Lord Wolfson of Tredegar debates involving the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office during the 2019 Parliament

Situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Excerpts
Tuesday 30th January 2024

(2 months, 2 weeks ago)

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Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, we have been having discussions about the process which will lead to peace, but we need to start the process. In order to start the process, do we not need to recognise two things? First, the world of 8 October is a fundamentally different world from the world of 6 October. Secondly, Israel is a democracy, unlike Hamas in Gaza or the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. That means that if we are going to be realistic about encouraging Israel to start that process, we need to recognise that, even today, well over 100 of its citizens are still being held hostage. I know the Minister has personally made significant efforts to meet hostage families and to work on that issue. If we are going to start a process to peace in the Middle East, which I would welcome as I have worked on it for as long as I can, we need to face basic political realities. Unless and until those hostages are released, the process will not begin. If we want to see peace in the Middle East after that conflict, the first step must be to get the hostages released. Does my noble friend agree?

Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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I certainly do. That is the first step in a road out of this sorry saga that we all want to see achieved. I cannot imagine—well, I can imagine what it is like for the families, because on two occasions I have met them, and I am due to meet some more this week. Noble Lords can understand the emotion. When you meet them, it is absolutely a searing realisation of the true brutality of those events and the continuous misery for those families, including the parents of a child who is around one year old. You can only imagine what they feel about that.

On my noble friend’s point about democracy, he is absolutely right. As we can see daily in our newspapers, Israel is a vibrant democracy. There are future changes perhaps—we do not know—but we will support whoever is the legitimate Government of Israel to help to find a solution to this. My noble friend is also right that it has been 18 years, I think, since free and fair elections, or elections, have taken place in Gaza. The Hamas controlling body has no democratic authority. We want to make sure that the future of Gaza does not have Hamas anywhere in it.

Israel/Gaza

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Excerpts
Tuesday 24th October 2023

(5 months, 4 weeks ago)

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Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York. I pay tribute to him for his public statement last Monday and in particular for his message of support for the Jewish community here in the UK.

Although this excellent debate has ranged far and wide, I want to focus my remarks on matters rather closer to home. On Saturday night, I had two children in uniform. My son, who has now made his life in Israel, wore the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces. Like most 20 year-olds in Israel, he is doing military service. He personally saw the aftermath of Hamas’s atrocities, sights which no 20 year-old—in fact, no one—should see. But he is in uniform because, if he and his friends were not, there would not be an Israel. It really is that simple.

My other child in uniform was my daughter. Her uniform was trainers, jeans and a necklace with a Magen David—a Star of David—around her neck. That is her customary Saturday night uniform, in common with many teenage girls in north London, as they come into town on the Tube to enjoy this great city’s nightlife. I was more concerned about the safety of my daughter than of my son.

How on earth have we got to a place where I am more concerned about a teenage girl in London with a Star of David around her neck than my son in an army uniform in a country at war? There are three reasons: information, institutions and constitution. I will give an example of each.

The first is information. The BBC is not a state broadcaster, but it is a national broadcaster. I say this with genuine regret as a supporter of the BBC: in the past few weeks it has brought us national shame. I need not take time with the BBC’s abject failure to describe Hamas in plain English as what it is: a terrorist group. After an intervention from me and other noble Lords, the BBC announced that it had stopped calling Hamas “militants”—I am not making this up—because

“we have been finding this a less accurate description for our audiences as the situation evolves”.

A “less accurate description”—no further comment is necessary. However, last week the BBC reported, uncritically, and citing only Palestinian officials—which of course means Hamas—that Israel had struck the Al-Ahli hospital. But what the Israelis said at the time has now been corroborated: it was an Islamic Jihad rocket that hit the hospital. That defamatory report is still on the BBC website.

In our community we are used to some people, such as Mr Corbyn, parroting Hamas propaganda, but to have the BBC do it when it would not have done so with propaganda from ISIS or al-Qaeda led to real consequences, not just the cancellation of a summit in Amman but in this city too: Jewish schools closed, kosher restaurants smashed up, heightened security at every synagogue—and my daughter wondering whether it was safe to go on the Tube.

Others repeated that propaganda, including, I am afraid, a noble friend of mine, who tweeted not just that the Israelis had hit the hospital but that they had “targeted” it—a word she used twice. I called that out as a modern blood libel, and I am delighted that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury used the same language recently as well. But the damage was done. Other terrorist groups will have seen and taken note. So we should remember the old injunction: “Careless talk costs lives”.

The second is our institutions. The Jewish community has learned over the past two weeks who our many friends are. We have also seen who they are not. I will give just one short example: our universities. University Jewish societies no longer publicise where they are meeting. The address is handed out, samizdat fashion, shortly before the meeting. This is not some underground group in Soviet Russia but a Jewish society in this country in 2023.

Our universities have become centres of binary thinking, where you are either an oppressor or the oppressed. In the case of Israel, it would seem that oppressors include murdered babies and kidnapped grandmothers—although sometimes Hamas preferred to kidnap the babies and murder their grandmothers. Students and their professors will write long and apparently scholarly articles explaining how words are violence and silence is violence, but they now offer no words—only silence—in the face of not just violence but a pogrom. So if, when we face terrorism, careless talk costs lives, silence in the face of terrorism costs even more.

The third is our constitution. I do not mean the royal and political elements of our constitution. The moral lead shown by His Majesty the King in response to what went on, and his granting the Chief Rabbi a private audience, has resonated across the entire Jewish community, as has the principled stance taken by the Prime Minister, the leader of the Opposition and other political leaders. This is not a party-political issue.

The Jewish community is protected by law, but many currently feel that they are not protected by those whose job it is to enforce the law. The shout “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is not a nursery rhyme; it is a murderous rhyme because it calls for the destruction of Israel and, necessarily, its inhabitants. It is not a demand for the two-state solution in which I and so many others still believe. But the police have done nothing about it.

They did not even intervene when members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group that is illegal in many other western countries but is still legal here for some reason, chanted for jihad. I am aware that “jihad” has several meanings apart from armed struggle: it can refer to self-reflection, personal improvement and quiet meditation. But when it is chanted on the streets of London with a banner referring to Muslim armies liberating Palestine, and when the group’s website refers to

“heroic feats carried out by the heroic Mujahideen in the Blessed Land—Palestine”,

I simply do not understand how the Metropolitan Police concluded that that cry for jihad was not supporting or glorifying Hamas, which is a criminal offence.

Careless talk costs lives, but silence in the face of terrorism costs more. Police inaction will only encourage those who want to bring their violence and terrorism here. We need to change, to call out terrorism for what it is, to speak out against terrorists and their apologists here, and to act firmly to keep people—everyone—safe. The safety of my son in his army uniform is ultimately a matter for the Government of Israel, but the safety of my daughter on the Tube in London is a matter for our Government and this Parliament.

I conclude with this. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, quoted Jeremiah, chapter 31, verse 15. The prophet there sees the matriarch Rachel in her resting place at Rama, so close to Bethlehem, weeping as the people of Israel are led past her as captives into exile, but she refuses to be comforted. As the noble and right reverend Lord said, that verse is repeated in the New Testament in Matthew, chapter 2, verse 18. There is a Jewish tradition that we do not end a biblical reading on a note of despondency, so I conclude by reciting the immediately following two verses in Jeremiah, as we all pray for the safe return of all the hostages:

“Thus saith the Lord; Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy. And there is hope in thine end, saith the Lord”—


veshavu vanim lig’vulam—

“thy children shall return to their own borders”.

Amen.

Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Excerpts
Friday 9th September 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

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Lord Bruce of Bennachie Portrait Lord Bruce of Bennachie (LD)
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My Lords, I had the honour to represent a beautiful part of Aberdeenshire for over four decades and our communities have greatly appreciated, throughout that time, the regular presence of the Queen and other members of the Royal Family in, around and among us for so many years. In fact, it was no surprise to me when I travelled down on Monday to find that the Duchess of Rothesay, as she then was, was on the same plane—of course, she had to return only two days later in sadness, but as Queen Consort—but that was not unusual on that flight.

I remember the Queen’s accession when I was a boy of seven, and in 1953—like so many others—I watched the Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth on a friend’s newly acquired, tiny, black and white TV set, although two weeks later I went to the cinema and saw it in full glorious Technicolor. Thirty years later, I became an MP and my encounters with the Queen and other members of the family, as is the case for many of us, became more frequent. I remember a number of royal visits and openings, but I also remember being a part of the receiving party when the royal yacht brought the Queen to Aberdeen—probably the last time the royal yacht came north to Aberdeen. Unfortunately, because of the fog, the yacht was not able to dock in the port and the royal party had to come ashore in a barge or launch. When I was in conversation greeting and remarking to the Queen that it was a pity the fog had prevented “Britannia” from docking, Princess Anne made the Queen laugh when she said, “Not at all: fog means flat calm.”

Subsequently and on many other occasions, my wife and I were privileged to be invited to the garden party, including the only garden party, I think, that has taken place at Balmoral to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. It was exclusively limited to the invitees being from the county of Aberdeenshire—again, an indication of the connection between the community. The sun, I have to say, shone all day on Balmoral despite the heavy downpours and flash flooding that occurred in nearly all the surrounding communities, which clearly proves that the sun does shine on the righteous—I mean the Queen, not me.

I recall an incident when I was on the International Development Committee, which I had the privilege of chairing, and we were visiting an African and Commonwealth country—which I will not identify—when one of the Ministers leant across the table and said, “We are all loyal subjects here, you know.” A little bit quaint, but it perhaps encapsulates just how, during her long reign, the Queen personified a positive identity of what Britain and the Commonwealth meant to the world. It rises far above the quality or the character of any Government of the day; that is a huge asset to have. I think it is why yesterday’s news was greeted with tributes and genuine outpourings of affection from literally all over the world. Indeed, when anybody talks about the Queen anywhere in the world, there is only one Queen that they meant—we know that.

I knelt before the Queen to swear an oath as a privy counsellor—as the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, did and many others—and later to receive a knighthood when the Queen discussed my support for sign language and communication support for deaf people, which she told me was very important and she valued it. It just indicates that, whatever the topic was, she had a view and she had knowledge.

At the last diplomatic reception that took place at Buckingham Palace, I wore full Highland dress because I had it and, therefore, did not have to rent the other outfit. But the Queen stopped and admired it and commented, “It is lovely to see the kilt here,” meaning in Buckingham Palace, rather than elsewhere. The Queen’s Balmoral home is just a few miles from our more modest home, and the presence of the Royals is noted all the time, throughout the year; many local businesses are, by royal appointment, suppliers to the Queen and, now, to our new King. The privacy of the Royal Family is respected by the community, but their informal engagement with the local community is also valued. There are many stories of people seeing members of the Royal Family shopping in Ballater or being given a lift when caught in the rain when hiking around Lochnagar or Loch Muick to find it was Prince Charles, or the Queen, or the Duke of Edinburgh who had picked them up.

It is, therefore, perhaps fitting that the family gathered at Balmoral to say farewell to the Queen before the formalities of state mourning began. They have the sympathy and the support of their local community, as well as the nation and the world. Of course, our sympathies are with them all. Our gratitude is to her. But now, for the first time in most people’s memory, we say “God save the King!”

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, I begin, in accordance with the custom of my religious tradition, with an acknowledgement that, as mortal humans, we submit to God’s decree and from his judgment, whether that be for life or for death, there is no appeal: “Baruch dayan ha’emet”—“Blessed be the Judge of truth.”

As I say that blessing, I am taken to the last time I met Her Majesty. I recited a different and special blessing, the blessing our rabbis prescribed to be said when meeting royalty: “Baruch shenatan michvodo lebasar vadam”—“Blessed is He who has shared His glory with mortals of flesh and blood”. The idea in that blessing is not the divine right of kings; it is not the absolutist notion that, because monarchs derive their power from God, they cannot be held accountable for their actions. The blessing embodies a totally different idea, but it is a powerful one. It is the idea, as the Talmud puts it, that “royalty on earth is to reflect royalty in heaven”; that to be royal requires the highest standards and impeccable behaviour. It is an idea, I suggest, that Her late Majesty exemplified throughout her long reign.

Noble Lords might be familiar with the Hebrew word “mitzvah”. “Well done for doing this or that,” you might hear somebody say, and they will add, “You’ve done a mitzvah”—you have done a good deed. But a mitzvah is not a good deed which you do because you are in the mood or because the urge takes you; it is not something you do only and if you feel like it. The Hebrew root of the word mitzvah, its basic etymology, is the word “tzav”, which means “commandment”, “order” or “duty”. You do a mitzvah not just because it is a good deed and not just because you feel like doing it; you do a mitzvah because it is your duty. Her late Majesty spent her whole life doing the right thing and not just because she felt like it or because the mood took her. She spent her 96 years doing the right thing, day in, day out, out of a sense of duty. It was a life, if I may respectfully say, of mitzvah, of acting out of a profound sense of personal duty and under the solemn oath to God which she took at her Coronation.

In Hebrew, every letter also has a numerical value and you can add up the values of individual letters to get the value of a word. In one of those coincidences which perhaps are not, the numerical value of the Hebrew word tzav, the root of the word mitzvah, is 96: 96 years of tzav, of duty, and also of mitzvah, of doing the right thing because that is your duty.

Tomorrow is Shabbat and, as we have heard from my noble friend Lord Polak, in synagogues up and down the country we will say the prayer for the Royal Family, as we do each and every week. We recite that prayer immediately after the reading of the Torah, the five books of the Pentateuch, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, which we read in weekly instalments throughout the year. We are well into Deuteronomy at the moment, so the current annual cycle is nearly complete, but on the day we finish Deuteronomy, we do something odd but important. We return to the Holy Ark the scroll with which we completed Deuteronomy but we immediately take out a new scroll and start reading again from the first chapter of Genesis. So, on that day, the death of Moses, the faithful leader who had guided the people over so many decades, is immediately followed, a matter of moments later, by a new start—indeed, a new creation—in the first chapter of Genesis.

So tomorrow, for the first time in my life, we will not pray in synagogue for Prince Charles but for King Charles. I started yesterday as a Queen’s Counsel and I finished it as a King’s Counsel. We have closed one book, a long and good book which we have had with us for so many years, and we are about to open another. As we all pray that God save our King, I will also pray that he too may enjoy a reign of mitzvah, of doing the right thing, for that, now, is his duty. Baruch dayan ha’emet, yehi zichra Baruch. “Blessed be the judge of truth”, and may her late Majesty’s cherished memory be a blessing for all of us.