General debate - Anti-Semitism in Modern Society

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con)

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate. I commend the speech of the Secretary of State, which I applaud and agree with fully, and I welcome the comments from ​the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), too. It is not for me to comment on what is going on in the Labour party, but suffice it to say that what is happening to our politics and to some Members of this House as a result of antisemitism stains us all. We should all offer solidarity to those Members who have been affected by vile and disgusting abuse, whether online or in person. I have nothing but admiration for hon. Members in this place who are standing up to those threats and doing so with dignity, which shows why they have been elected to this place. I congratulate them all, whether they are in the Labour party or not, for the stand they are taking. They have the support of those of us on the Government Benches.

This is a cross-party issue. One reason I wanted to speak in the debate was that back in 2013, I joined the all-party parliamentary group against antisemitism. I represent a small constituency in North Wales—I think it is the smallest constituency in population terms represented by a Conservative MP—and I have a very small Jewish community. I felt that the issue was coming to the fore, however, and I decided to join the APPG. That has been the most informative and valuable work that I have done in Parliament, as well as some of the most depressing. I pay tribute to the chair of the APPG, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), for his leadership of that effort and for the opportunities he has afforded to somebody such as myself.

Back in 2013, one of the few Jewish members of my constituency was elected mayor of Conwy, and I remember having a lot of fun at the fact that Edward I, when he gave Conwy its town charter, stated that no Jews and no Welsh would be allowed to live within the town walls. It gave me a certain degree of pride that Conwy had a Conservative Jewish mayor and a Conservative MP who is as Welsh as Welsh can be.

The APPG gave me the opportunity to see the virus of antisemitism. I went to Amsterdam with the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, and I was absolutely shocked by what I saw. Back in 2014, when we were preparing a report on antisemitism, we went to a Jewish high school in Amsterdam, a city that I would consider to be a liberal city in Europe. We met a group of sixth formers, the same age as my children, and asked them a simple question, “How many of you, in a class of 22, see a future for yourselves in Europe?” One hand went up in that classroom. One single hand. If that does not shame us as Europeans, I am not sure what does.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con)

Something bright is happening in Sarajevo. There are 1,000 Jews in Sarajevo—10,000 were killed by the Ustaše, the Croatian fascists, in the war. These 1,000 Jews consider their home, Sarajevo, to be the safest place for a Jew in Europe. Is that not amazing, colleagues, when we think what happened there just 20 years ago?

Guto Bebb

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. Obviously, it is good to hear that there are good news stories out there.

I undertook my second visit as part of the APPG to Brussels, with my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). We visited another Jewish school. Imagine my horror, when we drove down that street in Brussels, the capital of the European Union, to be faced with armoured personnel vehicles, protecting ​that school. It is very difficult to convey the shock that one feels as a parent when one sees that kind of thing happening on the streets of the capital city of the European Union.

As a result of that work, we produced a report in 2015; I think, Mr Speaker, you were there at Lambeth Palace for its launch. One success that I achieved as part of that effort was to ensure that the radio station in Wales—Radio Wales—decided to cover the launch, because in me, as a Welsh MP, they had someone willing to talk on radio about the issue. I was struck by the fact that the reporters who visited Jewish communities in constituencies such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) were taken aback by what they found. What we had noted in Amsterdam and Brussels was starting to infect the capital city of Wales and other cities across the United Kingdom. What I had seen in Amsterdam and Brussels as something new and strange, shockingly was affecting the very Jewish communities that we represent as MPs—whether in Wales, England, Scotland or Northern Ireland. That report was an important piece of work because it highlighted the need to change. We should take the APPG’s contribution in that respect very seriously.

Unfortunately, even though that report was produced in 2015, the situation has got worse. I am not sure how we explain the virus that has infected social media and our political discourse. I am not going to stand here and say that it is all the fault of the Corbynista takeover of the Labour party, because there are problems on both sides of the political equation. We must deal with a fundamental issue—the way in which the discourse on social media has been so badly polluted by this age-old hatred. There is a responsibility on all of us, especially those in positions of leadership in any political party in the Chamber, to take those issues seriously. It is simply unacceptable, when members of political parties are identified as being responsible for this hate speech on social media and in person, that they are not thrown beyond the pale of our politics.

 Stephen Doughty

I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend is saying. Does he agree that, unfortunately, what we are seeing on social media is a swamp in which everything else breeds, and whether that is going on in my party or in society more generally, it gives rise to some serious and violent behaviour? Does he agree that groups like System Resistance Network—neo-Nazi organisations operating in Wales, targeting Jews, Muslims, gays and the police—need to be proscribed and dealt with, and that Twitter, still hosting an account called Radio Arian which broadcasts neo-Nazi ideology, needs to take action today to remove it?

Guto Bebb

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. One of the APPG’s current work programmes deals with the behaviour of social media companies, such as Facebook. We all know that they have a responsibility, and it is imperative that we speak with one voice on that issue. How much more important it is, however, that we face those social media companies knowing that we have put our own house in order. So I fully agree with those comments, but we must do more.

I highlighted the fact that this issue does not just face one party in this place. Part of the “Jewish conspiracy” issue, which appears online, is the detachment from reality of those conspiracy theories. Nothing illustrates ​that better than a rather vile piece of work that has appeared online, entitled, “A Very Jewish Coup: The Plot to Stop Brexit.” It is really shocking. Mr Speaker, you are named as an individual who is part of the plot, as are my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve). They are all highlighted as part of a Jewish plot to stop Brexit. That is utterly vile and unacceptable. It is also nonsense, because another individual highlighted as part of that plot is none other than my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole. Now, we are good friends, but on Brexit we do not agree. However, I would be hard-pressed to categorise my hon. Friend as an individual who is devoting his time in this place to stopping Brexit. That is the point—truth has nothing to do with anti- semitism, which is about hatred, inadequacy and attacking others for being different. That is the key point about this vile piece of work. It is an attack on others simply to justify political views that are unacceptable.

Emma Little Pengelly (Belfast South) (DUP)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that part of the problem is that on social media people can hide behind an anonymous handle, and can spread this type of vile abuse—lies and untruths—and bounce off one another? One of the things that social media companies could do to prevent that from happening is identify who these people are so that when these things are reported to the police they can be prosecuted and banned from social media sites.

Guto Bebb

Once again, I agree with the sentiments that the hon. Lady has expressed. That was taken up with some social media companies on a recent visit by the all-party parliamentary group to Washington, so I subscribe to that comment.

Clearly, we have a problem, but there are good news stories out there. I want to touch on one of them, although it is tinged with a degree of regret. In my constituency, our holocaust memorial event, which takes place every year has gone from strength to strength. It has been one of the greatest privileges in my time as Member of Parliament for Aberconwy to welcome holocaust survivor after holocaust survivor to speak at these events. It is not just one event on a Sunday evening with 300 or 350 people turning up. The organisers ensure that the speakers visit local schools on the following Monday and Tuesday, and the feedback from those schools has been absolutely phenomenal. The opportunity to speak to someone who survived the holocaust will never be forgotten by the young people of my constituency.

This year, for the first time ever, the holocaust memorial event in Llandudno highlighted not only the historical tragedy of the holocaust but invited a group of Jewish people from Manchester and their rabbi to highlight the threat that they face in 2019, in Manchester, in the United Kingdom. I have to say, listening to the comments of a Hungarian survivor of the holocaust, then listening to fellow citizens from Manchester on the same evening, was a truly shocking experience. If we have not learned anything, it is shame on all of us.

Finally—and this is a point for my Front Bench—the holocaust survivor from Hungary, Susan Pollack, spoke passionately. She was an 86-year-old lady, and she said at the event:​

“We could not escape. We did not have passports. We had lost our passports. They had been taken away from us.”

That really made me think very hard about freedom of movement, because there are Jewish schools in London where a significant proportion of the pupils are French by birth. Their families have opted to escape what is going on in France at this point in time. I would say to the Front Bench that when we talk about curtailing freedom of movement, we should be very aware of what freedom we are giving up in relation to the history of Europe in the 20th century.

It has been a pleasure to speak in the debate. It is a shame that we need to have this type of debate in the United Kingdom in 2019, but we do need it, and we need to carry on working as parliamentarians to make sure that this virus, which is a plague on our politics and on our communities, is dealt with.

5.03 pm

Stewart Malcolm McDonald (Glasgow South) (SNP)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb). Although some time has passed since his resignation from the Government, this is the first chance I think I have had to say to him in the Chamber that Defence questions are not the same without him. His contribution was heartfelt and welcome, as indeed was the tone set by the Secretary of State at the beginning of the debate. I should acknowledge, not least because he is a fellow Glaswegian, the tone struck by the shadow Secretary of State.