizens of today to the citizens of tomorrow: our young people.

It was my privilege to attend the national Holocaust memorial day commemoration in Coventry last Sunday. That started, for me, with a reception for survivors. About 100 survivors were present at St. Mary’s Guildhall for the lunch. I was humbled and deeply moved to meet and hear the stories of just a handful of them. I would like to pay tribute to their vitality and dignity. So much hatred was thrown at them, for no reason other than the accident of their birth. The way in which they refused to be robbed of their dignity, and displayed such courage and determination, serves as inspiration to us all. The theme of this year’s Holocaust memorial day was “Standing up to hatred”. That message, though inspired by state-sponsored atrocities, should resonate with us all in our everyday lives. It was a privilege to attend the event with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Home Secretary. My hon. Friends the Members for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) were also present.

The holocaust teaches us that, tragically, too many people are prepared to stand by or look the other way when they see acts of hatred occurring. At that event we heard the testimony of Regina Franks, a survivor of both Auschwitz and Belsen, a woman whose experience of hatred never conditioned her to hate in return, and whose voice—just one voice out of millions who suffered in the concentration camps or in subsequent genocides—somehow helps us to understand how a single person can make a difference. That is why it was right that we heard contemporary voices say how they would stand up to hatred. Among them were the Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but so too was a 15-year-old boy from Coventry, who had been moved to stand up to hatred because of what he had seen on a visit to a concentration camp. We all need to commit ourselves to challenging prejudice, wherever we see it in our society.

In a month when we celebrate the election of the first black president of the United States, it is appropriate that I should quote what Martin Luther King said 40 years ago:

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We all know that, left unchecked, racism and prejudice can have catastrophic consequences, and on Sunday it was good to hear that 15-year-old confirm that he would not allow prejudice to go unchallenged. I was proud to stand with him, and with all the others there, to show our shared resolve.

I pay tribute to the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Holocaust Educational Trust. I shall not talk about the funding that the Government have given them, because that would be crude. This is more about the values that we share with those organisations and about standing with them shoulder to shoulder, standing up against hatred and saying with a shared voice, “Never again.”

1.41 pm

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): Holocaust memorial day is, of course, 27 January and on that day this year, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), the shadow Secretary of State for International Development, laid a wreath at Yad Vashem on behalf of our party.

The debate is necessarily sombre, and as the Minister said, each year it is one in which party politics is irrelevant. Each year, we probe the causes of the horror of the holocaust, its roots planted in the racist ideology of the Nazis and, even deeper, in Europe’s terrible history of anti-Semitism. We honour the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Community Security Trust, the all-party group against anti-Semitism, many of whose Members are in their places, and many other organisations. We condemn holocaust denial, as the Minister rightly did, as we do all racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia.

We wonder how the holocaust could have happened, and how most Germans could have averted their eyes from the attempted extermination of an entire people in Europe. In 1933, Germany could claim to be the most civilised nation in the world. Less than 15 years later, 6 million people were dead. Before we rush to judgment, however, we ask ourselves each year whether we are certain that we would have behaved more honourably. We always join together in this debate to say, “Never again.”

As the Minister said, the Jewish people were not the only victims of the holocaust. There were also Poles, disabled people, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay people and many others. Nor, as has been pointed out from the Conservative Benches, was the holocaust the only exercise in mass murder. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s website refers to Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur.

Of itself, anti-Semitism is surely no worse than any other form of that vile thing, racism. However, the location of the extermination camps in Europe and the historical backdrop against which they were set place on us a unique responsibility. As politicians, we must be especially sensitive to eruptions of anti-Semitism, given the speed at which it gathered pace in Germany.

As has been mentioned, since 27 December, there has been what the Holocaust Educational Trust describes as “an unprecedented rise” in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Britain. Our streets have seen the trashing
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of Starbucks, Tesco and other shops, assaults on visibly Jewish people, the attempted burning down of a synagogue in north London and graffiti that reads simply, “Kill the Jews”. As the House knows, 27 December was the day on which Israel went into Gaza with overpowering force. I understand why passions run high in relation to Gaza among many people from all backgrounds. As the Conservative Member with the largest number of Muslim constituents, I know the rage, the anger, the feeling of impotence and the sense that democracy has failed.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Does my hon. Friend share my concern that neo-Nazi parties could well use the mist of what has happened in the past few weeks to raise anti-Semitism and try to cause divisions in communities in which there has been harmony in recent years?

Mr. Goodman: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I shall come to that point later.

Mr. Dismore: On the appalling situation in Gaza and southern Israel, does the hon. Gentleman agree that people who support the Palestinian cause do themselves no justice by suggesting that what is going on there is another form of holocaust or genocide? It clearly is not and, by suggesting that, they undermine their own case and do not do anything to contribute to the attempt to find a long-term resolution of the conflict in the middle east.

Mr. Goodman: I broadly agree with the hon. Gentleman, and in fact he has anticipated part of the direction in which I intend to take my speech. Although this is not a debate about Gaza, and you would rightly rule out of order any Member who tried to turn it into one, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish to make the point that we must appreciate how strongly many people feel about the situation. I wish to put on record our position that any alleged war crimes must be investigated.

Mr. Winnick: Does the hon. Gentleman also accept that a number of Jews—possibly a minority, I do not know—feel as strongly as any Muslim against what the Israelis did in Gaza?

Mr. Goodman: In many ways, that is related to a point that has been made from the Conservative Benches, which is that feelings about this issue are not confined to members of any one ethnic or religious group.

It is incontestable that what happens abroad can stir violent extremism at home. However, I wish to make it absolutely clear that violence abroad must not be allowed to spill on to the streets of Britain, from whatever quarter. People must take great care not accidentally to inflame what they rightly decry. We must all take great care when language involving holocaust comparisons is used, as the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said a moment ago.

It is inevitably asked how people who have experienced suffering can inflict suffering on others. We cannot avoid asking that question in relation to the Palestinians, and some Israelis acknowledge the force of it. However, there is a crucial difference in character between the horrors of war—yes, even of wars in which war crimes
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are committed—and the holocaust, which was the attempted extermination of an entire people on an industrial scale.

I am sure that the overwhelming majority of those who recently took to the streets to protest peacefully about the carnage in Gaza will have been appalled by the anti-Semitic attacks that the CST has recorded. I hope that all would therefore concede that banners with stars of David alongside swastikas, and placards conflating Israel with Nazi Germany, are not only distasteful but risk inflaming anti-Semitism. I am sure that the House would agree that costumes portraying anti-Semitic stereotypes—for example the demonstrator who, in caricature, wore a mask with a hideously large nose and devoured an imitation bloody child, thereby suggesting the blood libel of Jews eating gentile children—are nothing less than Jew-baiting.

Today, as we say, “never again”, we must look forward with hope. Jews, Muslims, Christians and others up and down the country are working together to build mutual understanding, cohesion and peace, as the council for Christian and Muslim relations in my constituency does. Such groups are not silent, so it would not be accurate to call them part of the silent majority, but they are certainly part of the decent majority, and I hope that the whole House recognises what they do.

The recent spike in anti-Semitic incidents can reasonably be expected to ease. None the less, I believe that we have been warned. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, recently prayed for the destruction of the Jews

Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s spiritual leader, spoke of the worldwide necessity of martyrdom in relation to Gaza. Mahmoud Zahhar, a Hamas leader, said that the killing of Jewish children is now legitimate “all over the world”.

I close with three swift questions to the Under-Secretary, who, as ever, made a good speech today. First, will he give the House a categorical assurance that all police forces will record anti-Semitic crimes by the end of 2008-09, as promised. Secondly, what is the Government’s view of reports that the Muslim Council of Britain boycotted Holocaust memorial day this year? If they are true, will the Government’s engagement policy in relation to the MCB change? If so, in what way? Thirdly, Ministers rightly met groups concerned about the conflict in Gaza and Israel recently. What steps is the Under-Secretary taking to ensure not only that Ministers meet groups, but that groups from different religious backgrounds and from none can meet each other in such circumstances—obviously, I am referring not only to Gaza and Israel—to help reduce tensions?

I have spoken briefly because many hon. Members wish to participate in the debate. We welcome it and, together, we say, “Never again.”

1.51 pm

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): I add my thanks to the Leader of the House for allowing us to have the debate today. I hope that it will be an annual event, as many Members from all parties support it.

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