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Annual Lunch 17th November 2015
Keynote speech by Guest of Honour
Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP
Shadow Foreign Secretary
Sir David, Chief Rabbi, parliamentary colleagues, ladies and gentlemen. Shalom.
Can I first of all apologise profusely for being late. I do hope you will understand that I have come straight from the House of Commons where the Prime Minister has just been making a statement on the G20 and the horrific attacks in Paris last Friday.
It is a privilege to have received your kind invitation to speak today and to meet with you all. I would like to give special thanks to the co-sponsors of our lunch Sir David Garrard and Isaac Kaye for making today possible. I am delighted that the Chief Rabbi Mirvis and the Acting Israeli Ambassador, Eitan Na’eh, have been able to join us here today for this important annual occasion.
I would also like to thank Jennifer Gerber, who is on maternity leave, Rob Philpot, your Acting Director and Greg Halimi, for all they do for Labour Friends of Israel. I would also like to pay special tribute to my friend and colleague, Joan Ryan, for the really important work that she does as the Chair of LfI.
The bonds between the Labour Party and Israel are strong and run deep. The same is true of my family.
My grandmother Margaret was an active member of the Council of Christians and Jews and taught herself Hebrew. And it was a proud moment when a decade ago I had the chance to visit the Margaret Stansgate Memorial Library – a grand title for a room at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem – when I was the International Development Secretary.
She was a committed Christian with a great love for Israel and she took great pride on a visit in the late 1940s collecting water from the River Jordan in two glass bottles because she wanted her grandchildren, me included, to be baptised with it.
She taught my father that the stories in the Bible were based around the struggle between the prophets and the kings and that he, in life, ought to support the prophets because they taught righteousness rather than the kings who exercised power. It was a lesson that had a profound effect upon his political life.
My Dad wrote of his father William – who was first elected to Parliament as an East London MP – that “the tradition of defence of the Jewish community was ingrained [in him] and made him a committed friend of the Jewish people”.
And I will always remember, as a young child, my father talking with great fondness about the kibbutz he visited as a young pilot officer on the very day that the Second World War came to an end.
That morning he and his two comrades had hired a boat and rowed out into the Sea of Galilee. Upon their return a man came up to them and said with a big smile: “the war is over”.
Later they returned to Shaar Hagolan, where they were welcomed in Hebrew by the leader of the kibbutz. The celebrations commenced, and as he recorded in a letter to his parents:
“the national dances began – Germans, Czechs, Poles, Turks, Yugoslavs ……Then there was a pause and an announcement in Hebrew. Everyone looked at us and it was explained that the RAF officers would now do an English national dance. Hurriedly deciding to perform the boomps-a-daisy, two of us took the floor – it was an instantaneous success and everybody joined in.”
That war, of course, ended with the death of Adolf Hitler and the defeat of the Nazis who had been responsible for the unparalleled horror of the Holocaust.
That is why it is so important for us to make sure that the next generation, as well as the last, understand and bear witness to that crime and in so doing to resolve
that the words “never again” mean “NEVER AGAIN”. Only if we understand from whence we have come can we move on to where we wish to go.
Israel is a land that has done exactly that. Taking the progressive spirit of its founders and its pioneers, the people of Israel founded a vibrant democracy, a strong welfare state, a thriving free press, and independent judiciary. It has also become an economic giant, a high-tech centre, second only to the United States of America. A land of innovation and entrepreneurship, venture capital and graduates, private and public enterprise.
When I met Erel Margalit at the Labour Party conference this year we talked about the strong historic bonds between our Party and the Israeli Labour Party which endure to this day and to which I am firmly committed.
He spoke with great passion about how our shared values can support the future development of Israel and improve the lives of all its people.
We are committed to supporting you to enable that work to continue. Our future relations must be built on cooperation and engagement, not isolation of Israel. We must take on those who seek to delegitimise the state of Israel or question its right to exist.
And sadly, we must recognise that anti-Semitism has not gone away. It is something that the Jewish community has had to live with for far too long, and I want to applaud the magnificent work done here in the UK by organisations like the Community Security Trust, the Holocaust Educational Trust and the all-party Parliamentary Group on Anti-Semitism.
And in the same way, there is absolutely no place in our society for Islamophobia.
What those who are hostile to our shared values and to our way of life are seeking to do is to divide us. The one thing they cannot stand is the idea that we should stand in solidarity with each other – Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh – people of all faiths and none united by their common humanity.
This is a test for us all, including Israel. Despite its great strengths and achievements, it is also a land in which fear and insecurity trouble many. The recent attacks on people going about their daily lives have shocked and appalled us all and the Government of Israel has a duty to protect its citizens from this terrorism.
Our gathering today is of course overshadowed by the brutal barbarism of the attacks in Paris last Friday evening. They will forever be etched in our minds, and we stand in solidarity with the people of Paris and the people of France as family after family mourn the loss of a son, a daughter, a mother, a father.
Whether it is Paris, Tel Aviv, Tunisia, Beirut or Ankara, the scourge of terrorist violence affects us all and we must stand against it. In the case of ISIL/Daesh we are all agreed that they must be defeated, but it is negotiation that will bring the Syrian civil war to an end.
It seems that some progress is being made on the shape of a possible peace agreement in the talks that have taken place over the weekend in the end and at the G20. That settlement has to include all the parties involved, Syria, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf states, United States of America, Europe, and – yes – Iran.
I know that there are many of you in this room who have grave reservations about the nuclear deal recently reached with Iran, but I think it was the right thing to do. We must, of course, hold Iran to the undertakings it has made, and while having no illusions about its activities in the region.
And in the same way, it is negotiation that is he only route to peace in Israel and Palestine.
The question is always how do we get there? How do we bring people together, overcome hostility and move towards peace and compromise?
I recall on my last visit to Israel going to Sderot and listening to the Mayor describe the rocket attacks they had endured from Gaza and the people who had been killed. And he said to me “our children are so scared at night that they wet their beds.”
Later that same day I went to Beit Hanoun – just a few miles from Sderot – and listened to a mother who showed me where the Israeli shell had come through the roof of her house and killed her young son as he was asleep his bed. Talking to her neighbours they told me that their children are so scared that they wet their beds.
Two communities living almost side by side. Both scarred and scared by violence. Both wanting it to end. Both desperate to get on with their lives ion peace, safety and security.
That is what most people in the Middle East want and it is the particular responsibility of political leaders to strain every sinew to bring about two states so that the Palestinian people can establish their own state and Israel can live in peace and security alongside it.
There should be an urgency about the search for peace rather than the shrugging of a shoulder, which says: We tried. It didn’t work.
All of us should be concerned that there is no peace process at all at the moment. For the Palestinians, who rightly want their own state, this is a time when hope is absent. And a lack of hope breeds despair and worse. Despair that can only be changed by acts of courageous political leadership.
Each conflict is different. But on my two trips to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, I found myself thinking a lot of about Northern Ireland.
I grew up with that conflict. I heard an IRA bomb going off one night, that dull thud I shall never forget. I worried sometimes about travelling on the tube. And it was said: it has been going on for 400 years and it will still be going on 400 years from now.
And yet it isn’t. And what changed it was acts of courageous political leadership in both communities.
Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness saying to the IRA: You know what lads, we cannot bomb Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. We need to turn to politics and negotiation. And David Trimble saying to the unionist community: They are nearly half the population and we are going to have to share power with them.
Each of those steps took great courage. It was anything but easy.
But as Bill Clinton said: “Rabin knew the risks of peace are not as severe as the risks of walking away from it.”
And that is the challenge for Israel and the Palestinians.
There is a sense that, as the settlement building continues, that time is running out for the two state solution we want to see.
For if not two states, then what?
And running all through this is the demand from Palestinians for their civic, political and economic rights – a movement that will continue to grow over the months and years ahead.
Two states for two peoples, based on 1967 borders with land swaps agree between the two parties, compromise on both sides so that one day we will see together Israel as the Jewish people’s homeland and the state of Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian people living in peace and security and mutual respect, side by side.
The best thing we can do, the only thing we can do, is to stand in solidarity with you and your neighbours in pursuit of the piece that all long for.
As a friend of Israel, the Labour Party will continue to be a force for peace and a two state solution. The international community has to play its part, but it will take the courage of leadership and generosity of spirit to make it happen.
This is what Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin – who took the ultimate risk for peace – said to the Palestinian people in his speech at the White House on 13th September 1993:
“We are destined to live together, on the same soil in the same land… We say to you today in a loud and clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough. We have no desire for revenge. We harbor no hatred towards you. We, like you, are people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, live side by side with you in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free men. We are today giving peace a chance and again saying to you in a clear voice: Enough.”
That is the spirit that we need now more than ever.
That is the leadership that we need now more than ever.
And that is what we together must strive for.