‘Without our Jewish community we would be a lesser nation’

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‘Without our Jewish community we would be a lesser nation’

Sir Eric Pickles, who is bidding farewell to Parliament at the coming election, sits down with Jewish News to reflect on his quarter of a century in Westminster

Justin Cohen is the News Editor at the Jewish News

Sir Eric Pickles addressing the crowd
Sir Eric Pickles addressing the crowd

Sir Eric Pickles may be bidding farewell to Parliament after a quarter of a century, but it’s clear he has no intention of taking his foot off the gear when it comes to his tireless work in promoting Holocaust remembrance and tackling anti-Semitism.

Hours after announcing he would not defend his Brentwood and Ongar seat, he announced he’d been asked to remain as the government’s special envoy on post-Holocaust issues – a role he took on after the last election.

“I was very pleased to be asked,” he told Jewish News. “There’s lot’s of things to be done particularly on the return of property, there’s still an awful lot of Nazi loot out there. Secondly with the release of the files on the Holocaust within the UK – and we’re building the new national museum.”

Sir Eric Pickles MP marks Holocaust Memorial Day.
Sir Eric Pickles MP marks Holocaust Memorial Day.

Among his proudest achievements as envoy was the key role he played in Britain becoming the first country to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism – for which he has been thanked by Theresa May. Sir Eric has now has his sights firmly set on its adoption across Europe and beyond.

“I’m proud of the definition but I regard it as work in progress,” he adds.

Just days after four UK academic institutions proposed a motion for the University and College Union to oppose the definition, he said: “We need to start to ensure those academic institutions showing reluctance to adopt it understand that it’s Government policy, and that we intend to change the way in which that prejudice against Israel has been allowed to permeate within academic institutions.” It would take “some pretty brave institutions to defy” the policy, he suggested.

Another project he’s particularly proud of is the plan for a national Holocaust memorial and learning centre, which David Cameron announced will be built in Victoria Tower Gardens in Westminster to help ensure the memory of the Shoah is not lost. The plans have however attracted opposition from a group of parliamentarians who claim character of the park would be changed be any of the 10 shortlisted designs.

But Sir Eric said: “Let’s not get too excited about the objectors. I am sure we can meet many of their concerns. A reasonable dialog should be our first priority and keeping the tone measured. But it is the perfect place and I’m certain that is where it should go.”

He said he had previously decided this would be his final Parliament – claiming its better to go when “you could have done another term. The question is if you’d rather people ask why you stepped down, than why you’re still there”. While there were many highlights while in the cabinet, he would particular miss the opportunity to “right wrongs” for constituents.

He vowed to continue being actively involved in Conservative Friends of Israel, which he has chaired for two years, but insisted there was no shortage of potential parliamentary successors. “I think a bit of healthy competition would be great,” he added.

Expressing hope he had brought additional “political rigour” to addressing anti-Israel bias, he added: “CFI is the largest ‘friends of’ organisation inside the British parliament both in the Commons and the Lords, there are lots of people who feel like me.”

He has a simple answer when asked asked why he has shown such passion in standing up for israel and the community when he has just a few dozen Jewish constituents: “It’s the right thing to do. There are about 300,000 Jews in the UK, it’s a very small number but they are an integral part of the British identity. Without Jewish people we would be a lesser nation, in the same way we would be without Muslims or Christians or Hindus.

“Why do I support Israel? Because it’s a bastion of freedom and democracy, free speech and rule of law. Israeli values are British values.”

Looking ahead to the election, he predicted May will “do very well” but he cautioned against complacency. “People should come out and vote.”

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