Fabian Hamilton: My family and the evil of anti-Semitism

Leeds North East MP Fabian Hamilton.
Leeds North East MP Fabian Hamilton.
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NO MP – or individual – should have to put up with any abuse, let alone
the twin evils of those who hate both women and Jewish people. Nobody in our society should ever suffer abuse because of who they are and how
 they have been categorised by others.

Anti-Semitism must be stamped out wherever and whenever it rears
its ugly head – we can never
accept a society where such abuse is tolerated.

Let me describe my own family’s history which is relevant to the current debate. I discovered recently, following 
an unexpected contact from a second cousin in Paris whom I had never met, that our mutual great-grandmother – Raina Sevilla – had been murdered in Birkenau in July 1942.

Born in Bulgaria, married in Istanbul, she was persuaded by her daughter and son-in-law (my grandparents) to move with them from Geneva to their new home in Paris.

That was 1934. Six years later, after Paris fell to the Nazis, Raina was asked to register with the occupying authorities at the Hotel Crillon – Nazi headquarters in France.

Like hundreds of thousands of French Jews, Raina dutifully complied with the new laws and reluctantly wore her yellow star on her coat. In the summer of 1942, the registered Jews of Paris were systematically arrested and taken to the Vel d’hiv, the Paris velodrome from where they were moved to Drancy, a suburb of Paris near the railhead at Bobigny. The cattle trucks left daily for the extermination camps and Raina was taken to Auschwitz Birkenau to be exterminated.

I mention Raina Sevilla because, 
like almost every other Jewish family alive in Britain today, I have a direct connection to the Holocaust and through that a direct connection to the nation that was created in 1948, 70 years ago this year, to give safety and security to the Jewish people after the catastrophe of that appalling genocide on such an industrial scale.

But my own roots are even more complex: three of my grandparents were born abroad, as was my father, who couldn’t speak English until he was 12, although just eight years after arriving in England he started his service in the British Army.

I was brought up in a family that was sceptical about religion, but knew its history and identity. My sister and I celebrated Seder night with our parents at my grandmother’s home, though we did not have much idea what it all meant. My maternal grandfather was an Orthodox Rabbi who then joined a Reform Synagogue and finally lost his faith altogether. My sister and I are 
the product of both Ashkenazi and 
Sephardi traditions, though as a young man I was often mistaken for being Greek, Italian, Iranian or Arabic and sometimes I still am.

Our identity as individuals is
defined by our ancestry and our immediate families, as well as our experiences as children and a host of other factors of course, but so much
of where we come from is entirely
beyond our control from the colour 
of our eyes to the tone of our skin or 
our gender.

What is wholly unacceptable for any civilised society is to use the minute differences in human DNA, or the cultural heritage of individuals, to be used as a way of rejecting those people
or worse still using them to promote hatred.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the current wave of anti-Semitism – and Islamophobia – is that humanity has clearly not learned from the lessons of history, for if we are ever to create a truly harmonious and peaceful society, we have to stamp out the ignorance and 
fear that leads to hatred, whether
of the Jewish people, or of any 
other cultural or religious group 
within society.

Pretending that it doesn’t exist will not deal with the problem, and Labour has to ensure that whatever mistakes it has made up until now are put right, confronted and excised before further damage is done. We want our Jewish supporters back because in my experience the North Leeds Jewish community, that I have had the privilege of representing now for 21 years, 
have not only contributed so much
to the Labour Party over more 
than a hundred years, but has a 
strong social conscience and sense of social justice.

Fabian Hamilton is MP for Leeds North East. He is Labour’s front bench spokesman on the Middle East.