It is a pleasure to be here and to see so many distinguished guests, including Rabbi Tony Bayfield and the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks. Chief Rabbi, it is hard to exaggerate the esteem in which you are held by British people of all faiths and of none.
Kristallnacht and Government support for Holocaust education
I’m not the first Liberal Democrat leader to address a lunch such as this, organised by my Party’s Friends of Israel grouping. But I am the first to do so in government. Indeed, prior to this coalition, the Liberals had last been in government in 1945, which was before the State of Israel had even been created! That historical perspective also reminds me that we meet on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the horrific Night of Broken Glass. It is sobering to reflect on anniversaries such as this, which must never be forgotten.
That is why the Coalition has maintained the last Government’s commitment to fund the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) to take two students from every secondary school and FE college in England every year to see Auschwitz for themselves. I applaud the HET for this vital work and I am proud to be Deputy Prime Minister in a government that funds it.
Board of Deputies 250th Anniversary
We do, of course, sometimes commemorate happier anniversaries and I know that this year is the 250th anniversary of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. In combining Jewish distinctiveness with integration into British life, the Board sums up what the Anglo-Jewish community has achieved. Proudly, vibrantly Jewish, living its faith in freedom, while serving our country in war, in government, in the arts, in business, the sciences and in so many other fields – that is the Anglo-Jewish community in its past, its present and very much its future.
I know that there is a darker side to the challenges faced by the Board and by other Jewish communal bodies, not least the Community Security Trust, with which I am so pleased to have engaged over the years. I deeply resent the fact that antisemitism remains a factor in the life of the Anglo-Jewish community. It is outrageous that Jewish schools should need to have such a high level of security – people might take the need for such security for granted, but I repeat, it is outrageous that there should be such a threat to the safety of Jewish schoolchildren in Britain today.
And it is outrageous as well that some people’s feelings about a conflict in the Middle East should create a climate of opinion in which British Jews are attacked and threatened both verbally and physically. No amount of anger about overseas events can ever justify hostility, let alone hatred, towards British Jews.
When anti-Semitism manifests itself in the international arena, it deserves to be opposed, so that’s why the UK was wrong to participate in the UN’s Durban Two Conference. I publicly told the last government that Durban Two would degenerate into antisemitism thanks to the antics of the President of Iran and I was sadly proven right.
As Deputy Prime Minister, I led the UK’s delegation to September’s meeting of the UN General Assembly, it was right that our delegation walked out when President Ahmadinejad made that grotesque speech about the events of 9/11.
The Lib Dem record
Incidentally, my opposition to Durban Two is just one example of Liberal Democrats standing proud on an issue of importance to the Anglo-Jewish community. We also, in 2007, passed a motion condemning the proposed academic boycott of Israel, at our party conference – something that neither of the other parties has done. It was passed overwhelmingly – and not just because Monroe proposed the motion with all of his customary oratorical vigour!
Actually, I haven’t really taken time today to thank Monroe for all that he does through his work for Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel and the Liberal Democrats, with his wife Susette always strongly at his side.
It gives me great pleasure to see the team that’s coming forward to continue this work in the years ahead, including Gavin Stollar, Matthew Harris and Jonathan Davies. And with Sir Alan Beith continuing as their President, just one of the distinguished roles that he has undertaken in almost four decades in the House of Commons. I must also mention Lord Alliance, whose service to the Jewish community has been matched by his dedication to my Party, and I thank him and Alan for being our hosts today.
Faith schools and shechitah
Now, faith schools are an issue on which opinions differ – they differ in my party, in the Jewish community and in the country as a whole. But let there be no misunderstanding: the Liberal Democrats are committed to parents’ right to choose faith schools, and for those schools to recognise faith as part of their admissions policy.
We also believe that faith schools have a valuable role to play in improving community cohesion by reaching out to all sections of the local community of which they are a part. This is something that I know many Jewish schools do across the country.
And on ‘shechita’, the Jewish humane way of slaughtering animals for meat - I have always supported its continuance in this country, and I always will. The Liberal Democrats have never adopted any policy that threatens the right to shechita, and it is my intention that we never shall.
Turning to foreign policy, Liberal Democrats have always supported a two-state solution that would bring peace, justice and security to Israelis and Palestinians alike. The quest for international justice is close to the heart of all Liberal Democrats. This sense of justice has led many Liberal Democrats, myself included, to campaign hard for the rights of the Palestinian victims of the Israeli/Arab conflict.
That campaigning for justice for the Palestinian people has been heard loud and clear from the Liberal Democrats. It should always have been accompanied, equally loudly and equally clearly, by an awareness of the security challenges faced by Israel and of the right of Israel to defend itself against the threats that it continually faces.
However, I’m not certain that we Liberal Democrats have always made ourselves clearly heard on this, so let me say it again now: Israel’s right to thrive in peace and security is non-negotiable for Liberal Democrats. No other country so continually has its right to exist called into question as does Israel, and that is intolerable. There can be no solution to the problems of the Middle East that does not include a full and proper recognition of Israel by all the parties to the conflict.
The peace process
On behalf of the UK Government, I wish the latest Israeli/Palestinian talks well, but I go further – whatever the UK can do, working with its international partners in the EU and the UN, to support the Americans in furthering the peace process – whatever we can do, not only must be done, but will be done.
I particularly believe the EU, as an economic superpower neighbouring Israel and Palestine, has a huge role to play to persuade both sides to take steps towards peace. The EU both can and should use its economic clout to put pressure on both sides; to encourage Israel to restrict its settlement building program and to push all Palestinians into recognising Israel’s right to exist.
Everybody knows what a peaceful settlement to the conflict would look like. We have come so close to achieving it before. Should it come within our grasp again, it must not be allowed to slip. Generations of Israeli, Palestinian and Arab children demand and deserve nothing less.
I have already made some mention of Iran. The UK Government, like Israel and the rest of the international community, remains implacably opposed to Iran possessing nuclear weapons.
Britain has been at the forefront of sanctions and other measures to prevent such an outcome. The UK Government remains committed to tough, international diplomatic action to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons. And Britain is working very closely with Israel on tackling the threat from the Iranian nuclear programme. That will most certainly remain the case for as long as I have any say in the matter.
If Britain is to play its role in supporting peace talks, then we must be able to deal with the Middle East’s key players, including when they visit this country. The law on universal jurisdiction for war crimes suspects was a landmark piece of legislation of which Britain can be proud. It is right that people suspected of such crimes should be held accountable by the courts. But the framers of the legislation never intended local magistrates to be able to issue politically motivated arrest warrants of people visiting the UK without reasonable grounds for doing so.
I am pleased that the Coalition Government is moving towards changing the law, so that universal jurisdiction remains on the statute book, but with magistrates no longer issuing arrest warrants. The issuing of such warrants should be a matter for one of central government’s senior law officers, not for local magistrates.
This will strike the right balance between upholding Britain’s great traditions of respect for universal human rights and avoiding accusations based on poorly justified grounds against visitors to the UK.
So I thank you again, Monroe, David Alliance, Alan Beith, Robert Perlman, other colleagues and distinguished guests, for inviting me to speak to you here today. Thank you all for coming here to hear me today at what I hope has been another successful milestone in relations between the Liberal Democrats and the Anglo-Jewish community.