Accepting Jan Karski Award
I asked for advice on what I should say to this audience in response to your kind words and award and was told by a Jewish friend that if I was lost for words to talk about my mother . . .
I remember what my mother once told me. She was a feisty arguer who never suffered a fool gladly, especially her eldest son: ‘I have no time for these people who only want to be someone and not to do something.’
We have too many politicians, too many leaders, who want the offices of state but who freeze at the responsibilities of power. Those who only want to be told the good news. I am sure that Jan Karski encountered such people. I am humbled and somewhat embarrassed to receive this award. All I do with my committee is our little bit and all I ask of the British Jewish Community is that they gently increase their ask of we politicians. Gently but consistently and incrementally.
I never attend any event just for the sake of so doing. I have the privilege to serve and my role is to make things happen. That is why I led the UK Parliamentary enquiry into anti-Semitism and co-founded the ICCA with Irwin Cotler. We have cross-party support for our work, including at the heart of government. And I want to thank the AJC for all your support and advice, especially of course David Harris, who I think I can now call my friend, but also Emanuele Ottolenghi in Brussels and Ken Stern in New York for their invaluable assistance, and many others as well.
But of course there are those who decry our work.
Some in silence. Some in ridicule. Some in hatred.
And of these it is the cowards who I most despise, for their silence creates the tempest on whose winds the messages of hatred and prejudice and ignorance are carried far and wide.
And the coward fears the Jew. For to them, with minds warped by delusions of conspiracy and wealth, the confidence, the artistry, the sociality of Jewish life can only have been created by wicked means.
And the silence encourages the deepening of the prejudice. Of course other changes, threats, events spark the ferment of evil, the restrictions, the animosities, pogroms, and the curse of silence has never once ended with the abuse of the Jews. Never once. Because every lesson from history shows us that the Jews are hit first, but then the others. We, the others.
I don’t do this work for votes. I have no Jewish constituents. Not one identifiable Jewish resident. I receive and will accept to no personal gain.
I do my work because fortune has given me the opportunity. That is why I am here today.
I have the honour of representing a coal-mining area in Northern England. Decimated by the economics of the 1980s, until when every generation dug and hewed the coal that fired the British economy.
And in the heat of underground mining those miners took their canaries in cages to warn against the dangers of toxic gases and impeding catastrophe.
The analogy of the canary in the cage is not original, nor is it mine. But I represent those elderly retired miners, with their dust-filled dying lungs and their battered and broken knees where they crawled to work and cut coal in shafts half the size of a man.
And I tell you my credence: I bow to no man. I crawl for no one.
I do not intend any member of my family will ever be forced to crawl on their knees. No constituent of mine will ever again be forced to kneel to work.
And what is good enough for me, and my family and my constituents, is good enough for you, for your families, for your friends. For all families. For all friends.
And what I observe is that when the Jewish people walk tall some people don’t like it. The successful Jew is the conspirator, benefiting from secret cabals. How I sometimes wish that British Jewry could be that well organized.
The powerful Jew is the aggressor and yet the culturally brilliant Jew is an American, or a Russian, or a Briton. How our nations love to subsume and own cultural virtuosity. But in particular there are those who dislike the proud and confident Jew. These people sadly still exist across the globe. Whether they hide in their tea houses or their bars, their golf clubs, their madrasa.
And with their minds poisoned by the pollution of ignorance, prejudice, malice and lies, it is our job to free them from their mental torture. That is the raison d’être of my committee. That is why we do what we are doing.
And I come not to elaborate on the threats, threats that you know all too well. And there are many:
The satellite stations of Saudi Arabia
The resurgent Nazis of Eastern Europe
The new revisionists of the Baltics
The President of Iran
The British intellectuals who get nervous when I label them accurately, not as the anti-Zionists they wish to be known as, but as the racists that they have become.
The scholars including Americas, who answer every argument with a but. When there are no ifs, no buts in the fight against anti-Semitism.
We have our enemies. Their tortured minds warped by ignorance and loathing.
And I share the despair of all who yearn for our international organizations to act with reason and with justice. The United Nations was born out of depravities of intolerance and hatred but also out of the impotence of national political complacencies. We should therefore expect the UN to have the countering of intolerance in its organizational DNA. The abuse of its Durban and now Geneva conferences highlights its own impotence and the inevitability of its consequential irrelevance.
But should we, the democracies of the world, allow ourselves to be undermined by demagogues and dictators yet again? Whatever tactics are applied to turn around the UN – and they are of great importance – in addition there needs to be at the heart of the UN, properly resourced and suitably empowered, a UN unit charged with dealing directly with countering anti-Semitism. Its establishment is one small, but essential bridgehead needed in our political armoury.
I have little complacency. But I have no fear. These anti-Semites relish fear and indecision.
When I look to my heroes and heroines for inspiration – my role models, my teachers – I see of course see Mr Mandela, who doesn’t, and I see Rev King. And Rosa Parkes.
Let me quote from Rosa Parkes: ‘As I got up on the bus I saw that there was only one vacancy, so this was the seat that I took.’
This world and past generations are full of Rosa Parkes. People going about their everyday business quietly and with dignity. But people not prepared to be bullied and cowed and intimidated. No doubt a little scared, but those who do their bit by doing what is right.
That is why I am a little reluctant to accept your kind award, your accolades. But I do so on behalf of all my committee and all our friends and allies and all those we attempt to give confidence to.
Because every Jewish student who is empowered to stand up and says, this is not right, every youth who says no, that is not acceptable, every mother and grandmother who is proud of their child’s defiance. These are my heroes and heroines.
But I also have one particular Jewish hero. Or rather heroine.
I quote these autobiographical words:
And now I have only this desire left: never to lose the feeling that it is I who am indebted for what has been given to me . . . I have seen my own grandchildren grow up as free Jews in a country that is their own. Let no one have any doubts about this: our children and our children’s children will never settle for anything else.
Just as the AJC was being created in New York, Golda Meir as a young child saw and heard the hatred of the mob, she became aware of her identity. Golda Meir is a suitable and appropriate role model.
For I seek results. I seek progress. Others can write the books, paint the pictures. I admire their talents, but my priorities include:
Building on the London declaration, agreed by forty counties in London this February, endorsed by all British political leaders and blueprint of what must spread throughout the European Union and its countries.
Let me quote just one of the elements of the London Declaration, but one which suitably sums up the content and direction of the entire declaration, which is available online: ‘We today in London resolve that: Parliamentarians shall expose, challenge, and isolate political actors who engage in hate against Jews and target the State of Israel as a Jewish entity.’
My priorities also include repeating this year’s successful UK Internet prosecution of anti-Semites with a website hosted overseas.
Challenging the lack of action by civil society including fence-sitting university leaders or the prevaricating European football leaders. You know in Łódź, Poland, in 2009, football fanatics still abuse one other with the term ‘Jew’. We have a lot more work to do.
What would Jan Karski now think, as a man born ninety-five years ago in the city of Łódź? We rightly honour Jan Karski, but he is an exception. Because we now know his story. We can never know the stories of most of those who stood up. Their bravery, their ingenuity. Their sacrifice.
Let me tell you a story that you have never heard. Of the white man who with his white brothers refused to allow their father to cast out their sister when she had a child with a black African and then dared to have a second such child. That man never told me his story, which I started to learn only at his funeral.
Of the woman he married whose grandfather was thrown out of work for helping form the Labour Party at the turn of the last century. Whose mother had to leave school despite winning a scholarship in order to work as a domestic cleaner to feed the family.
And of the Jewish community in that city of Leeds, the city where I was born, who stood by that family as part of the trade union movement. That little part of Jewish history is hardly recorded, nor known.
But I know it. Because that is my family. My parents. Long dead. But they would be crying with pride tonight.
Because those values that stirred the Jewish workers in Leeds to stand by my family are exactly the same values that inspired my parents and through their teachings inspired me.
We know too little of who we are, of what came before and of its relevance to us, but my family will always stand by its friends.
Emile Zola in his trial stated: ‘I have for me only an ideal of truth and justice. But I am quite calm. I shall conquer.’
Friends, we shall conquer.
Zola was right when he proclaimed: ‘We will not allow our countries to remain the victims of lies and injustice.’
I hardly know this great country. My passions for mountains may eventually bring me back, as my daughter studies in Berkeley next academic year. But to date I have never seen the curvaceous peaks of California. Nor the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. I have never climbed Stone Mountain in Georgia. I have not even viewed from Lookout Mountain in Tennessee.
But I tell you this, in concluding, my friends. From every Jewish student rally I attend, in every Limmud debate I participate, to every global conference that we organize, to every racist that we send running:
I may still smell the intolerance of anti-Semitism, I may read the literature of hate,
But when I look out from the mountain, I see not a promise but a reality grounded in the self-belief and self determination of those children, grandchildren and now even great-grandchildren.
And I also hear the bells of freedom and I say to you, my friends, be confident, be confident because the bells of freedom are ringing today and through our efforts, Jew and non-Jew, the bells of freedom will ring again tomorrow. Thank you.
 Golda Meir (1898–1978) was an Israeli teacher and politician who became the fourth Prime Minister of Israel and only the third woman in the world to hold such an office.