Holocaust Memorial Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 1:16 pm ar 2 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Young of Norwood Green Lord Young of Norwood Green Llafur 1:16, 2 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, it is a pleasure and an education to follow the noble Lord, Lord Gold. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, on her moving and very thorough introduction to this debate.

I was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in 1942 and my mother kept a kosher household—the sheer delight of a bacon sandwich did not pass my lips until many years later, but that is another story. Our adventure playgrounds were the bomb-sites created by the Luftwaffe, probably an unintentional consequence on its part. I am proud of my Jewish roots. As I have confessed, I am a non-practising secular Jew. My maternal grandmother was born in Odesa. Many of my relatives experienced or died in pogroms and the Holocaust.

My late Dutch cousin Leo described to me how, when he was a seven year-old boy, his family were hidden in a room in a household—rather like the Anne Frank experience—with his mother holding her hand over his mouth to make sure that he did not cough as they heard the footsteps of Nazi soldiers searching for them. It was a terrifying experience but, unlike Anne Frank, they survived.

At the turn of the last century, this country was a refuge for my grandparents, but anti-Semitism, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Gold, was rife. It took the combined efforts of many to oppose Oswald Mosley in the famous Cable Street riots. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, was right about the role of trade unions, communists and many others in that. I am somewhat puzzled as to why, when you see marches of Jewish people today, there is not a trade union banner in sight. It is unfortunate, to say the least.

I pay tribute to Lord Russell of Liverpool—I am glad to see his grandson back in his seat—who was an astonishing man. If you look him up on Wikipedia, you will see an amazing history. He was one of the chief judges at the Nuremberg war trials and had a distinguished record in the First World War, getting the Military Cross several times. He was an astonishing gentleman.

I knew nothing about him whatever until, as a very precocious reader at 15 years old, I took out of the library a book called The Scourge of the Swastika. If your Lordships have not read it, I recommend it. It educated me, as a young man, about the true scale, nature and horror of the atrocities. It is an astonishing book. Lord Russell also wrote another book called The Knights of Bushido. It was about Japanese war crimes and, again, it educated me and opened my eyes. It made me understand why, as a young apprentice, when I met former prisoners of war of Japan, they said, “I would never buy anything made in Japan”. At the time, as a rather callow youth, I thought that was a bit extreme—but after I read The Knights of Bushido it did not. I pay tribute to Lord Russell of Liverpool; we owe him a debt. With those powerful testimonies he demonstrated the capability of men and, unfortunately, women’s inhumanity when they are convinced by lies and propaganda—which, in today’s society, are all too easily stimulated by social media.

As we are talking today about the origins of Israel, there is another book I would recommend. It is a very important book, written by my noble friend Lord Turnberg on the Balfour Declaration—a valuable read and historical analysis.

If noble Lords want to witness the power of propaganda, I recommend a film. As I was going to bed one night, as is my wont I was channel-hopping—I probably should not do it—and a black and white film came on with very strident German voices. I had to see what it was, and it was an astonishing film called “Triumph of the Will”, made by a controversial but brilliant German film director by the name of Leni Riefenstahl. When you see that film of the Nuremberg rallies, you can see the power of propaganda. The amazing speeches by Hitler and the marches are just astonishing. It is quite a long film, but it is educational. If we do not learn from history, we are doomed to make the same mistakes again. Such are the benefits of late-night channel-hopping.

There have been so many powerful speeches today. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, and support his view about the Holocaust museum. I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Dubs; we are privileged to have among us somebody who was the result of the Kindertransport and to be able to learn from his knowledge and experience.

I once went to Israel as part of a delegation from Labour Friends of Israel, in a historic year when Israel withdrew from Gaza. It was an interesting delegation because somebody who accompanied me was Rachel Reeves. I knew nothing about her until I encountered her on that trip. I told her what I did and asked her what she did, and she said, in her south London accent, that she was a Bank of England economist. I had to confess that if I had had 10 guesses at her occupation, I probably would not have got it—but she has demonstrated that she was a damn good Bank of England economist.

The trip was interesting because we went to the Knesset, met with Israeli politicians and had a good tour around; we went to Tel Aviv and close to the borders of Lebanon. Looking back, probably the most important thing that happened was that we went to Ramallah and met with Palestinian politicians from Fatah. They were very cynical about Israel withdrawing from Gaza. I said to them, “If I was in your position, if I’m honest, I would be pretty cynical about Israel’s motives”. But I said, “Look, it’s what you’ve been campaigning for. It’s what you’ve been asking for. This is a golden opportunity”. I do not know whether people remember what happened, but I will tell noble Lords, in case they have forgotten. Hamas fought with Fatah. They literally fought to the death; they were killing each other. Israel left behind a lot of flourishing industry. It was a great opportunity for Palestinians to do something positive—an opportunity that was squandered, once again.

That was not the first occasion when Palestinians have squandered opportunities. For another lesson from history, cast your mind back to President Clinton and the accords, when Yasser Arafat had the opportunity for most of the West Bank to be given back to Palestinians. He did not have the courage and he walked away. I cannot remember the exact words, but Clinton said something like, “You’ll live to regret this”. How true that was.

Israel has had many great leaders: Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin, who was tragically assassinated. Unfortunately, as many of my noble friends and colleagues have said, Netanyahu is not of that calibre. He does not seem to espouse a two-state solution. I suspect that if there was another election now, he would not be in power. I do not think that those kind of attitudes help the Israeli cause.

I condemn both Islamophobia and, obviously, anti-Semitism. But I have to say—I have many Muslim friends and have pointed this out to them—that when opinion polls are conducted in the Islamic community, there is a very significant number of Holocaust deniers. There is a very significant number who say that 9/11 was a Jewish conspiracy. That ought to be worrying. As the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, said, education is clearly part of the answer to this. The work among interfaith communities is really important, but I do not think that by pretending that those attitudes do not exist, we somehow make them go away.

As we have heard so many times today, support for Palestinians can unfortunately drift into anti-Semitism. I felt utterly ashamed of the Labour Party—it was perhaps one of the few occasions when I felt like I wanted to leave the party—because of the evident anti-Semitism during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. I praise Keir Starmer for unequivocally acting on the recommendation of the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the evident anti-Semitism in the party. Jeremy Corbyn said it was exaggerated, and we suspended him. That action by Keir Starmer has gone a long way to removing the stain of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party.

I want to end on a positive note. I am a Times reader, and like many people I always read the obituaries, as the old joke goes, just to check you are not in there. I read an astonishing story the other day that I recommend to your Lordships: the obituary of a Holocaust survivor called Isca Wittenberg. What an astonishing woman she was; she was absolutely amazing. I must quote some of it. They were in Germany beforehand. She said:

“Because I could not comprehend how our good German friends could become our enemies”— we know it can happen; we watched it happen in former Yugoslavia, when people who lived together started to kill each other—

“I felt a need to understand more about human nature and this eventually led … to psychoanalysis”.

She had a career in psychotherapy, in the NHS and private practice. The obituary continues:

“In psychotherapy, she said, ‘we know that all people have two sides to them, one loving and one cruel or indifferent’. That interest in the struggle between good and evil within individuals could … be traced back to her upbringing as the daughter of a rabbi”.

I cannot go on, although I want to. It is such an amazing story of the life of a survivor who gave so much to our society, and it demonstrates how we benefit.

I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Anderson for the very moving story she told. I did not know much about her heritage, but her story was wonderful. I want to have a look at some of the papers she mentioned, if she will let me.

I was reflecting on what we could ask the Government to do. They are doing a lot, but I think that education is important, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, said, including the ability of teachers to discuss this. There has been an interesting situation in the Michaela Community School recently. It is a secular school where over a third of the pupils are Muslims who attend voluntarily. There is an interesting judicial challenge going on there for the right to run a secular school.

The noble Lord, Lord Gold, also had a point when he talked about the banning of masks in demonstrations. Masks attempt to evade our identity.

As I said, I want to end on a positive note. Yes, it is a worrying time, but I still believe that we live in a multifaith, as well as non-faith, and multicultural society. The majority—I stress: the majority—want to live in peace and harmony with each other and recognise the contribution that different religions, faiths and non-faiths have in making this still a great country and great society. I feel very privileged to have taken part in this debate.