Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)
My staff are counting this as “Bob Blackman Friday” in the Chamber, and I notice that many colleagues have heard enough from me and are departing rapidly as I start my third speech of the day.
I am very pleased and proud to introduce this debate to highlight the 100th anniversary of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, who commemorate their annual remembrance ceremony and parade on Sunday. During the time I was absent from the Chamber, I have quickly changed my tie to that of the AJEX honorary member tie. I am very proud to be an honorary member of AJEX, and to have been able to attend the parades every time they have taken place since I was elected.
This debate has such significance because, 101 years ago, Jewish veterans of world war one—the great war—laid a wreath at the newly erected Cenotaph on Whitehall for the very first time. One hundred years ago to the day, the British Jewry Book of Honour, which marked the Jewish contribution between 1914 and 1918 and thereafter, was published. This demonstrates the great commitment that the Jewish community has given to the British armed forces over many years.
For over 200 years, prior to the great war, Jewish servicemen had played an important part in the British military. However, 1914 marked the precipitated emergence of a lasting and discrete Jewish identity within HM armed forces. Leaders of the faith, community bodies and the Jewish Chronicle urged recruitment into the British Army as support for the UK’s ongoing support and acceptance of all. This targeted recruitment eventually led to the establishment of the Jewish War Services Committee in 1915, led by Edmund Sebag-Montefiore and Lionel Nathan de Rothschild.
The Jewish momentum grew in the British Army, with the forming of a Jewish legion comprising: the 38th Battalion, the Royal Fusiliers in the east end of London; the 39th Battalion of Canadian, American and Argentinian Jews; and a 40th Battalion of Jews from Palestine, including one Lieutenant Corporal David Ben-Gurion, later to become the first Prime Minister of the state of Israel.
Over 55,000 British and British Empire Jews served with the allies throughout the great war. Sadly, at least 2,000 lost their lives in the conflict, and we should be eternally grateful to them. Their roles spanned from generals to nurses, and each helped play their part in securing victory and protecting future generations.
The pride of every Jewish serviceman and woman was captured in the 1922 British Jewry Book of Honour. This book contains the names of all those who served, details of fatalities and casualties, military honours, the Jewish units, the work of Jewish hospitals and of all other Jewish institutions and agencies. At 100 years old, the book remains a highly powerful publication. The comprehensive 1,000 plus page volume contains some 55,000 records of Jews who served in the armed forces during the conflict between 1914 and 1918.
The book contains hugely moving forewords written by Adler, Monash, and others such as the then Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill, and Field Marshall Haig. The book contains extensive details of fatalities and casualties, military honours, the Jewish units, and the work of hospitals as well as other institutions.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the Reverend Michael Adler, who tirelessly conducted meticulous research in editing the original book, enabling this significant piece of history. Reverend Michael Adler was the first Jewish chaplain to serve in HM forces and remains an inspiration to many.
It is worth noting that the Jewish contribution in world war two was just as important as in the first world war, with more than 100,000 Jewish military personnel— remarkably, that is one fifth of their entire community. Sadly, almost 3,000 lost their lives during the conflict.
Today, a century later from the book of honour’s inaugural publication, AJEX, the Jewish Military Association, continues to support veterans, their families and serving personnel of every rank. It continues to support and work with the British Legion, having a huge impact across the globe, providing essential welfare services during conflicts.
In the 1930s, AJEX was home to thousands of members from all parts of the country. It was beginning to become growingly concerned with activities commencing in Germany. AJEX members began to take to the streets to call out against Mosley’s Blackshirts and against fascists who were beginning to speak at rallies and on the streets more frequently. The German Jewish ex-servicemen had also raised alarm at the growing movement, getting in touch with AJEX to co-operate on aiding visa applications for Jews to escape the rapidly worsening Nazi Germany. The help that AJEX provided had a huge impact, saving many lives.
In 1934, King George V granted AJEX the right to march to the Cenotaph on the Sunday following Remembrance Sunday—hence why I have put on my poppy to celebrate and commemorate this event—in recognition of the Jewish contribution and as a display of loyalty from the Anglo-Jewish community. This Sunday, 20 November, will mark the 89th AJEX annual parade. It remains one of the most significant remembrance events in the whole country, with up to 2,000 people in attendance. I am pleased that this year’s parade will also include a detachment from the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, renewing the connection established back in 1917. The parade takes place on Horse Guards Parade and is an opportunity for veterans, branch standard bearers, a serving battalion, youth organisations and family members to pay their respects and march to the Cenotaph. They are accompanied by a band from the Guards Division that plays both martial and patriotic music, as well as traditional Jewish hymns. It also gives relatives of those who have served and, unfortunately, no longer with us the opportunity to wear their medals with pride and march in the parade.
The parade has welcomed a host of esteemed guests to pay their respects over the years, including members of the royal family and the highest ranks of the military. This year’s honorary attendee will be Major General Jon Swift OBE, colonel of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and General Officer Commanding, Regional Command for the British Army. As ever, the ceremony will be led by the Chief Rabbi, with the senior military Jewish chaplain in attendance and rabbis of other denominations also present. I am also pleased that parliamentarians have confirmed their attendance, including Baroness Anderson of Stoke-on-Trent, Baroness Henig of Lancaster, and Lord Sterling of Plaistow. I hope that through this debate, we will encourage more to attend and honour the veterans.
Today, approximately 500 members of the Jewish community are on active duty. The annual AJEX parade provides an opportunity to recognise their efforts and the huge sacrifices they make to protect Great Britain and her allies. I would urge everyone who is able, whether they be colleagues, members of the public or military personnel, to join AJEX this Sunday and stand with the Jewish community and its servicemen and women. The theme of this year’s parade is “connection”. That feels particularly fitting, as we must continue to educate future generations about history, and about the great sacrifice our ancestors made for our freedom. It is 100 years since the original book of honour was published, which is a very long time, and sadly, those who were alive during world war one are becoming far and few between. Their stories have been shared, and we must continue to talk about them, learn about them and raise awareness of all they did, out of respect. In doing so, and by spreading awareness, we are passing on the baton of remembrance and nurturing a connection between the past and the present.
I am grateful that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister is on the Front Bench to respond to the debate. I look forward to his contribution, which will no doubt touch on some of the history that has taken place for the Jewish community in contributing to our military across the years. However, before I conclude, I would like to thank the main organisers of the event: AJEX chief executive Fiona Palmer, deputy parade commander Major Danny Yank, and AJEX national chairman Dan Fox, as well as Jonathon and Barbara Kober, who I am pleased to say are with us in the Gallery today. There are also countless more individuals who I cannot name now who make this remarkable event possible, and to whom we are deeply grateful for their hard work in ensuring we remember those who have gone before us. I also thank the police and other forces who provide security for the event, enabling it to take place.
Finally, I hope that in this year of all years, my hon. and learned Friend the Minister will be able to attend. He will become unique, because Ministers have not attended on behalf of the Government for many years—I do not know whether any Ministers have ever attended, but they certainly have not during the time I have been a Member of this place.
Thank you for your forbearance in allowing me to make this contribution, Madam Deputy Speaker, and, indeed, for allowing me to initiate this Adjournment debate. I look forward to the Minister’s response as we commemorate, and congratulate, the many men and women who have given excellent service to this country.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for his excellent speech, and for securing this important debate. He has been a powerful advocate for the Jewish community over his many years in Parliament. When I was doing my research for the debate, I looked at his website and saw that he had recently teamed up with the Stanmore and Canons Park synagogue volunteers to clear up Canons Park, which is but one small fixture in his many years of service. He is rightly proud to have attended the remembrance parade held by the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women every year since his election.
As my hon. Friend said, last year’s parade was the 100th anniversary of the first wreath-laying by Jewish veterans at the Cenotaph. As he also said, it is also 100 years since the publication of the British Jewry Book of Honour, marking the Jewish military contribution between 1914 and 1918 and beyond. Both are significant milestones, and I am so pleased to have this opportunity to mark them—not least because, significant as the contribution of the Jewish community to our armed forces has been, I am sorry to say that on some occasions it has not been as well celebrated as it should have been. This is an excellent opportunity to commemorate, celebrate and salute those Jewish soldiers, sailors and aviators who served and sacrificed to preserve our freedom, and did so with such distinction.
More than a century ago, Jewish soldiers fought in the Boer war, and Jewish chaplains even arranged annual Chanukah parades for troops. In Aldershot synagogue there is a plaque with an inscription that reads:
“To the glory of God and in loyal and patriotic memory of the soldiers of the Jewish race and faith who lost their lives in the service of their country”.
I think that that simple inscription speaks to the very point that my hon. Friend made. These were brave service personnel who lost their lives in the service of their country.
Tens of thousands then fought in the first world war, many signing up voluntarily to play their part, with five winning the Victoria Cross: Frank de Pass, Issy Smith, Leonard Keysor, Jack White and Robert Gee. Frank de Pass is honoured in a memorial paving stone outside the Ministry of Defence, having served in the Indian Army. Let me put this in context. Of the 6 million men who fought, only 578 received the Victoria Cross—less than 0.01%. What that tells us is that Jewish soldiers served with conspicuous gallantry.
However, not only Jewish men but Jewish women volunteered. Among them was Florence Greenberg, who bravely served on board a hospital ship during the devastation of the Gallipoli campaign. Not only did she save countless lives, but she wrote a diary about her experiences so that future generations could learn from the horrors she witnessed. I read some excerpts from the diary this morning when I was preparing for the debate. In one she described caring for a soldier who had been shot in the chest but was ultimately saved by his Bible, which was in his breast pocket. She reported that an inch of the cover had been shot away, and the top of the first page, which had been exposed, was from the Book of Exodus, recounting the delivery of the people of Israel from Egypt.
I also found it striking to look at what the Jewish recruiting committee had done during the first world war. In 1916, it took out a full-page advertisement in The Jewish World, declaring that there must be “no Jewish slackers”. It certainly secured its wish—as indeed it did in the second world war, when more than 100,000 Jews served in all branches of our armed forces. They included Lieutenant Commander Tommy Gould, who famously saved the lives of his fellow submariners on board HMS Thrasher. After discovering an unexploded 100 lb bomb lodged in the side of the gun emplacement, he spent 50 minutes carefully moving it with his bare hands, while lying flat on his back as he squeezed past deck supports and machinery, before eventually throwing it safely over the side. He received the Victoria Cross for those heroics, and his cross remains on display today at the Jewish Museum in Camden.
This year we heard of the sad passing of Bernard Maurice Levy. He was just 19 when he helped to liberate Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945, before going on to support the trials of 45 high-ranking Nazi officials at the Lüneburg military tribunal. I saw some footage of his visit to those camps this morning—it is still on YouTube—and it was unbelievably moving.
Indeed, the Jewish contribution extended far more broadly. Jewish personnel served as secret agents behind enemy lines and even as codebreakers at Bletchley Park. A former director of GCHQ in my constituency wrote an article in 2017 titled “The Jewish codebreakers who won the war”—praise indeed.
In particular, we must remember the crucial role played by Jewish women in the Special Operations Executive, not least Vera Atkins, who was part of the team which evacuated Poland’s Enigma codebreakers to Britain, and later ran a network of intelligence agents across France. After the war, she joined the search for those being investigated for war crimes. There was also Krystyna Skarbek, the longest-serving of all Britain’s female agents, whose resourcefulness and success on operations in eastern Europe convinced officers to recruit more women, including some of the 10,000 Jewish refugees who had arrived from Germany and Austria as refugees.
Those refugees had been interned as “aliens”, potential enemies of the state, but only until their motivation to help the allied effort became clear. Nicknamed “the King’s most loyal enemy aliens”, they were trained and then deployed throughout the armed forces, with many ending up in the Intelligence Corps, eavesdropping on captured Axis officers who had been lulled into a false sense of security. By the end of the war, those listeners had amassed more than 74,000 transcripts of conversations from 10,000 prisoners, including Hitler’s generals.
That distinguished record of service has continued in more recent times. Jewish paratroopers served in the Falkland Islands 40 years ago, where Britain secured a decisive victory over a military dictator against all the odds. Among the fallen was paratrooper Private Jason Burt, from Hackney. After a gruelling march across country, he hid his trench foot on the eve of battle and took his place on the start line. He was shot and killed by an Argentine sniper just short of his 18th birthday during the battle of Mount Longdon, a mere two days before the end of the conflict. He was 17 years old.
Jewish soldiers were in Afghanistan too. Lieutenant Paul Mervis, 27, was the first British Jewish combatant to fall during the operation. At the time his family noted how,
“he was passionately committed to his men, far beyond mere duty”,
and how he went,
“with a genuine desire to help bring enough stability there to enable reconstruction to follow.”
I looked him up this morning. His commanding officer wrote of him:
“He read more about Afghanistan than anyone as we prepared for this tour and his empathy for the people of this fascinating country was exemplary.”
Today our Jewish troops remain an integral part of our forces. In the last 12 months alone, Jewish personnel have served on Operation Newcombe in Mali, in eastern Europe under Operation Orbital and in various continuing operations in the middle east. They have also been supporting their counterparts fighting in Ukraine by sending them their entire stock of kosher ration packs.
The truth is that the contribution of British Jews to the freedom and security of the UK has far outweighed the community’s comparatively small size. Remembrance Day is our opportunity—indeed it is our privilege—to recall that exemplary record of service and sacrifice.
I will say a little about AJEX—the Association of Jewish Ex-servicemen and Women—and its remembrance parade, which plays such an important role. Ever since those first marchers, to whom my hon. Friend referred, laid a wreath at the Cenotaph in 1921, AJEX has brought together people of all ages to pay tribute to Jewish personnel. Last year’s event was naturally very special, marking not just the 100th anniversary but the first full parade since the outbreak of the pandemic. More than 1,000 people participated in the march from Horse Guards Parade down Whitehall to the Cenotaph, with current personnel, veterans and the families of now-deceased veterans walking side by side. Many thousands more watched on.
This Sunday’s parade is set to be just as moving, and following the earnest, important and well received entreaties of my hon. Friend, I am pleased to be able to say that I will join him. I thank him very much for the strong representations that he made. It will be a duty and a pleasure to join him and, no doubt, several of his constituents.
The Jewish community is rightly proud of its history of service and loyalty. In synagogues across the country every Shabbat, a prayer is offered for the protection of His Majesty’s armed forces. As part of the respect and pride that we have in our Jewish personnel, we continue to do all that we can to ensure that the Ministry of Defence is considered by them a home from home, whether that is through the provision of kosher food packages, by ensuring that we grant annual leave for sacred holidays wherever possible, or by making places available to pray. We also have an armed forces Jewish chaplain, a Jewish champion and a thriving armed forces Jewish network.
I want to finish by reflecting on a pamphlet that I recently came across calling on Jewish people to volunteer for the armed forces in the first world war. In the preface, it asks them to
“join in unfaltering defence of the weak, and in vindication of those principles of justice, humanity and international good faith which they, as Jews, have so much reason to cherish, and from which they have still so much to hope.”
It seems to me that those words sum up the attitude exemplified by all our Jewish combatants over the last 100 years and beyond. It is an attitude that has invigorated every branch of our armed forces and helped us repeatedly triumph over our adversaries. As the marchers make their way down Whitehall on Sunday, it will be an opportunity to reflect on those words, to pay tribute to the immense endeavours of Jewish personnel on our nation’s behalf and to underline our sincere wish and expectation that that contribution in future will go only from strength to strength. Given the timing of the debate, I thank our Jewish friends and colleagues and wish them Shabbat shalom.
Question put and agreed to.