Holocaust Memorial Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:25 pm ar 2 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Merron Baroness Merron Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Health and Social Care) 12:25, 2 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, it is, as always, an honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and her words of hope. I feel I should say that I feel reassured to be in the company of noble Lords present today, including my noble friend Lord Dubs, who epitomises so much of what and who we are speaking of in this Chamber. I thank the Minister for her sensitive and clear introduction to such an important debate today. I draw attention to my interests in the register in respect of the Jewish community.

It is a privilege to be taking part in this debate today, albeit humbling. Why do I say that? Some events are so devastating in their inhumanity and so instrumental in shaping the world in which we live that, even if we were not actually there, we have a duty not just to remember but to be a voice and a witness. I, too, want to speak today about the power of bearing witness, which is exactly what we are doing in this debate. I have felt this very strongly in meetings I have been at in Parliament in respect of the atrocities committed on 7 October in Israel by Hamas terrorists, who still hold hostages whose fate is unknown. I, like other noble Lords, have seen footage collected from body cameras and CCTV of the horrific massacre that killed more than 1,200 innocent Israeli citizens and foreign workers, the largest number of Jews killed since the Holocaust. The noble Lord, Lord Stevens, was right to talk about the glee with which the terrorists conducted themselves. It was that that shocked me the most, along with the images I saw, which I do not feel I want to speak about again.

I have heard the pain of families speaking of their loved ones among the 240 Jews who were kidnapped and taken to Gaza and of those who were attacked, murdered, raped or traumatised. The devastation continues to be felt by the Jewish community here, which remains in continuing shock while 130 hostages remain in Gaza. This week, I heard of the sexual violence perpetrated on Jewish women in the disturbing testimonies of those who rescued bodies or conducted forensics and prepared the mutilated bodies for burial. In all of this, I feel helpless, as so many of us do, but there is one thing I know I can do: I can be a witness, I can remember and I can speak up. I can speak up both for those who died and for those who are living. That is exactly what we are doing today when we remember the Holocaust and the genocides that have followed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. With the backdrop of the ongoing situation in Gaza and Israel, this debate is particularly pertinent while we are seeing division, tension and the proliferation of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred in our own country.

The theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is the fragility of freedom, focusing our attention on the precarious nature of freedoms that need to be protected, and remembering how the descent by Germany in the 1930s from democracy to tyranny shows just how fragile that freedom can be. Let us remember that the mass murder of 6 million Jewish men, women and children did not take place only in the darkness of the ghettos and the camps. Hundreds of thousands were murdered in the bright light of forests and woodlands surrounding well-populated towns and villages. Let us also remember that the Nazis also persecuted and murdered those whom they saw as different: the Roma, the Sinti, gay men, political opponents and disabled people.

As we have heard today, the oppression of Jews did not start with the outbreak of war in 1939. In the six preceding years, Jews were persecuted by more than 400 decrees and regulations at every level of government, including by officials, who took the initiative. In every genocide that has taken place, those who are targeted for persecution have had their freedom restricted and removed before many are murdered. Genocide is after all a subtle and slow process, as the right reverend prelate the Bishop of London reminded us.

There is always a set of circumstances that occur, or are created, to build the climate in which genocide can take place. In Amsterdam, for example, even before the murders and the deportations to concentration and work camps, Jews had to give up their bicycles. They were forbidden to use trams or cars and forbidden to go to theatres, swimming pools or tennis courts, or to visit Christians at home. They were allowed to shop only between 3 pm and 5pm, and not allowed on the streets between 8 pm and 6 am.

On that point, over the summer I had the honour of being asked to review a new book called Nobody Lives Here, which paints a vivid picture of occupied Amsterdam during Anne Frank’s time of hiding through the eyes of Lex Lesgever, a young Jewish boy, the only survivor of his large family and someone whom I have never met. I accepted the invitation because I felt I had a responsibility to bear witness to that young boy’s experience so that he might be heard and remembered, and it was an honour to do so.

We all know that anti-Semitism is the world’s oldest hatred. As soon as the events of 7 October unfolded, I knew it would unleash a hatred of Jews in our own country and, as sure as night follows day, it did. Within hours of the attack, the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas were lauded on social media as an act of resistance. Since then, the global number of anti-Semitic incidents has gone through the roof. Synagogues have been firebombed, the Star of David has been smeared on the doors of Jewish homes, Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated and there have been verbal and physical attacks on Jews. Week in, week out, we see protests on our streets, with anti-Semitic slogans and signs, including calls to globalise the intifada, destroy the Jewish State of Israel and disrespect the Star of David.

In the 68 days following the Hamas terror attack on Israel, the Community Security Trust recorded at least 2,093 anti-Semitic incidents across the country. That is the highest ever total reported to the CST across a 68-day period, and the CST has been recording anti-Semitic incidents since 1984.

My Jewish friends feel the pain of explaining to their children that they must stop wearing their blazers which show that they attend a Jewish school. Colleagues are swamped with vile abuse and threats on social media for being Jewish, or for not being Jewish but speaking out against terrorism. It has left me and many others with an underlying anxiety about what might be said or done to us.

In the last year we sadly lost Sir Ben Helfgott MBE, Holocaust survivor, Olympic weightlifting champion, educator and honorary president of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust—may his memory be for a blessing. Sir Ben touched the lives and hearts of countless people, including me, and I am grateful to him and all those who educate and inform-who take on the scourge of anti-Semitism and those who protect us, including the CST, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, The Holocaust Educational Trust, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council. We are blessed to have them.

I am grateful to those who protect us, including the CST, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council. We are blessed to have them.

Today we bear witness, and in so doing we honour those who survived and pay tribute to those who did not. It is a privilege to do so.