Holocaust Memorial Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 11:27 am ar 2 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Bilimoria Lord Bilimoria Crossbench 11:27, 2 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I am a member of one of the smallest, if not the smallest, religious communities in the world, the Zoroastrian Parsis. People often ask, “Who?”. I say, “Freddie Mercury, of Queen”. They say, “Ah!”. I add, “Zubin Mehta, the conductor, and the Tatas”. “Oh!”, they say. We total less than 100,000 people in the whole world. We emigrated to India from Persia from the 8th century onwards to escape persecution and forced conversion to Islam.

In many respects, history is comprised of threads that bind memories of the distant past with the present day. What connects modern aspects of faith with the religion of Cyrus the Great and Xerxes? The British Empire was the largest empire the world has ever known, but it is estimated that, in 480 BC, 50 million people lived in the Achaemenid Empire— approximately 44% of the world’s population at the time. That figure would make the Persian Empire the largest ever in history in terms of the percentage of the world’s population at the time.

We see Cyrus as “Cyrus the Great”, the harbinger of one of the greatest empires of the ancient world. He is known for two things. The first is the Cyrus cylinder, perhaps the first recognisable model legal instrument. In the United Kingdom, of course, we consider the Magna Carta as having played a vital role. When I show people around Parliament, I always point out the facsimile of the Salisbury copy of the Magna Carta in the Sovereign’s Robing Room. Of course, in terms of European history the Magna Carta is old: 1215. In 2015, as co-chair of the Zoroastrian APPG, to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta I held an event comparing Magna Carta with Cyrus’s cylinder. People rightly consider Magna Carta to be the first Bill of Rights, but it is very new in comparison with Cyrus’s cylinder, which was created around 539 BC.

The cylinder notes the most important aspects of Cyrus’s humility and tolerance, which form vital aspects of the entire tradition of the Zoroastrian faith. This is especially important when you consider the role that Cyrus played, not just in the protection but the act of promotion of many different religions and faiths that flourished in the Persian Empire during this time. He cites his building projects in territories he conquered:

“I rebuilt sanctuaries and chapels that lay in ruins. The deities of Sumer and Akkad that Nabonidus had, to the fury of the people, brought to Shuanna, I returned unharmed to their rightful sanctuaries. I have returned all the deities to their sanctuaries and restored their temples”.

Therefore, it is rightly seen as a major artefact in world history, representing the first detailed look at statecraft within a multiethnic society. There is also a direct link between the protection and patronage of the Zoroastrian community under Cyrus and the role that it enjoys in India, the United Kingdom and the world today.

Cyrus is also known for his magnanimity, a specific example being the refuge he gave to the Jews in Egypt. The Old Testament and the Torah both note this. I quote from a passage in the Book of Ezra:

“Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The LORD God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah”.

He was determined to ensure that the territories he conquered—often lands that had been under the domination of other empires—had their traditional forms of worship and religious practices restored to the people who lived there. Babylonians and Jews alike considered Cyrus as being on a mission from their individual concept of God.

This country has, I believe, always been a truly pluralist, secular country where all religions are not just allowed to practise their beliefs, and not just tolerated, but are increasingly celebrated. With less than 1% of the world’s population, the UK is still the sixth-largest economy in the world, and that would not be the case without the economic and cultural contribution of our ethnic minority communities, including the Jewish community.

The Jewish community around the world numbers 16 million, out of 8 billion people on this planet—and look at the contribution it has made and makes every single day in every single field, whether in politics, business, the arts or the professions. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said in her excellent opening speech, in spite of this, we have anti-Semitism at its highest level ever since 7 October, with 20,000 incidents, and this is happening around the world. Children are scared to go to school. As chancellor of the University of Birmingham, I know that Jewish students are worried about persecution at university. We have heard about Mike Freer, Minister and MP, standing down out of fear and the horrible persecution inflicted upon him. What is going on? How can we tolerate and allow all this anti-Semitism and, quite frankly, Jew-hating? This cannot take place.

The best way to predict the future is to look to the past. To put things into perspective, it was 80 years from the end of the US Civil War, when the country nearly destroyed itself, to World War II. It is now 80 years since the end of World War II, the Nazi regime’s genocide and the horror of the Holocaust. Six million Jews were brutally murdered. Visiting Auschwitz—we heard the superb speech of the noble Lord, Lord Polak—is something you never forget. You constantly think, “How can anyone do this to another human being?” When I visited Yad Vashem, both the best and the worst museum I have ever visited in my life, the horrors were revealed and explained. That is why, when you leave Yad Vashem, you say, “Never again”. All our children must learn about the Holocaust from a very early age: from primary school all the way until they finish school. Can the Minister assure us that that is happening in every single school in this land?

In October 2022, I was invited on an official visit to Bangladesh, and the first event I spoke at was at the Liberation War Museum. My late father, Lieutenant-General Bilimoria, who retired as commander-in-chief of the central army in India, commanded, as a lieutenant-colonel, the 2nd/5th Gurkha Rifles (Frontier Force) in the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. As a boy, I remember my father telling me of the horrors he had witnessed, the stories he had heard, the bravery of the freedom fighters—the Mukti Bahini, many of whom were teenagers fighting for their freedom—and the horrors inflicted by West Pakistan on East Pakistan. It was nothing short of genocide. The Minister spoke of the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda that have taken place since the Second World War and the Holocaust, this being the 30th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Surely, we should recognise what happened in what is today Bangladesh as genocide. Does the Minister agree? Can she assure us that our new Holocaust memorial, our new museum, will be as impressive and effective as Yad Vashem and the Liberation War Museum in Bangladesh?

In May last year I was a member of the House of Lords’ delegation to Israel, organised by ELNET. We came away from that visit completely deflated and disappointed with the political situation in Israel. Our visit to the West Bank filled us with disappointment at the situation with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority—no elections, and Fatah not talking to Hamas. We spent a whole day on the Gaza border. We also learned that young Palestinians have no faith in or respect for their leadership. That day on the Gaza border when we visited the Kerem Shalom crossing is one I will never forget. To think that not for one minute were we worried about the security in Israel. Not one of us predicted that just a few months later would come the horrors of 7 October, the pogrom committed by Hamas, the brutal murder, rape and torture—worse than anyone’s worst nightmare. It was brutality beyond belief, with 1,200 innocent Israelis killed and thousands more wounded, and over 240 hostages taken, including Holocaust survivors and babies.

Hamas’s objective is pure genocide: wiping out the State of Israel. What has happened since 7 October has been tragic: tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children killed and wounded in Gaza. The hostages are still there—over 130 of them. They must be released now. Israel is still trying to remove Hamas and free the people of Gaza from its terror, yet the Hamas leadership have said that what happened on 7 October, it will do again.

Recently I met Jamal Nusseibeh, a Palestinian-American lawyer who has a PhD from Columbia University. He is a barrister, trained in the UK, and was a professor at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem for a number of years. On 6 January he wrote an excellent article in Time magazine entitled “Only U.S.-Led Intervention Can Bring Peace to the Middle East”, in which he said:

“The current humanitarian and political disaster unfolding in Israel and the Palestinian territories requires immediate international intervention … the U.S. should lead a multilateral peace-keeping force, with regional Arab and international allies, to physically intervene in Gaza and the West Bank and end hostilities within a political framework which will resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. While this may sound far-fetched, it is the only realistic solution to a long-standing and intractable problem, and it would be in U.S. interests”.

Is it not ironic? There we were in May, when we thought a two-state solution would never happen, yet the horrors of 7 October and the four months since then could actually lead to a two-state solution that will bring peace to the region, peace to Israel, the creation of a Palestinian state, and democracy and security for all. We in the UK have a major part to play in this. We might not be a superpower anymore but we are a global power. We are at the top table of the world, whether at the UN Security Council P5, the G7, the G20 or NATO.

I conclude with this. I was very fortunate to have known Archbishop Desmond Tutu. We were fellow fellows at Sidney Sussex College, my college at Cambridge, and at Kellogg College at Oxford. We used to address each other in our correspondence as “Fellow fellow”. I once said to him, “You knew Nelson Mandela really well. What was so great about Nelson Mandela? What made him so special? What made him such a great leader?” He said that Nelson Mandela was magnanimous. Cyrus the Great was magnanimous.

This week, on 30 January, we remembered Mahatma Gandhi, because that was the day that he was assassinated. My grandmother, Rati Bilimoria, was in the house next door—I have known about that from my childhood. That one man stood against the British Empire and he defeated it because he believed in might versus right. He believed in non-violence and said, “I am prepared to die, but there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill”.

We say “never again”, but history keeps repeating itself. We must stop this violence. Shalom means peace. The vast majority of Muslims and Jews want peace, and we have to strive for peace in the Middle East right now. We have to believe in it. As Mahatma Gandhi said, our beliefs become our thoughts, our thoughts become our words, our words become our actions, our actions become our habits and our habits form our character. This time, in commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day 2024, we must believe “never again” more than ever.