Chief Rabbi, my Lords, Ladies and Gentleman.
Thank you for inviting me here this morning.
It’s great to see so many old friends. To meet new friends.
It’s also good to be here with Michael Gove. We sit on opposite benches of the House of Commons.
In the forthcoming general election you will hear about the many things that Michael and I disagree on many things, but we do have one thing in common – and that is we both share a passionate belief in Israel.
Now I’m not particularly well known for saying nice things about Conservative politicians, it’s fair to say, but Michael recently gave a speech at the Holocaust Education Trust Dinner. And it was one of the finest speeches I’ve heard by any politician of any party. Not just in recent months, but in very, very many years.
Now I was recently interviewed by the Jewish Chronicle and they were interested to know why I was such a staunch supporter of Israel.
They were particularly interested to know, they said, given that I am not Jewish and that I have no sizeable Jewish community in my constituency in Barnsley.
But for me, the reason I support Israel – the reason I believe in Israel – is because, like America, Israel is more than just a country.
It’s an idea. An idea founded on a set of values and principles.
An idea that is worth fighting for.
The founding fathers of the State of Israel built a country on a rock of great ideals: democracy; liberty; rights for all citizens; freedom of religion; opportunity; social justice; and equality.
And like America, Israel’s founding fathers were ambitious, courageous and optimistic, setting only the very highest standards.
In 1948, talking about the creation of the State of Israel, President Truman said: “I believe it has a glorious future before it. As not just another sovereign nation, but as an embodiment of the great ideals of our civilisation.”
These ideals are still very much alive in Israel today.
Last week, we saw the latest general election in Israel’s 67-year democratic history – with a turnout of over 70 per cent of those eligible to vote. Will we get a turnout of 70 per cent in the UK’s forthcoming general election? Maybe, maybe not.
And no matter what you think of the result, it was great to see another example of a multi-ethnic, liberal parliamentary democracy having a big, open and vibrant debate about the future of its people.
Many of you, understandably, will have different views on politics in Israel, or about how the peace process should proceed.
But I know that we are all completely united on this – we believe in Israel, we believe in her right to defend herself.
We believe that Israel is a great country and that she has a right to a great future ahead of her.
What Israel has achieved
I’ve personally been privileged to have been to Israel many times. I visited the country before I became a Member of Parliament and have been fortunate to visit on four occasions since becoming an MP five years ago.
On most visits, I have gone to Yad Vashem, an experience that never gets any easier. This year we mark the 70th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz – a place I visited with school children with the fantastic Holocaust Education Trust. And it was in the aftermath of mankind’s darkest hour that the State of Israel was born.
Each time I visit Israel, my admiration for that great country grows. For its people, and for what they have managed to achieve – even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, said that Israel had created a new image to the world “of a people that can fight with heroism”. John F Kennedy once said that Israel was “the child of hope and home of the brave”.
Time and time again, we have seen this to be true.
Of course, there are many challenges the country still faces, which were highlighted in the recent election, but I have no doubt that they will be met with the same resilience, innovation and optimism that we have seen since 1948.
And in many ways, there are a good number things that we in Britain can learn from Israel. It was ahead of us in terms of LGBT rights.
And the Histadrut could definitely teach our own trade unions a thing or two.
Taking on those who attack Israel
But one of the reasons this conference is taking place, and why I was so keen to be here, is because we still face concerted attempts by some to demonise Israel and even to question her legitimacy.
Anti-semitism is on the rise and the situation in Israel is clearly being used and distorted, resulting in the spread of a hostile and one-sided narrative – a negative caricature – based on either deliberate malice or a profound ignorance of the true situation in terms of what is actually happening in Israel.
Worryingly, despite the efforts of incredible organisations like BICOM or the Trade Union Friends of Israel, some of these dangerous distortions have entered the mainstream debate here in the UK.
We need to hammer home the message that the smears against Israel are both dangerous and wrong. They are not only deeply inaccurate and unfair, but they damage the hopes for peace by encouraging the extremists and by giving comfort to the enemy.
People, of course, can question or criticise the Israeli Government. But the perpetuation of old myths and attacks on Israel’s very legitimacy are totally unacceptable.
So let us send out a clear message from this conference – across the political divide – that we in the UK will have no truck with attempts, here or anywhere else, with any campaign that advocates cultural, political or economic boycotts of the State of Israel.
When you boycott Israel, you boycott a free people. When you demonise Israel, you demonise democracy itself.
I have been involved with the Labour Friends of Israel for very many years, since I first worked closely with the Union of Jewish Students when I was in Labour Students more than 20 years ago.
And I have never thought that it is solely the job of the Jewish community here in Britain to defend Israel – it is the job of everyone who believes in peace, freedom and democracy to stand up and fight for Israel.
I consider it my job as a democrat, a parliamentarian, a trade unionist, a Christian, as someone who believes in progressive politics, to stand up and fight for Israel too.
All of us have a responsibility to defend Israel and her right to live in peace and security.
As Henry Kissinger said: “The security of Israel is a moral imperative for all free peoples.”
To conclude, in only two years’ time, it will by the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration – a moment when Britain should celebrate its role in the creation of a Jewish state and be proud of the flourishing Anglo-Israeli relationship today.
It is shared values that bind the United Kingdom and the State of Israel together in friendship.
I am proud that Britain has great economic, political and cultural links with Israel, something that is expanding year on year.
I am proud to call myself a friend of Israel.
And I am proud to call myself a Zionist.
It was Golda Meir who said that “Zionism and pessimism are not compatible”.
So I am an optimist too. About what has been achieved, and about what can still be achieved together in the future.
We should be optimistic.
Confident, proud and united when we say together: We Believe In Israel.
Thank you for listening to me today.