Found: Min­is­ter for the Jews

The for­mer Com­mu­ni­ties Sec­re­tary speaks frankly about faith, Is­rael and Jeremy Cor­byn

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY MAR­CUS DYSCH

FROM HIS desk over­look­ing Westminster Abbey, Sir Eric Pick­les is in prime po­si­tion to con­sider an is­sue par­tic­u­larly close to his heart.

It is from here that the for­mer Con­ser­va­tive min­is­ter, a com­mit­ted Chris­tian, as­sesses the role faith plays in mod­ern Bri­tain.

In a po­lit­i­cal land­scape where spin­doc­tor Alastair Camp­bell’s ad­vice to Tony Blair that “we don’t do God” still largely holds firm, Sir Eric is one of a small num­ber of MPs try­ing to raise the promi­nence of re­li­gion.

“I think it does mat­ter,” he said. “If you stripped away my Chris­tian­ity, or your Jewish­ness, we’d be lesser peo­ple.”

Af­ter five years as Sec­re­tary of State for Com­mu­ni­ties and Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment, he could per­haps have counted him­self un­lucky when he was, ef­fec­tively, sacked af­ter the elec­tion in May.

But the 63-year-old did not leave with­out some re­ward — he was knighted and now en­joys a raft of high-pro­file post-min­is­te­rial po­si­tions, in­clud­ing as the Prime Min­is­ter’s spe­cial en­voy on post-Holo­caust is­sues.

Within min­utes of be­ing dumped from the cab­i­net Sir Eric re­ceived a phone call from Con­ser­va­tive Friends of Is­rael di­rec­tor Stu­art Po­lak ask­ing him to be­come the group’s new par­lia­men­tary chair­man.

A sup­porter of the coun­try since his teenage years, the Brent­wood and On­gar MP im­me­di­ately ac­cepted, de­spite the “very bad im­pres­sion” of his West York­shire ac­cent per­formed by the CFI chief.

Life now pro­vides Sir Eric with op­por- tu­ni­ties he could not en­joy dur­ing his years around the cab­i­net ta­ble. Min­is­te­rial con­ven­tion meant he was not al­lowed to stand up pub­licly for Is­rael dur­ing times of cri­sis, or ex­plain his views on faith. “I was a silent, brood­ing pres­ence. Now I don’t feel so silent, or brood­ing,” he said, pu s h i n g hi s new, fash­ion­able spec­ta­cles into place.

As Com­mu­ni­ties Sec­re­tary he en­cour­aged Jews, Mus­lims and other re­li­gious mi­nori­ties to work more closely to­gether. Many in the in­ter­faith com­mu­nity were un­ac­cus­tomed to the bullish York­shire­man’s ap­proach.

He said: “I just felt in­ter­faith stuff was mean­ing­less un­less you did some­thing. Sit­ting on bean­bags, hold­ing hands and singing Kum­baya was just point­less.

“What I was in­ter­ested in was if there were ini­tia­tives by groups — Jewish, Mus­lim, Chris­tian — that went be­yond their im­me­di­ate com­mu­nity. I was al­ways very keen to see dif­fer­ent groups com­ing to­gether to do things.”

By deny­ing the groups what he called a “spir­i­tual out­let” and forc­ing them to work in prac­ti­cal ways on col­lab­o­ra­tive projects, Sir Eric be­lieves progress was made. One of his favourite ini­tia­tives was Mitz­vah Day.

“I just loved that. It was typ­i­cal of the Jewish com­mu­nity. The real Jewish com­mu­nity is one that doesn’t just look within, it wants to do some­thing with the wider com­mu­nity.”

Re­la­tions be­tween Bri­tish Jewish and Mus­lim lead­ers were “bet­ter than the head­lines would sug­gest”, but Sir Eric ac­knowl­edged that “the street can be nasty, can be judg­men­tal, and some­times good peo­ple are not putting their heads above the para­pet be­cause of ret­ri­bu­tion — not in­ter­ra­cially, but from peo­ple more ex­treme within their own com­mu­nity”.

In his work with lo­cal author­i­ties, Sir Eric re­peat­edly chal­lenged coun­cils that he felt were do­ing too lit­tle to re­move racist graf­fiti or op­pose racism. He was also one of the first of­fi­cials to ar­gue against the fly­ing of Pales­tinian flags over Bri­tish town halls dur­ing last sum­mer’s Gaza con­flict.

But in the past 12 months he has sensed an awak­en­ing. Southamp­ton Univer­sity’s de­ci­sion to can­cel a con­fer­ence in April that would have chal­lenged Is­rael’s right to ex­ist was, Sir Eric said, “a wa­ter­shed — it was de­ter­minedly some­thing go­ing in the other di­rec­tion. Too much had been held within a thin ve­neer of free­dom of speech.”

Sir Eric’s de­par­ture from the cab­i­net has in no way weak­ened his party loy­alty. Sit­ting in his Tor y-blue braces ahead of the an­nual con­fer­ence next week he thinks for a mo­ment about the new Labour leader, Jeremy Cor­byn. It was “ab­so­lutely ex­tra­or­di­nary”, he said, to think of Labour’s top job be­ing held

‘I think re­li­gion does mat­ter. We’d be lesser peo­ple with­out it’

by some­one “who openly em­braced ex­trem­ists and re­gards Ha­mas and Hizbol­lah as friends. This is not just about com­mu­nity co­he­sion, it’s about whether our coun­try is safe. You can say you are not an­tisemitic, but if you’re not, don’t mix with an­tisemites.”

Mr Cor­byn’s ap­proach to Is­rael — he has sug­gested he is in favour of eco­nomic sanc­tions — would be dam­ag­ing to Bri­tain, Sir Eric added.

“You have to un­der­stand, and I don’t think peo­ple do, quite how in­te­grated our two economies are: our re­la­tion­ship in biotech, in tech gen­er­ally, our great work and co-op­er­a­tion in de­fence.”

As CFI chair he is “de­ter­mined to do my small bit to en­sure this won­der­ful bas­tion of democ­racy suc­ceeds”.

Sir Eric’s love of Is­rael goes back more than 30 years. He was at­tracted to its “free speech, in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary, func­tion­ing democ­racy. It’s a fun­da­men­tal part of be­ing a Tory.”

Re­moved from the cab­i­net, he finds him­self oc­ca­sion­ally pub­licly crit­i­cis­ing his ex-col­leagues. When For­eign Sec­re­tary Philip Ham­mond went to Tehran in Au­gust, Sir Eric held him to ac­count over Iran’s sup­port for terror groups.

Such com­ments are “within the con­fines of a deeply lov­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween my­self and Philip, CFI and the Con­ser­va­tive Party”, Sir Eric said. “We want to see progress. I want to be ro­bust. I’m a friend of Is­rael. That’s not to say I ap­prove of ev­ery­thing the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment does—heck, I was a cab­i­net min­is­ter, we did things I didn’t en­tirely ap­prove of, but that’s the na­ture of pol­i­tics.”

He has never doubted David Cameron’s com­mit­ment to Is­rael, he said.

A long-stand­ing sup­porter of Holo­caust ed­u­ca­tion groups, Sir Eric’s spe­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity as the Prime Min­is­ter’s en­voy on Shoah is­sues is a source of par­tic­u­lar pride. He is de­ter­mined to tackle what he sees as a lack of knowl­edge about the geno­cide.

“The de­niers we’ll never touch. It’s the peo­ple in the mid­dle, those who have never re­ally thought about it, they are the ones you want to get.”

Sir Eric’s con­ver­sa­tions with sur­vivors have con­vinced him that record­ing their tes­ti­mony, and en­cour­ag­ing their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren to take on the re­spon­si­bil­ity of telling their sto­ries in years to come, is the best way for­ward. He re­called a trip to Windermere in Au­gust to mark the 70th an­niver­sary of the Kin­der­trans-port. He over­heard two sur­vivors en­gag­ing in light com­pe­ti­tion over how many grand­chil­dren each had at Ox­ford and Cam­bridge univer­si­ties.

“I thought, ‘this is the whole ruddy point’ — what is, and what could have been. Here we have these bright pen­nies go­ing on to great univer­si­ties and jobs. All those folks who were mur­dered, they could have done the same thing.”

Sir Eric ac­cepts that he faces a tough task en­sur­ing the voice of faith com­mu­ni­ties is heard in pol­i­tics.

He told the story of pre­par­ing to speak at a Holo­caust Me­mo­rial Day event along­side Guardian jour­nal­ist and JC colum­nist Jonathan Freed­land.

“I just de­cided to close my eyes and say a lit­tle prayer be­fore I went on be­cause I wanted to get it right.

“He tapped me and said, ‘Are you hav­ing a lit­tle sleep?’ I thought, ‘For God’s sake.’ You can’t ex­press any sug­ges­tion of faith with­out be­ing clob­bered.”

Much was made last month of Mr Cor­byn’s failed plan to ap­point a “Min­is­ter for Jews”. Given the three key strands of his post-cab­i­net life — re­li­gion, the Holo­caust, and Is­rael — is Sir Eric not the Tories’ de facto Min­is­ter for Jews?

He grinned: “Well I’m not Jewish, and I’m not a min­is­ter. I think I’m ev­ery­body’s guy. I’m there to be a voice and to give a view. But you can bat for your­self, I’m pretty damn sure.”

‘I will do all I can to en­sure Is­rael, a bas­tion of democ­racy, sur­vives’

Sir Eric Pick­les in­spects a To­rah scroll

PHOTO: GETTY IM­AGES

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