Speech

"We shall tackle anti-Semitism"

The Secretary of State speaks against anti-Semitism at the Board of Deputies of British Jews plenary session.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Sir Eric Pickles

After the atrocities and the obscenity of what happened in Paris last week, I can’t think of anywhere else I would rather be.

Shoulder to shoulder with the Jewish community of the United Kingdom; shoulder to shoulder with fellow British citizens. Because modern Britain without a thriving Jewish community would not be Britain.

You are a crucial part of what makes Britain tick. Whether it’s leadership in business and commerce, in the arts, in theatre, in dance, in literature, or whether it’s something more humble, like members of the Jewish lads and girls brigade who give so much not only to the Jewish community, but also to others. I was at a reception last week in Parliament, and I got to hear about schemes that the brigade was doing – working together with other faiths; working with Sikh organisations, working with Muslim organisations – because that’s the essential thing that makes Jewish people so valuable to any society – their very nature is not only to feel close together, but they want to look outwards, they want to give, they want to make a difference, and that’s something that is worth holding on to.

Of course in our society, in an open society, in a free society, we’re always going to be vulnerable to the kind of attacks that occurred.

A pensioner, just going to get some bread; a rabbi’s son, a teacher, a young lad saving up to get married. These apparently are legitimate targets, for mad men, for extremists, for people of blood, and they want to see us tear each other apart. They want to see us put Jews against Muslims, they want to have the Christian community against Muslims. But we won’t let them do that.

Today is a sad memory. Not just of what happened in France, but also this is the 70th anniversary of when the last death march from Auschwitz started. I’ve said before that I consider anti-Semitism to be a cancer. By which I mean this: that occasionally we are in remission from that cancer of anti-Semitism, but without constant vigilance, without constant health checks, it comes back.

The road to the gas chamber is taken by small, almost stuttering steps.

It’s the casual anti-Semitism that I find most offensive. I saw the various opinion polls – I know there’s some suggestion that some might not be as accurate as others – but nevertheless the number of anti-Semitic incidents are on the increase. In July and August last year there were more anti-Semitic incidents than there were in the whole of the year before. That’s shameful.

It’s also shameful that the Tricycle Theatre stopped a Jewish film festival because of anti-Israeli sentiment. As so often being anti-Israeli is just another form of anti-Semitism. It was outrageous, and I know Sainsburys don’t like me saying this – but I’ll say it anyway - it was outrageous at Holborn that a manager should take kosher food off the shelves because of protesters outside.

And to make it worse they later apologised for the inconvenience. Well anti-Semitism is more than an inconvenience, it’s a direct threat to everyone who lives in this country. And perhaps the most pernicious of all the small stuttering steps, was a BBC reporter on the Champs-Elysees last week asking a very nice Jewish lady about Israeli foreign policy, as if every Jew was responsible for what the Israeli government does. I thought it was utterly evil.

Those of us engaging in public life, I think we have an obligation to lead from the front. Leicester City Council didn’t. They chose to behave like a bunch of student politicians by banning Israeli goods. Tower Hamlets decided to have its own foreign policy and fly a Palestinian flag.

If you’re in a position of power, you have an obligation to bring things together, to make a difference, and we are utterly determined to make a difference, because as I said, a Jewish community that is not fully a part of the United Kingdom makes the United Kingdom less.

Now we shall tackle anti-Semitism. We will tackle it through education. I’m proud that we make sure that children from senior schools go to Auschwitz each year, I’m pleased that the Holocaust is on the national curriculum, I’m pleased that we’re working with Youth United to bring youth groups closer together, I’m pleased that we’re working with the Anne Frank Trust to make a difference.

But one of the lessons is something that the government holds dear – constant vigilance – never let the smallest bit of anti-Semitism take root.

Because it is not just an attack on the Jewish community, it is an attack on us all. So whether today or whenever, I am proud to hold this sign. [Je suis Juif]

Published 21 January 2015