Catherine West – 2022 Speech on Holocaust Memorial Day

The speech made by Catherine West, the Labour MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, in the House of Commons on 27 January 2022.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy), who has a long track record of standing up to racism and antisemitism. I add my thanks to my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols), who both spoke so powerfully about their own family situations.

My constituent John Hajdu MBE brings a teddy bear into local London schools when he speaks as an ambassador for the Holocaust Educational Trust. He will be leading us this Sunday at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium. As an Arsenal supporter, I will have my fingers crossed behind my back when I enter the stadium, but I look forward to a day of contemplation with my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and others, led by our mayor, the young Councillor Jogee, and the veteran Jewish Councillor Sheila Peacock, who has worked tirelessly on standing up to antisemitism since she was a schoolteacher in the 1980s.

Sheila has now reached her 90th birthday and is still leading the community in Haringey to talk about the issues raised at this time of the year. She has also commemorated the peace garden outside the Bruce Castle Museum, where local rabbis come to bless and conduct prayers. That is always a moving occasion in Haringey, which is home to a community of 180 languages and, in its diversity, probably represents all the different tragic genocidal incidents that Members have mentioned today.

I also put on the record my heartfelt thanks to the right hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who described his own experience when in the armed forces of seeing people being murdered in a genocide. We are so lucky to have debates such as this—how serious they are and how the emotion gets to us. What a nice antidote to the week we have had. We play our roles in the Opposition and the Government, but it is so important that, as a Parliament, we have these moments that bring us together around the things that matter.

I want to reach out to the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick). If he needs any support, as somebody who has personally experienced antisemitism, those of us on the Labour Benches here today would want to offer that support, and to remember the Jewish communities still terrified as a result of the recent Beth Israel attack in Texas and the traumatising effect it had not only on Jewish people in the United States, but across my community. That attack happened in a synagogue and I will link that with what we are being encouraged to do tonight: to light a candle to represent hope.

What do we do when we have these terrible situations, such as the one described by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West, who explained why he now has such a small family—so many of them were killed ? What do we do when we hear about attacks on a faith community, such as the casual attack overnight on two of the Haredi community in Stamford Hill? We try to do as the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) said, not shying away from the pain but welcoming it, so that it makes us remember and do things differently.

That reinforces our energy to take on, for example, what the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) talked about: perpetrators who are still living here in the UK and have not been brought to justice. Is there more we could do as a Parliament as a result of today’s debate, not to allow that just to drop in the air it was spoken into, but to pursue it, particularly given that we now see some dangerous trends in the Bosnia and Herzegovina situation, for example? I know my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), who will speak next, has long experience of living in Banja Luka and understanding the community there, and has spoken of it in this House. What can we do as a result of today’s debate to prevent another possible genocide from happening in that region?

The legacy we are talking about happens not only in this House, in our debates and our foreign policy, but in our communities. I know all hon. Members here will know people doing similar work. When we were talking with the Minister for Afghan Resettlement, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who is leading the Afghanistan welcome programme, I was struck that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West talked about visiting refugees in his locality within weeks of their arrival in the UK. That practical action plays an important role.

A local rabbi in Muswell Hill, David Mason, has joined the Methodist Church, the Quakers and a number of other faith communities to provide a warm welcome for refugees, who are housed in very low-quality accommodation in quite an affluent part of London. We see that inequality, with people who have very little and others who have quite a lot; we walk the same streets, but we have different lives.

Much that is happening at local level is because of the experience that survivors have put into practice. It is the women from the synagogue who prepare meals once a month on a Sunday, bring toys and games for children to play with, have helped children to register at school and assisted refugees to register with a GP, get into college or find a job as a bicycle mechanic—all those basics of the journey one makes in a new community.

I was honoured to go to Auschwitz with a number of schoolchildren, some from Hornsey School for Girls, a number of years ago. I got to see first-hand the dreadful situation there—my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North mentioned it in her speech, so I will not repeat it—but also the importance of experiencing how bleak that place is. At sundown, when the tour is over and we feel the freezing Polish weather and the grey sky, it makes one think of the suffering but also gives one that sense of, “What can we do differently? How do we light the candle? How do we give people hope?”

Tulip Siddiq (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way—I wanted to speak in the debate but I was in a Bill Committee, which is why I have come in late. I am a trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, and I want to mention all the work it does in remembering people’s lives, including the visits to Auschwitz that she is talking about. It also works to make sure that these things never happen again and to raise awareness about subsequent genocides, including in Rwanda and Cambodia. Will she join me in paying tribute to the staff, to the trustees, to Laura and Olivia and to everyone else at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust? They do such a fantastic job.

Catherine West

Indeed, I will. My hon. Friend has a long record of promoting the values of the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and has done an enormous amount to emphasise their work not just nationally but locally in the Hampstead area, where so many survivors made their home when they first came here following the second world war and where they have made a strong contribution. Indeed, many Jewish members of our communities are active in organisations such as CARIS—Christian Action and Response in Society—in Haringey, which provides food, clothing, education and legal advice to newly arrived communities. We also have the remarkable Haringey Welcome, which promotes dignity and respect for migrants and refugees in our borough.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I know you agree with this being a day when we try to reflect on the words we use in Parliament. Some of my Jewish constituents have written to me when we have had debates about immigration in the House and asked that we always try to have those debates in a respectful way. They have asked that, when we talk about groups such as the Gypsy and Traveller community, we try to understand other perspectives and not just use language that may denigrate groups that are already experiencing a lot of discrimination.

Wera Hobhouse

We all need to recognise the feeling of marginalisation and exclusion: it is not one of extinction, but they are also destroying lives. Does the hon. Member agree that we need to recognise that?

Catherine West

Indeed. One of the other local groups in my constituency, the Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre, which brings history to life, is another way of not forgetting and of informing a future approach that holds the light—that light that we all want to put in our windows tonight so that we never forget, but also so that we can go forward in a positive way, always trying to prevent violence from happening again and to remember the lesson about how discrimination begins. That reflects the important point that the hon. Member for Bath made about rooting out the beginnings of discrimination and negativity and trying to address them.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for presiding over today’s excellent debate; it is one of the best I have been in since I was elected in 2015. I look forward very much to what the Minister and the shadow spokespersons have to say and also to lighting a candle this evening so that we may never forget.