LONDON — The British Labour party has become “a hotbed of bigotry and racism,” the country’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel.
Eric Pickles, who was appointed to the House of Lords this summer, also accused Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn of encouraging “something rather base and horrid to come to the surface” in the party.
In the wide-ranging interview, Pickles, who served as a Cabinet minister under the Conservative party’s former prime minister David Cameron, hints that the UK may soon proscribe Hezbollah in its entirety and says he opposes Britain’s attempts to help salvage the Iran nuclear deal.
Pickles also says it was “utterly wrong” for Conservative members of the European parliament to oppose censuring the Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán in a September 12 vote. Orbán’s government has been accused of deploying “vivid anti-Semitism” in its campaign against the Jewish philanthropist George Soros.
As the Conservative party begins its annual conference in Birmingham this weekend, Pickles launches a scathing attack on Corbyn.
Referring to the allegations of anti-Semitism which have dogged Labour under Corbyn’s leadership, Pickles asks: “How can anybody live with themselves with this great damage that they have inflicted on good community relations in this country?”
Mocking Corbyn’s much-professed opposition to racism, Pickles labels him “maybe… the world’s most unlucky fighter of anti-Semitism.”
“He sees murals but doesn’t properly look at things. He signs up to things but didn’t properly read them. He’s in the room with people who advocate the murder of all Jews and didn’t entirely raise it,” Pickles says. “It’s happened too many times for him not to realize the damage he is doing and for him not to do something about it.”
“And because it’s [Corbyn], he’s encouraged something rather base and horrid to come to the surface. His supporters are chanting anti-Semitic slogans, monstering Jewish Labour MPs on the internet because they think they’re doing their master’s bidding,” says Pickles, who is a committed Christian.
“If you’d said to me five years ago that this was possible, that a mainstream political party would not be able to cope with members that are anti-Semitic, I would have laughed at you,” he adds. “But here we are now. The British Labour party of all places to be a hotbed of bigotry and racism. It’s beyond belief.”
Ticking off a list of former Labour prime ministers, Pickles argues: “I can’t imagine Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, [Tony] Blair or [Gordon] Brown condoning any of this.”
Pickles welcomes the news that the Metropolitan Police, London’s police force, is now investigating whether any Labour party members have committed hate crimes.
“People who are anti-Semitic, who make their fellow citizens worried, should face the full consequences of the law,” he says.
As a Cabinet minister, Pickles ran the Department for Communities and Local Government, which is partly responsible for social cohesion in the UK. Referring to polling which suggests that nearly 40 percent of British Jews would seriously consider emigrating if Corbyn becomes prime minister, he says he finds it “immensely depressing that some people could be made to feel that they no longer belong to their own country.”
“A Jewish person at the beginning of the 21st century should not feel worried about appearing in public in obvious Jewish [clothing], or to shop in Jewish shops and wonder if they’re going to be safe,” Pickles argues. “Or feel that their politicians don’t regard them as anything other than people who have been born, brought up in this country and are an essential part of this country that makes it tick.”
After leaving the government in 2015, Pickles was chosen by Cameron as Britain’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues. This year, Theresa May appointed him to the House of Lords and asked him to also take on the role of co-chair of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation advisory board.
As an MP he served as chair of Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), and will now lead the group in the UK’s upper chamber of parliament (the group’s chair in the Commons is now the former Cabinet minister and Tory leadership contender Stephen Crabb).
Pickles’s relationship with the Jewish community is so close that when he was in the Cabinet, the Jewish Chronicle affectionately dubbed him “the Tories’ de facto minister for Jews.” At a reception marking his elevation to the House of Lords, congratulatory messages from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis were read out.
Vote against Orbán censure ‘utterly wrong’
Although fiercely critical of Labour, Pickles does not shy away from criticism of his own party.
He is dismayed by the decision of the Conservatives to defend Hungary’s controversial right-wing government in a key vote in the European parliament earlier this month.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews said it was “very concerning” that the Tories had chosen to back Orbán’s government, which it accused of “whipping up prejudice” and deploying “vivid anti-Semitism.”
“I got an explanation from a colleague who is a member of the European parliament which went to about six paragraphs explaining exactly why they had voted against the resolution on technical grounds,” says Pickles. “My view is very straightforward: if you require six paragraphs to explain why you’ve done something, then you’ve made a mistake.”
“To vote against seemed to me utterly wrong,” he adds.
Pickles also makes clear his unease at the failure of the British government to fully proscribe the terror group Hezbollah. At present, the UK only bans the military wing of the group, leaving its political wing free to operate in the country. Its position has allowed anti-Israel protesters to parade Hezbollah flags on the streets of London at the annual Al Quds Day march in June.
“I can’t get into the mindset as to why we don’t [ban Hezbollah]. We should do this. There’s no difference between the political wing and the military wing,” argues the former minister.
“Of course it should be proscribed and the government should do it without delay. I’ve always felt there was a strong political will to do this and I’m hopeful that we may see this happen this year,” he says.
Pickles has been a vocal critic of warming ties between Britain and Iran and sounded a note of caution when then-foreign secretary Philip Hammond visited Tehran in 2015 to reopen the UK Embassy in the Islamic Republic.
“I was very critical and I remain so. We need to understand that Iran is an exporter of terror, a fundraiser for terror and is a destabilizing influence in a very destabilizing region,” Pickles says.
Alongside other European states, Britain has been attempting to shore up the Iran nuclear deal following the Trump administration’s abandonment of it earlier this year.
“If the Iran deal is to be saved, it would seem to me to be sensible to get some assurances about that terror,” argues Pickles. “I was critical of the deal and don’t share the [UK] government’s enthusiasm for saving it.”
The ‘magic’ of Israel
Pickles first visited Israel in 1980 when he led a delegation of Young Conservatives.
“To tell you the truth,” he says, “I just kind of fell in love with the place. It was such an open society.”
He has visited the country countless times since with groups and believes that on each trip, whether it be with “a young politician, a seasoned statesman, [or] a councilor,” there is a “magic moment” when somebody says, “This place is pretty normal, isn’t it?”
“And that’s exactly right. It’s a place that most people would feel at home,” says the straight-talking Yorkshireman, for whom normalcy and feeling at home are high accolades.
Growing up in the highly diverse city of Bradford in northern England, Pickles says different religions, communities and cultures have always interested him, and he cut his political teeth in the Tories’ youth wing opposing the far right and campaigning against racism.
He ascribes his close relationship with the Jewish community, though, to his support for Israel.
“My feelings towards Israel have meant that I’ve met a lot of Jewish people in this country. The two things are kind of related,” Pickles believes.
He worries that a Corbyn government would cause huge damage to the UK’s relationship with Israel, with consequences many Britons do not fully appreciate.
“People talk about our involvement in defense with Israel and Israel is a solid ally in a very unstable region,” Pickles argues. “But more important in my eyes is the damage that would be done to cooperation in the National Health Service where so many of the patents on our medicines comes from Israel. Our cooperation on Alzheimer’s disease and dementia [and] our cooperation in cardiothoracic work would all be put in jeopardy.”
He believes many in the UK don’t recognize “how integrated Britain and Israel are at the high end of technology.”
“Most people navigate using Israeli-sourced innovation technology,” he says.
A retail politician to his fingertips, Pickles says CFI’s job is “try and get [out] the reality of what Israel’s relationship with the UK truly is.” The group, he says, has thus “moved out from foreign affairs [and] defense and into health and into industry and making that case.”
Pickles’ other priority is to help counter lack of knowledge in the UK about the Holocaust. As co-chair of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation advisory board, he is working alongside the former Labour Shadow Cabinet minister Ed Balls on overseeing the planned memorial and learning center that will be built next to the Houses of Parliament.
While the number of Britons who would deny the existence of the Holocaust is “a tiny, tiny minority,” Pickles believes, there is a more of a problem with people who “compare the Holocaust with what is happening in Israel right now with [the] Palestinians.” He deems this a “kind of casual” form of Holocaust denial, “trying to trivialize the actual numbers.”
He hopes the new learning center will provide an accessible “what happened” account of the Holocaust, but it will tell the story from a British perspective, promising that “it’s going to show things that we did right and things we did wrong.”
“It will include things like the Kindertransport, but it will also explain that the reason for the Kindertransport is that we wouldn’t let parents in,” Pickles says.
“It will talk about the liberation of Belsen but it will also talk about the blockade of [British Mandate] Palestine. It will talk about internment [of Jewish refugees] in the Isle of Man. It will talk about anti-Semitism and appeasement. It will talk about instances of anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom during the Second World War,” he says.
Such an approach may make some uncomfortable, but Pickles argues that it is crucial for the UK to take a lead.
“At a time when there are parts of central Europe trying to rewrite their history, then it is massively important that we look at our history with unblinking eyes if we’re wanting them to do the same,” he says.