I beg to move,
That this House has considered Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, as we consider this important matter. In 1945, 856,000 Jewish people lived in the middle east, north Africa and the Gulf region. Only about 4,500 remain, almost all of them in Morocco and Tunisia. Jewish people have lived continuously in the middle east and north Africa for over 2,600 years, yet in just a few decades they almost totally disappeared. Thousands were expelled or fled their home countries in fear. Around 850,000 were forced out or felt they had to leave following the United Nations decision to partition Palestine in 1947. Age-old communities, with roots dating back millennia, were gone. It was the largest exodus of non-Muslims from the middle east until the movement of Christians from Iraq after 2003.
Between 1948 and 1972, pogroms and violent attacks were perpetrated in every Arab country against its Jewish residents. The ethnic cleansing of thousands of Jewish people from the Arab world in the mid-20th century was described by journalist Tom Gross as “systematic, absolute and unprovoked.” For example, there were 38,000 Jews living in western Libya before 1945. Now there are none. Few of the 74 synagogues in Libya are recognisable, and a highway runs through Tripoli’s Jewish cemetery. In Algeria, 50 years ago, there were 140,000 Jewish people. Now there are none. In Iraq, there were 135,000, and in Egypt, 75,000. Almost all are gone from those countries too. Some 259,000 left Morocco, 55,000 left Yemen, 20,000 left Lebanon, 180,000 left Syria and 25,000 left Iran. What happened amounted to the near total extinction of an ancient civilisation.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Is she concerned by the assumption that the near total absence of Jews from so many countries across north Africa and the middle east is because there were never Jewish communities in those countries? Helping to break that misperception and spreading the stories of the great histories of those Jewish communities, which go back thousands of years, as she says, is key to helping us to understand and find solutions for some of the problems of today in the region.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. Somebody who asked a question in last night’s Tory leadership debate—Abdullah from Bristol—had retweeted a tweet suggesting that Israel should be relocated to the United States. This debate demonstrates why that is so offensive. It feeds into a false narrative that Israel is a creation of Europe or America, and totally whitewashes the history of the Jews in the middle east and the recent living history of Jews in Arab states in the middle east. That is why it is so offensive and so disgusting.
I agree. Both those points reinforce the importance of raising awareness of this issue, because if our colleagues in the House or the general public do not understand what happened to the Jewish communities of the middle east, they do not understand the middle east conflict. Understanding what we are discussing is crucial if one is to have a fair and balanced outlook on that long-standing dispute.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this historic debate. She will know that my family, on my father’s side, comes from Libya but had to leave because their home and business were appropriated by Gaddafi, and there were pogroms before that. Why does she think the United Nations has passed 172 resolutions specifically on Palestinian refugees over the past 60 years yet not one on Jewish refugees?
That United Nations record is a matter of grave concern. As I will go on to acknowledge, it is of course important to recognise the suffering experienced by the Palestinians displaced by the 1948 war, but that should not blind us to the suffering experienced by the Jewish communities about whom we are reflecting today.
Jewish people lived in what is now the Arab world for a millennium before Islam was founded, and centuries before the Arab conquest of many of those territories. Until the 17th century, there were more Jewish people in the Arab and wider Muslim world than in Europe. In 1939, 33% of the population of Baghdad was Jewish, making it proportionately more Jewish than Warsaw. Until their 20th-century expulsion, Jewish people had lived in the area covered by present-day Iraq since the Babylonians exiled them from Judea to Mesopotamia in 586BC. The Bible tells us that, taken into captivity in Babylon, they wept on the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates. A sizeable minority chose to stay after the Persian king Cyrus defeated the Babylonians and declared that the Jews were free to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple. Jewish people living under Muslim rule shaped Judaism as we know it today. The Talmud—or the Babylonian Talmud, as it is often called—was written in the pre-Islamic academies of present-day Iraq. For centuries, Babylon was the spiritual and religious hub of Judaism.
According to the powerful book “Uprooted” by Lyn Julius—I warmly recommend it to everyone here and welcome that Lyn is with us in the Gallery—Jewish people in the Arab world faced two types of oppression. Countries such as Yemen, Syria and post-Suez Egypt drove out their Jewish populations mainly in a single mass expulsion. In other places, such as Lebanon and Morocco, Jews were pushed out gradually over a more protracted period, steadily being made to feel less and less welcome in their home countries. Several countries criminalised Zionism, exposing their Jewish minorities to the allegation that they were somehow enemies of the state.
In Iraq, the situation deteriorated over time. Having served their country proudly over centuries, the vast majority of the Jewish community in Iraq had their nationality taken from them in 1951. A crisis point was reached in 1969 with the execution of nine Jewish Iraqis on trumped-up charges of spying. Their bodies were left hanging for days on public display. Following that brutal episode, many of Iraq’s remaining Jewish population escaped through Kurdish areas, including the vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, my constituent Edwin Shuker.
Last year, Edwin visited Parliament to talk to MPs about the injustice we are reflecting on today and to share with us the story of his escape from Baghdad over the Kurdistan mountains. He told me:
“For years, we were pleading to be allowed to leave…We were happy to leave behind everything, but were denied this request. Instead, we were practically kept as hostages from 1963 until we finally managed to escape with our lives in 1971…and were mercifully granted asylum upon arrival to the UK.”
I pay tribute to the tireless work Edwin and others have done on this issue, and I am pleased he is here with us today. I welcome all those here today who have been personally affected by the events that we are considering or whose families were driven out of those ancient communities in the middle east.
I apologise for intervening on my right hon. Friend while she was mid flow. I congratulate her on securing this historic and hugely important debate. The US and Canadian Governments have both passed resolutions formally recognising the plight of Jewish refugees. Would she support a similar measure here in the UK, so that the British Government, the British people and Britain as a whole finally recognise, officially and formally, the plight of those Jewish refugees, which she is describing?
I agree that we need much clearer recognition. One good way to do that would be a resolution in Parliament. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will consider that as a next step from this debate.
I pay tribute to Harif, which provides a powerful voice for Jewish people originally from the middle east and north Africa, ventilating many of the concerns about which we will no doubt hear in this debate. I also thank the Board of Deputies, Conservative Friends of Israel and Dr Stan Urman for the information they provided me with in advance of the debate.
Many people were given just days to leave, and most lost everything they owned. A Jewish Egyptian refugee, Joseph Abdul Wahed, wrote:
“We left. And we lost everything. We lost the business, the manufacturing shop, a very beautiful villa with a garden full of orange blossoms and lemon blossoms that I can still remember. But I did take with me a Star of David. It was made by my grandfather. Luckily I was able to get it out.”
The ethnic cleansing of Jewish people from the Arab world has far too often been overlooked, as we have already heard in interventions. This is largely an untold story, and it is an unresolved injustice.
Huge amounts of airtime, debate and resources are focused on the Palestinians who were displaced by the 1948 conflict, and it is right to acknowledge their suffering and the importance of safeguarding their interests in a future peace settlement. But the plight of the 850,000 Jewish refugees and the scale of their suffering have never had the recognition they deserve. Indeed, I was shocked to learn that some countries’ embassies in Cairo are apparently located in homes stolen from Jewish Egyptian refugees. Concentrating only on the Palestinian refugees gives the international community a distorted view of the middle east dispute. A fair settlement needs to take into account the injustice suffered by Jewish refugees as well as the plight of displaced Palestinians.
The historic UN resolution 242 states that a comprehensive peace agreement should include
“a just settlement of the refugee problem”—
language that is inclusive of both Palestinian and Jewish refugees. The status of Jewish refugees has been recognised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and by world leaders such as President Bill Clinton.
I thank the right hon. Lady for raising this issue. Although I am a European Jew—my family are European Jews—my mother’s best friend at school was an Egyptian Jew who had to flee Egypt in the 1950s to move to Israel. I grew up with stories of Egyptian Jews, Iranian Jews and Iraqi Jews who had to flee and who lost many things when they were fleeing, so I am really grateful for the right hon. Lady’s intervention, and I call for reparations for Jewish refugees from those countries as well as for Palestinian refugees.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is so important for us to be able to tell some of these stories. It is astonishing that they are so little known. I therefore welcome his intervention.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister raised this matter in her speech to mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration; she referred to the suffering of both Jewish and Palestinian refugees. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Government’s help on some key questions. I appeal to them to back the efforts by UNESCO and other bodies that are pressing for the conservation of historic sites in the middle east that have cultural significance for the Jewish community and, indeed, other minorities. I also appeal for Ministers, when they discuss middle east matters, explicitly to acknowledge that two refugee populations, Palestinians and Jews, emerged from the same conflict, during the same period, and that the rights of both need to be addressed in a fair settlement. I also ask right hon. and hon. Members to acknowledge that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) did, and as has been the case in resolutions passed in the US Congress and the Canadian Parliament.
After fleeing their home countries, a number of the 850,000 displaced Jewish people went to the UK and Europe or to Australia, the USA and Canada. About 650,000 found refuge in Israel. Many faced hardship and adversity, but I want to highlight the optimism, because theirs is a huge success story, as they have become a much-valued part of the social fabric of the countries that welcomed them and took them in. In their former homelands in the middle east and north Africa, Jewish people over centuries had attained leading roles in many walks of life, and that success has been replicated in their new home countries, including here in the United Kingdom and in my own constituency. I count it a great honour that those I represent in the House include people whose courage and determination got them through a traumatic expulsion from their former homes in the middle east and north Africa.
I want to close on a cautionary note. I am deeply worried that history is repeating itself in the middle east. Just as the indigenous Jewish population was forced out 70 years ago, so the Christians are now under ever-increasing pressure. A grave injustice was perpetrated on the Jewish communities in the middle east and north Africa. Let us hope that that is not repeated in relation to the Christians in the region, whose roots also go back many centuries and whose position now also looks increasingly precarious.
I am afraid that this is an occasion to recall the solemn statement by the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks:
“The hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews.”
That is a danger that none of us should ever forget.
Order. This hour-long debate will finish at 5.58 pm. Seven Members are seeking to contribute. I am obliged to start calling the Front Benchers no later than 5.36 pm, and the guideline time limits are five minutes for the SNP and for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister, with Theresa Villiers having two or three minutes at the end to sum up the debate. That means we have 21 minutes of Back-Bench time, which means that there will have to be a three-minute limit to ensure that everyone can contribute.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on securing this important debate. The 850,000 Jewish people displaced from Arab countries from 1948 are the forgotten refugees. They rarely feature as part of the discourse about the plight of middle eastern refugees associated with the establishment of the state of Israel, yet they are an integral part of the history of that region.
It is truly shocking that since 1947, antisemitism—hostility towards Jewish people—has virtually extinguished Jewish life in the middle east. Jewish people have lived in the middle east and north Africa since antiquity. Cities such as Baghdad in Iraq and Aleppo in Syria were renowned hubs of Jewish life. In 1947, one quarter of the population of Baghdad was Jewish, putting Baghdad on a par, in terms of the Jewish population, with pre-war Warsaw and New York. In 1947, there were 90,000 Egyptian Jews, living mainly in Cairo and Alexandria. The fate of the Jews of that region was persecution and expulsion, and their assets were confiscated. There is no right of return. The persecution and expulsion continued into the 1950s and beyond. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) is one of the Jewish Egyptian refugees.
The Jewish refugees were forced to make new lives elsewhere. Many found refuge in the state of Israel. Today, half of Israel’s population traces its origins to other middle eastern or north African countries. It is time that the story of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries was told as a fundamental part of the history of that important region. The Jewish people have always been part of the middle east. It is a sad reflection on the history of the region that there are now virtually no Jews in the middle east outside of Israel, the world’s only Jewish state. I hope that a peaceful solution to current conflicts in the region will once again welcome Jewish people right across the region, to the place of their origins.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Many in the House will know that I have a deep personal connection to this issue. I very much wish that my grandfather, Renato Halfon, had been alive now to see the demise of Muammar Gaddafi. In 1968, my grandfather was forced to leave Libya because of pogroms targeting Jews and, as an Italian Jew, he fled to Rome. He had owned a clothing business, and planned to return to Tripoli once the pogroms had subsided, but when Colonel Gaddafi took power in 1969, all Jewish businesses were seized under the new regime. In the beginning, Gaddafi was seen as a saviour, yet, as we know, he became a murderous dictator.
My grandfather, like thousands of other Jews from Libya, had nothing to return to—no home or business. On top of oil money, Gaddafi had bought the loyalty of his supporters by giving them all the property seized from the Jews and Italians. Gaddafi’s rule was driven by the conviction that foreigners were still exploiting Libya, and the eviction of Jews and Italians was made a hallmark of his regime.
Fortunately, my grandfather had seen Gaddafi coming. He sent my father, aged 15, to England in the late 1950s. After a short stint in Rome, my grandfather joined him in north London, where he spent the rest of his life. It is a great sadness that, by the end of 1970, nearly all Jews and Italians had left Libya. Jews had lived in Libya for more than 2,300 years and had a thriving culture. The population numbered more than 38,000 by 1948.
Today, Jewish communities all over the middle east and north Africa have been almost entirely erased. The flight of historic Jewish communities has altered the shape and face of the region forever, but that is rarely recognised or spoken about on the international stage. As I mentioned to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), the UN has passed 172 resolutions specifically on Palestinian refugees, but nothing on Jewish refugees. It must be noted that Israel, despite being in its infancy as a country and under attack from six Arab states in 1948, did its best to integrate Jewish refugees. In comparison, many Arab countries, with the exception of Jordan and a few others, turned their backs on the displaced Palestinians.
I am proudly British. I feel a deep attachment to my heritage. I do not want a right of return. I only wish to go to Tripoli to retrace my dear grandfather’s footsteps. I urge the Minister to give the immense suffering of Jewish refugees international recognition and equal prominence to the plight of the Palestinian refugees. All their stories deserve to be told.
It is always a pleasure to participate in debates under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on securing this important debate.
As the right hon. Lady has made clear, it is important to acknowledge the historical facts relating to Jews forced to flee their homes in the middle east and north Africa. Too often, the debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dominated by a narrative that demonises Israel and delegitimises the rights of Jews to self-determination in their own state.
In the aftermath of the creation of the state of Israel, as the right hon. Lady said, a minimum of 850,000 Jews were forced from their homes. From Iraq to Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen, state-sanctioned pogroms descended on Jewish neighbourhoods, killing innocents and destroying ancient synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. New draconian laws prevented Jews from public worship, forced them to carry Jewish identity cards, and seized billions of dollars of their property and assets. Any future peace plan must tackle that issue. It should be part of any full and final settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. Naturally, there must also be justice for Palestinian refugees, based on credible proposals. As Palestinian leaders have privately accepted for decades, it is not feasible to demand both a Palestinian state and the right of return to Israel for Palestinian refugees. Other solutions have to be found, which are just and recognise the losses that refugees have suffered.
It is also time to question the need for Palestinians to live in United Nations-run refugee camps. Surely, they should be encouraged and supported to live in better conditions in Arab countries in the region. That need not in any way compromise or prejudice their rights in any future peace agreement. Refugees, especially children, should not be used as political pawns in the frontline of a public relations campaign.
Regarding these issues, in the past I have accused the Leader of the Opposition of supporting a one-state solution. Today, I reiterate that charge. It is the logical conclusion of the positions he has adopted for decades and his support for the view that the creation of the state of Israel was a catastrophe. His personal attempt to persuade the Labour national executive committee to amend the definition of antisemitism, to allow people to say that the creation and existence of Israel is a racist endeavour, tells us all we need to know about his view of Jewish people’s right to self-determination.
The Leader of the Opposition and many of his supporters support the campaigns of every minority around the world who demand the right to self-determination. Why are Jews the only exception? It is to be hoped that the Equality and Human Rights Commission inquiry will shine a light on the Leader of the Opposition’s and his inner circle’s failure to act against their allies who are found to promote antisemitic rhetoric and imagery.
In conclusion, it is a source of regret that there is no meaningful political dialogue taking place at the present time between Israelis and Palestinians. Let us hope that this changes, in the interests of peace and stability for both peoples.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on securing this important debate. It is an opportunity to give this issue the prominence that it deserves. As the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) said, it is remarkable that this issue is rarely remarked upon. Some 850,000 people were forced from their homes, yet no pressure group or organisation ever talks about it. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) said, the UN has passed 172 resolutions on Palestinian refugees and not a single one on Jewish refugees. I ask the Minister to advise us on what can be done to correct that imbalance, and what the Government can do with regard to the United Nations.
The right hon. Lady said that Jewish roots in north Africa go back 3,000 years. Indeed, many Jewish people travelled with the Phoenicians, who were wonderful traders and seaman, capable of navigating the oceans. Today there is not a single Jewish person left in Algeria; previously there were 140,000. The same is true in Libya. There are said to be just 20 Jewish people living in Egypt, despite there once being a thriving community of 75,000.
The Jews of Yemen, a community going back 2,000 years, also faced some of the worst persecution, with protests against the UN partition plan resulting in the murders of over 80 innocent Jewish people, and the burning of their homes, school and synagogue. However, Israel manged to save 47,000 of the Yemeni Jews in the extraordinary Operation Magic Carpet, from 1949 to 1950, with help, I must say, from the United Kingdom, so that they could start their new lives in the nascent Jewish state.
Some 60,000 square miles of land was taken from Jewish refugees, which would be four times the size of Israel. These people are not seeking any kind of restitution; they are seeking recognition of their plight. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) also suggested that the Government should follow the lead of the Canadian, American and Israeli Governments, and officially recognise the experience of so many Jewish refugees after the second world war. I hope that the Government take that opportunity.
Many of those Jewish exiles have gone on to make a huge advance in their personal lives, as well as contributing to the community of Israel itself. They have reached important positions in national Government, and thrived in the public and private sectors. They have made an invaluable contribution to the state of Israel. When we hear about Palestinian refugees, we must all bear in mind the fact that this was a tragedy for not just one group of people, but two groups.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for bringing this debate here and setting the scene so well, and giving us all a chance to participate. I add my voice to her call for the Minister for the Middle East to make representations to his US counterparts, ensuring that the long-awaited middle east peace process includes reference to the Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. I believe this is his first debate in Westminster Hall.
Well, he is very welcome. I am sure it will not be his last. It probably will not be my last either, but that is by the way.
Since the partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland, the Protestants in the border regions that made up the new Northern Ireland have faced attempts on their lives, to ethnically cleanse them out of the regions. The United Nations has defined ethnic cleansing as
“a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic, or religious, group from certain geographic areas.”
That is what has happened along the border of Northern Ireland, and that is what has happened to the Jews. We know that only 4,000 Jews remain in the Arab world, while some 200,000 Arabs were absorbed into Israeli society, making up the Arab minority of 1.7 million people, which forms 21% of Israel’s population.
What can we do? First, the media bias against Israel and her people is exactly that: bias. For example, when the BBC attempts to set a narrative that does not equate to what is actually taking place on the ground—such as reporting retaliatory missiles launched by Israel in such a way that it seems like an offensive attack—we must investigate and seek the truth, but not from those who seek to write the narrative that suits them.
Secondly, we must fulfil our obligations to do what the Balfour Declaration began—allowing Israel back to her home and having equality and safety for all in the middle east. Thirdly, there is significant linkage between those two refugee populations, which underscores the need to deal with both simultaneously. We must impress upon the American Administration the importance of not negating any refugee’s rights to justice, nor the responsibility of Arab states to provide a humanitarian solution to their plight. Ensuring rights for both Arab and Jewish refugees is an essential key, on a very practical level, to resolving the issue of the refugees.
If Israelis—over 50% of whom are descendants of Jews displaced from Arab countries—are asked to approve a peace plan that provides rights and redress for Palestinian refugees only, it will be less likely to be adopted than an agreement that would provide rights and redress to Jewish refugees as well. That makes sense to me, and I believe it makes sense to everyone taking part in this debate.
A question was put to me over the weekend, and I shall ask the Minister the same question. What steps will the British Government take to recognise the injustice that was suffered by some 800,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries and to ensure that, in the Government’s stance on the middle east peace process, they recognise their tragedy alongside that of the Palestinian refugees? Both sets of lives matter and both narratives matter. We must strongly advocate for those whose plight often goes unnoticed—in this case, the plight of Jewish refugees from the middle east and north Africa.
I wish to dedicate much of what I am going to say to the Jewish refugees of Iraq. I have taken a personal interest in them over the past year, having become friends with several Jews of Iraqi heritage who fled to the UK from Iraq.
A few months ago, I had the pleasure of watching a powerful documentary entitled “Remember Baghdad”, which tells the story of Edwin Shuker and others, and of a once prosperous Jewish community in the Iraqi capital. Their stories are similar to those of so many other Iraqi Jews—135,000, to be precise.
Baghdad was seen as one of the centres of the Jewish world, with an abundance of synagogues, Jewish schools and kosher butchers. At one point, the Jewish community constituted as much as a third of the total population of Baghdad. It was a Jewish community much like those in many other parts of the world.
The situation began to change in the 1940s, with violent riots. Then, upon Israel’s foundation in 1948, the situation for Iraq’s Jews became absolutely untenable. Laws were passed making Zionism a criminal offence and allowing the police to raid and search thousands of Jewish homes for any evidence of Zionism. Jews were also prevented from going to schools, hospitals and other public places and organisations. Also, Jews were removed from thousands of Government positions and their homes were valued at 80% less than those of their Arab neighbours. Faced with such heartbreaking persecution, over 120,000 Iraqi Jews fled the country between 1948 and 1951; sadly, today the Jewish population of Iraq numbers no more than five. Many refugees went to Israel to forge a new life, but hundreds came to the UK, and in doing so they forfeited their Iraqi citizenship and their property.
The powerful documentary that I have mentioned tells a story of great loss, but I was also struck by the enormous optimism that it showed about re-establishing a Jewish presence in Iraq. In closing, I encourage the Minister to take the time to watch this short film; I ask him to recognise the injustice that was suffered by more than 850,000 Jewish refugees from across the middle east and north Africa; and I also ask him to ensure that the Government recognise this tragedy alongside that of the Palestinian refugees in their stance on the middle east peace process.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak; I nearly said, “Sir Philip”, as I am sure it is just a matter of time before you are called that. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I of course congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on securing this debate and on everything she said. I associate myself entirely with her comments and with other comments, particularly those by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the declaration that we would like to see this Government make, which would bring us into line—as I believe a number of speakers have said—with both the United States and Canada.
I was not planning to speak in this debate, as the time for it is short, but now I have been given the opportunity I will, of course, take it. I will say something about the importance of education regarding this particular issue. That is because, as I said in my intervention earlier and as we saw in the awful tweet from Abdullah in Bristol last night—speaking as I am now, he will probably think, as he also tweeted, that I too am a political figure on the “Zionist payroll”—there is a false narrative that has been created that Israel is a European and western creation, and that it is anathema in the middle east. However, we absolutely know—not only because of the thousands of years of history and heritage of the Jewish people in the middle east and north Africa, but because of recent history, as has been outlined during this debate—that the Jewish presence in the middle east is a living history that goes back to before the creation of the state of Israel, and there are many in the Jewish community who doubtless would have liked to continue to live their lives in north Africa and other parts of the middle east but are prevented from doing so today.
The lack of understanding of the history of Jewish refugees from elsewhere in the middle east and north Africa is perhaps part of the reason why so many people who pronounce on the issue of Israel are so ignorant in making the offensive comments and statements they make, and it is also why this debate is so important.
Of course, Yemen has been referred to; I will just make a very brief comment on it for the Minister to respond to when he speaks. There is a very small Yemeni Jewish community left, of—possibly—only about 70 people. Previously I have written and said on the Floor of the House of Commons that those Jews who are left in Yemen have been subjected to the most awful abuses and threats. One family in particular, whose representatives came to see me, live in fear. Only the father goes out to shop; his daughters have been threatened with rape by their Arab neighbours. This is a really dire situation; as I say, there are fewer than a hundred Jews left in Yemen.
A former immigration Minister—the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis)—tried to be as helpful as possible on this issue, but I hope that the Minister who is here today, the Minister for the Middle East, will also look at it.
I am pleased to be able to contribute to this debate. I commend the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for securing it. I also commend her not only for the content of her speech, but for the tone in which she delivered it.
In 2010, I had the great privilege of being present when Kate Adie was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of St Andrews. In her doctoral address, she surprised a lot of the media studies students in the hall by telling them that if they wanted to follow her career path—possibly with fewer attempts on their life than she had experienced—they should not do a degree in media studies but a degree in history. Her logic was very simple. She said, “How can you possibly hope to explain to people back home what is happening in a faraway country today if you don’t understand what happened in that country, and to it, in the past?” This debate, and particularly the opening speech by the right hon. Lady, has brought that comment home again, because it seems to me that too many people who speak very forcefully about what should happen to solve the problems in the middle east are either unaware of its history or—perhaps even worse—only aware of part of that history.
When we look at the recent history of Israel and of the Jewish people, it is very easy to be overwhelmed by the scale and the horror of what happened in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, and to lose sight of the fact that at any other time what was happening to Jews in other parts of the world would have been seen as a catastrophe on a global scale. That is because 850,000 people were forced out of the only homes they had ever known—homes that they could demonstrate their families had lived in for hundreds, and possibly even thousands, of years. An unknown number of people were killed—certainly hundreds, but probably thousands. By today’s standards, that was ethnic cleansing. Indeed, I would argue that by today’s standards that was a genocide and it deserves to be recognised as such. And those people who fled for their lives to try to escape from that genocide should be recognised as refugees, just as those people who are currently fleeing from Yemen, Syria and other conflict areas should be recognised, and looked after, as refugees.
One of the sad things in any conflict is that civilians always lose in any conflict; they are always the ones who become refugees. And it is unusual for there to be an armed conflict where there is only one group of refugees; we almost always find that there are refugees from both sides. As the right hon. Lady forcefully reminded us, and as others have commented on, two entire populations of refugees were created as a result of the conflict in the middle east in the 1940s and 1950s. Both those populations deserve equal recognition; the members of those populations all had equal rights and they all suffered appalling losses and appalling treatment. All of their stories deserve to be heard and remembered.
As well as looking at what we need to do now to try, as far as possible, to restore the rights of all those who were persecuted in the past, we also need to look at what we should be doing differently now to stop such persecution from happening again. I liked the comment earlier that hatred against the Jews does not stop with the Jews, and eventually becomes hatred of somebody else. I think that is a lesson that we take too long to learn. When we allow hatred and persecution of any minority in a society to become normalised, that hatred and persecution very quickly spreads to a different minority, whether that minority is based on religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other characteristic.
If we tolerate and allow people to demean, dehumanise and vilify anyone else because of their religion, colour or nationality, we are allowing the start of another process of persecution against a minority at some point. In welcoming today’s debate, and associating myself with a huge amount of what the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet said in her opening comments, I desperately hope that in 50 years’ time, there will not be some Parliament somewhere talking about a massive persecution against a population of refugees that happened because we did not do enough to stop it from happening in our world today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on having secured a very timely debate. It is extremely important, at this stage of all stages, to be reminded of the true history of the middle east and the part that the Jewish community played in it. I will say a little bit more about that in a minute.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her tour d’horizon of the middle east and north Africa, as well as her remarks about the near-total extinction of an ancient civilisation and the fact that this is the first debate we have had in this House on this subject. She also pointed out that Jews lived in that region for more than 1,000 years before the religion of Islam was founded. It was a thoughtful, well-researched opening speech, and I am grateful to her for it. The right hon. Lady also quoted the former Chief Rabbi and my relative through marriage, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks—a wise and incredible man, who did such a lot to represent the Jewish community of this country.
We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Dame Louise Ellman), who always makes an excellent contribution in every debate that I hear her speak in. She mentioned that Jewish people have always been a part of the middle east, which is absolutely right. We heard from the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon); we then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis), who made the point that any future peace plans must include the history of Jewish refugees and the loss faced by those refugees. We also heard contributions from the hon. Members for Hendon (Dr Offord), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Henley (John Howell), and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). I am very grateful for the points that they made.
I have a personal interest in this topic. My earliest memories of my own family’s history centre on photographs of my late father, taken outside a mosque in Tangier. When my grandfather was a refugee from the Nazis during the occupation of Paris in 1940, my grandmother remained in Paris; he was in Spain. He crossed the water to Morocco, where he found refuge in Tangier. His own brother was the mayor of that city at the time, which shows the part that Jews played in north Africa and, indeed, the middle east. My father’s origins were Ottoman, from Salonica and Istanbul, so the cuisine that we enjoyed as children was always middle eastern and Turkish cooking—something that I found strange when I went to the homes of my English friends at school. Having mentioned my great-uncle, I will add that on the street where I lived in north-west London, my best friend’s family had fled from Cairo. The Sharma family had found refuge in London, and the parents and grandparents still spoke very good Arabic; their main language was French, which meant my family could communicate with them. Their stories about having to flee from Nasser’s Egypt always remained in my mind.
A few years ago, I went to Kurdistan in northern Iraq; I went to Erbil. The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet mentioned the part that the Kurdish people have played in helping Jews escape from the hostile environments they found themselves in after 1947. It was a pleasure to hear from so many Kurdish contacts and interlocutors about their respect for the Jewish people, and the fact that if Israel were able to establish an embassy in Baghdad today, there would be one in Erbil tomorrow. They are great supporters of the Jewish people, and they feel a great sympathy because of the plight and persecution that they have unfortunately had to experience.
Over successive waves of persecution in the 20th century since 1948, up to 850,000 Jews—some estimates are close to 1 million—were expelled from mainly Arab countries. Most of those Mizrahi, as they are called in Israel, took their refuge in that country; their descendants comprise approximately half of all Israeli Jews. To many Israelis, the issue of refugees remains one of the outstanding obstacles to peace that must be resolved in any final status negotiations. The plight of Palestinian refugees, as we have heard, is well known, but Israelis rightly believe that less attention is given to former Jewish refugees.
As it happens, just before I came to this debate, I had a meeting with Dr Saeb Erekat from the Palestine Liberation Organisation. I told him about this debate and that we would be discussing Jewish refugees in the middle east, and asked him what he would do about that. He asked me to say quite openly that the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Palestinian Authority believe that just as Palestinians should have their rights to return with full compensation, so should all Jewish refugees. I thought that was very interesting.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, for my first time in this capacity. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on having convened this debate; it is indeed a timely debate to be having, and she has laid out the case extremely well.
In the very short period of time we have had to debate this matter this afternoon—I hope this will be the first of several such debates, as one hour is insufficient to give this issue the coverage that it so richly demands—we have had a tour de force of the historical background to the conundrum currently faced by Jewish refugees. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), the Opposition spokesman on these matters. He has referred to a meeting with Dr Saeb Erekat; I also met with Dr Erekat today, and we shared a number of reflections on the current situation. He is a very wise man with a great deal of experience in these matters, and the remarks that he made to the hon. Gentleman do not surprise me in the least.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet mentioned Jewish refugees in the round, and spoke about the historical background to this issue. She mentioned Morocco and Tunisia; I am pleased she did so, because although the general history in respect of the Jewish people across north Africa and the middle east has been appalling, there are examples of countries that have done relatively well in a dismal scene. I cite Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan, which I think has also been mentioned, as countries where there has been a more benign attitude towards Jewish refugees. My right hon. Friend knows that I have an interest in Morocco; I was told anecdotally that Jewish residents in Israel who are from Morocco—the Opposition spokesman is nodding; I think he knows what I am going to say—often have a picture of the King of Morocco on their wall, because Morocco has done good things in the past in respect of its Jewish population.
However, that does not obscure the general awfulness of the way these things have been. We have heard from a lot of right hon. and hon. Members about the failure of the international community to properly understand the extent of Jewish refugee status. We talk a great deal about Palestinians—they are always in the news, and they are extremely important—but we also need to consider refugees in the round. Of course, UN Security Council resolution 242 mentions “refugees”; it does not disaggregate refugees. There is a reason for that, which we are exploring today.
It is particularly timely for me to be talking about this today, because three weeks ago I paid my first visit to the middle east in my new capacity, and I visited Yad Vashem. My belief is that a person will not fully understand the state of Israel unless they visit Yad Vashem. It had a profound impact on me. Yad Vashem gives us the story; it tells us why it is that a people who have been bashed, bullied and messed around over generations and centuries have said, “Enough! This is our home. This is ours, and we are going to defend it.” I am very pleased that the Government are four-square behind their right to self-determination and safety in the state of Israel.
The hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) spoke about the two-state solution. As we approach the Manama conference next week, I make it clear that we have to have a two-state solution based on the ’67 borders, with agreed land swaps and Jerusalem as a shared capital. There has been lots of talk in recent times about that being finessed, and he referred to the Leader of the Opposition. We are clear that we will not have peace in the middle east unless we have a shared future between the Jewish and Palestinian people, and that means a two-state solution. At this time, we just need to make that abundantly clear.
I spent a lot of time in the west bank, Gaza and Israel. I saw the desperate conditions in which the people of Gaza are living, and I visited Khan al-Ahmar, whose inhabitants are apparently safe for now, but who still expect to be made homeless by Israeli demolitions. The UN has said that could constitute a forcible transfer. The experience of all these people—the victims and survivors of the holocaust, the Israelis who live in fear of Palestinian rockets, and the Palestinians who live a precarious existence in Gaza or the west bank—illustrates the complexity of the issues still to be resolved by the middle east peace process.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet is absolutely right to cite UN Security Council resolution 242. It speaks of refugees; it does not break them down. The Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), touched on similar ground in his remarks.
The history of Jewish migration and displacement in the region is highly complex. We have touched on a great deal of that today. Some have estimated that the figures could be as high as 1 million displaced people over that period. For those whose homes and property were seized or who were forcibly expelled, the experience was hugely traumatic and hugely distressing. Some continue to live with all that distress today and rightly seek some sort of recognition of the trauma they have suffered. We deeply sympathise with that suffering, just as we sympathise with the many Palestinians who have been forced from their homes over the same period and, indeed, the more than 15 million people of many faiths and nationalities who are currently displaced in the region.
We understand that there were a range of motivations for Jews who decided to leave Arab countries. Many of them were certainly forced out, one way or another—either directly or by the general bullying behaviour that they experienced over years. Many left because they were driven by the desire to forge a new homeland for the Jewish people in the new state of Israel. We continue to support that legitimate aspiration for a secure and safe homeland in the form of the modern state of Israel, just as we support the objectives of a viable and sovereign Palestinian state. The hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) was absolutely right to underscore the importance of that. It is with those two states very much in mind that we approach the Manama conference next week, at which this country will of course be represented.
The Government continue to believe that the way forward is through substantive peace talks between the parties leading to a two-state solution with Jerusalem as the shared capital. We would also like to use every opportunity to call out any instances of antisemitism, wherever it occurs. Scapegoating and demonising minorities fuels division, hatred and violence, and it cannot go unchallenged, wherever we find it. Freedom of religion or belief is a universal human right that dovetails with many other human rights. Where religious freedoms are under attack, other basic rights are also under threat.
In the time available to me, I will run briefly through the contributions that have been made this afternoon. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet mentioned UNESCO world heritage sites. We work, as she will probably know, with regional Governments and UN agencies so that cultural sites, religious and secular, are protected in a troubled region. She is right to raise that.
I commend the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Dame Louise Ellman) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on their contributions, particularly in relation to the history of this piece. They have a deep and long-standing interest in the matter.
My good friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) pointed out that peace in the middle east needs consideration of Palestinian and Jewish refugees. I hope in my remarks and my emphasis on UN Security Council resolution 242 that I have made clear that the Government very much see it in that light, too.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) talked about the injustice perpetrated on Jewish refugees and hoped that they, as well as Palestinian refugees, would feature in the middle east peace process. The fact we are having this debate in this place should reinforce the message that there can be no lasting peace without consideration of both of the peoples principally in the frame in this matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) quoted a very insensitive remark by Abdullah from Bristol. I am grateful to Abdullah from Bristol for making his crass remark, because it gave us an opportunity to explode it today in the House of Commons. My hon. Friend also mentioned Yemen. Between 1948 and 1949, 50,000 Jews were airlifted from Yemen, and he is right to point out that there are probably only around 100 left.
I once again congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet on rightly raising this important matter. It is timely that she has done so, since next week in Manama these grave matters concerning the middle east peace process and the way forward will be considered. I very much hope that someone involved with those talks has been listening today.
I thank the Minister and everyone who has taken part in the debate. The main point I take away from it is that one hour is just not long enough. This story has stayed untold for far too long. We need this debate to be the start of a process by which we ensure that more people know about this unresolved injustice.
I echo the request from all parts of the House that the Government explicitly refer to the matter of Jewish refugees in statements, discussions and debates about the middle east because, as we have heard, it is not possible properly to understand the middle east conflict or to formulate a fair solution without an understanding of the issue with which we have been grappling this afternoon.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) made a powerful point when he said that ignorance about the long history of the Jewish communities across the Arab world and the middle east is used as an excuse to fuel the entirely false narrative that Israel is somehow an artificial European construct and a colonial outpost. That is a false narrative, and I hope that the Minister and all right hon. and hon. Members present today will help me in taking forward the process and in ensuring that more people know what really happened 70 years ago, so that we can see some genuine justice in the middle east for the dispossessed Jewish communities of the Arab world.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa.