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Pittsburgh: Synagogue Attack

Volume 793: debated on Monday 29 October 2018

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government following the murder of 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, what action they are taking to protect and reassure the Jewish Community here in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, we have all been appalled by the horrific attack on worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the consequent dreadful loss of life. We stand in solidarity against this hatred and have committed to provide over £50 million since 2015, including £13.4 million this year to the Community Security Trust, to ensure that people can pray and live without fear at over 500 Jewish institutions across the country. I pay tribute to their outstanding work. No one should be afraid to practise their faith, and our places of worship should not engender fear. We will not let fear overcome us. Hatred will not win.

I thank my noble friend for his reply, and I am certain that the Jewish community will be comforted by his words and actions. It was an unspeakable act—the cold-blooded murder of 11 Jews on Shabbat—and Jewish communities throughout the world are afraid. Have we learned nothing from history? For me, it is nice to stand shoulder to shoulder and offer sympathy, but it is action that is now required. Has the Minister read the editorial in the Times today, which is spot on? It ends:

“The Jewish people have withstood pogroms and prejudice for millennia based on fakery, fraud and myths. There will always be people gripped by ideological wickedness but the context matters and responsible politicians set that context”.

We in the UK cannot mend the world, but we can take action here. If there were anti-Semitism in my party, I would call it out. If there is anti-Semitism in no party, I will call it out. I hope that all noble Lords will do the same if they encounter it in their own parties. It is often said that anti-Semitism is a problem for the Jewish community. Yes, it does affect that community, but does my noble friend agree that it should be seen as a grave threat to British values and British decency and to all that we hold dear?

My Lords, I agree with the sentiments expressed so well by my noble friend. This morning I spoke to the Chief Rabbi’s office, which has described the response of British communities around the country as, “heartening and reassuring”. It is important that we stand united against this hatred. It has been heartening that other religious communities, particularly the Muslim one, have been leading crowd funding for the victims of Pittsburgh. I repeat: we will not let hatred win.

My Lords, the House will congratulate the noble Lord for tabling this Question. All noble Lords, and most of the population of this country, were horrified at the tragic loss of life and the irrational hatred which inspired it. Thankfully, this country does not have a gun culture, nor a Government who believe that the answer is to equip places of worship with weapons—in a country which has more guns than people. We welcome the support that the Government currently give to the Community Security Trust, which helps to achieve safety and security not only for the Jewish community but for the Muslim community and other minority communities. I invite the Government to consider making statutory provision for something which is now Labour Party policy and would be acceptable across our political system: an emphatic repudiation of the violence and hatred which have disfigured life in America and taken so many lives.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his contribution. The Community Security Trust is specifically for the Jewish community. Other vulnerable places of worship fund their own protection, but the noble Lord is right that we look at this across the piece. We are well aware of the importance of that protection and the Government have given particular heed to it over the years. He is also right about arming people: let there be no doubt that the more arms there are, the more danger there is. This was pure evil and it needs to be called out as such.

My Lords, there is no excuse for trying to justify or explain the Pittsburgh killings, and I echo the words spoken by other noble Lords. The Minister talked about physical protection from the Community Security Trust—but protection is surely also needed from those who condone and incite anti-Semitism in postings on social media. What is his response to that?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his contribution. He will be well aware that the whole House recognises the importance of tackling the issues arising from social media as they relate to hate crime across the piece and to anti-Semitism specifically. He will also be aware of the globalisation of that problem. The Government are resolute on this issue and my department, along with that of my noble friend Lady Williams, intends to proceed with it and to push harder to get concrete results.

My Lords, will the Minister join me, along with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, in condemning the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, in suggesting that the murders in Pittsburgh were caused by the actions of the Israeli Government? That suggestion will clearly cause great pain in Pittsburgh, and falls foul of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.

My Lords, I do so unreservedly. These issues must not be conflated in the way that the noble Baroness sought to conflate them.

My Lords, I have four grandchildren, who had to go to school this morning—to two Jewish schools—with a guard. The youngest is four, the next is six, one is seven and one eight; this is a close issue for me. I am grateful to the Government for the Statement that the Minister has made today. I think the Jewish community will be very pleased. Does the Minister not agree, however, that the real issue is hate speech and not guns?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right: hate speech is at the root of this. He will be aware that we have just refreshed the hate crime action plan for the next two years. We are determined to take whatever action is necessary, whether it is hate crime expressed orally, online, or, as I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, on social media. The noble Lord is absolutely right: it is central to our efforts to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred.

My Lords, I am president of a progressive synagogue which is similar to the Tree of Life synagogue. We have lent them a Torah scroll. When news came through on Saturday, I was with a rabbi from another progressive synagogue who had come to see me because he is so upset with the current situation that he is planning to leave the country. He is advising a number of his congregants to do the same. We discussed an article by Colin Appleby, who was a Labour Party member and went to the conference in Liverpool. Colin Appleby wrote:

“At breakfast on Monday, I was joined by two people I’d not met before. They hadn’t met each other before”.

They agreed, he wrote,

“that Jews were ‘subhuman’, ‘didn’t deserve to be allowed to define what constitutes antisemitism’ and should ‘be grateful we don’t make them eat bacon for breakfast every day.’”

He published the article. Would the Minister agree with me that this level of anti-Semitism, and that found in a recent tweet from a Member of this House, must be addressed now before we find a similar situation to that in Pittsburgh arising in the United Kingdom?

My Lords, the whole House will have great sympathy with the words my noble friend has just uttered. However, I repeat the point that the Chief Rabbi’s office has felt—correctly, I believe—that there has been outstanding support from all communities in Britain with regard to what has happened in Pittsburgh. That is not to say there is not an issue to be addressed, but the action that the Government have taken, which is supported so clearly in the House of Lords, will help us to combat the dreadful evil of anti-Semitism.

My Lords, given the clear evidence that the perpetrator of the Pittsburgh outrage posted anti-Semitic comments on the internet from time to time, is it not time that the Government took the internet service providers to one side and told them that it is their responsibility to remove this kind of outrageous material, or the Government will have to do it for them, with the support of both Houses of Parliament?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. The message will not have been lost on the providers of social media. It is something we are making them aware of—we are seeking action. Some are more willing to assist than others, but it is clear that they have an overriding responsibility, and what has happened in Pittsburgh underlines that.