Jeremy Hunt: Cap on Jewish immigration to Palestine in 1939 was ‘black moment’

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Jeremy Hunt: Cap on Jewish immigration to Palestine in 1939 was ‘black moment’

Foreign secretary’s admission of regret over historic British policy made at CFI reception, where bilateral relations were also heralded as being ‘very strong’

Justin Cohen is the News Editor at the Jewish News

Jeremy Hunt speaking at a Conservative Friends of Israel reception
Jeremy Hunt speaking at a Conservative Friends of Israel reception

Jeremy Hunt has described Britain’s 1939 white paper capping immigration to Palestine as a “black moment” in history, in what is believed to be the first such remarks by a British foreign secretary.

The Secretary of State made the comments in his first address to Conservative Friends of Israel since succeeding Boris Johnson, before rushing back to the House of Commons for key votes on Brexit.

Hunt hailed the “on the whole very strong relationship” between Britain and Israel that started with the Balfour Declaration, but in a stark moment of candour said there had been “black moments” including the white paper, which limited the number of Jewish immigrants to Palestine to 75,000 for five years during the Jewish world’s darkest hour.

He said “there have been some black moments when we have done the wrong thing such as the 1939 White Paper which capped the number of visas issued to Jews wanting to go to the British mandate of Palestine.”

Only last week, at an event when the foreign secretary unveiled a statue of British Holocaust hero Frank Foley, Israel’s Ambassador Mark Regev had recalled how his aunt had been denied a visa as a result of the white paper. Hunt told the audience in Parliament that he would never forget honouring the wartime hero, adding “if we don’t learn lessons history will judge us very poorly indeed”.

In his speech, Hunt pledged that Israel’s right to defend itself was “absolutely unconditional”. But he made no direct reference to a call from his opposite number Emily Thornberry to halt arms sales if the Jewish state expands its operations against Iranian targets from Syria to Iraq.

He described the Jewish state as the only nation surrounded by countries dedicated to its “total destruction”. While stressing the government’s commitment to a two-state solution, he insisted disagreements with Jerusalem came “from the vantage point of friends”. Just days after it was revealed the principles of a post-Brexit trade deal with Israel were in place, he also hailed bilateral “mushrooming trade”.

And on a night when Brexit was never far from guests’ minds – with the various votes broadcast in the room – he joked that Israel provided “Inspiration to see how you’ve thrived despite the challenges on the borders”.

Among the other speakers addressing CFI’s annual parliamentary gathering were chairs Stephen Crabb and Lord Pickles, honorary president Lord Polak and reception host, Chipping Barnet MP Theresa Villiers, who rushed in and out of the event in between votes.

Tory mayoral hopeful Shaun Bailey said a visit to Israel with CFI had revealed a country far more vibrant than he’d seen on TV. While far from homogeneous, he praised Britain’s Jewish community as a “model of togetherness” that his party could learn from.

Regev, who also spoke, described news that Israel’s air force has been invited to take part in exercises with the RAF as “the latest example of strong defence partnership” and drew cheers by mentioning the newly-announced bilateral trade deal that would deliver jobs in both countries.

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