Eric Pickles is Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and is MP for Brentwood.
Seventy years ago this week, Soviet troops stormed a large complex of Nazi prison camps in south-west Poland. They quickly discovered the apparatus for mechanised mass murder. The camps were called Auschwitz-Birkenau: a byword for the darkest depths of human depravity, and a period of unparalleled evil in human history.
Last Sunday, I travelled to Poland to represent the UK at this year’s liberation ceremony. The event was more poignant than ever, as it’s likely to be the last significant anniversary where survivors are present. It was also more sombre, because it takes place in the aftermath of another violent and disgusting attack on European Jews.
Recently I’ve heard people try to distinguish the antisemitism that propelled the Holocaust from the murders in Paris. They argue the former was born from fascism and ancient European prejudices, while the latter was driven by Islamic extremism and Middle Eastern politics.
This distinction is superficially reassuring. After all, we overcame the Third Reich 70 years ago. And as for those Jew-hating jihadists, well, they hate everybody else too. But there’s a problem: there is no distinction. It’s a delusion.
As I have said before, the irrational hatred of Jews is like cancer. It can be defeated, even crushed, but it can come back. Last year, Europe experienced a relapse, and only the most naïve would dismiss the potential risks that lie ahead.
Cancer begins in just a few malignant cells, but then it spreads, mutates and kills. The journey to the gas chambers began with small steps: newspaper columns, graffiti and broken windows. It ended with the murder of six million Jews and the destruction of European civilisation.
Some will dismiss such talk as hyperbolic paranoia. They’re wrong. The anxieties of French Jews were growing long before Amedy Coulibaly entered the Hyper Cacher supermarket, and increasing numbers were already emigrating to North America, Israel and Britain.
It is well documented that Jewish people in the UK are considerably less anxious about prejudice than elsewhere in Europe. But that is no cause for conceit, because last year we witnessed our own surge of antisemitic incidents.
Jews were spat at in the streets, intimidated and physically attacked. Cemeteries were desecrated, and the walls of Jewish homes daubed with vile and offensive graffiti. In July and August, there were more antisemitic incidents than the entire previous year.
These pernicious crimes have been accompanied by a creeping cultural acceptance of anti-Semitic attitudes and behaviour. A Jewish film festival was banned on the basis of Israeli policy in Gaza. A branch of Sainsbury’s cleared their shelves of kosher food to appease anti-Israeli protesters. During the Paris attacks, a respected BBC journalist started questioning a Parisian Jew about Israeli policy, as if she somehow bore responsibility.
These acts of antisemitism were almost casual, and their symbolism extremely troubling. The people and organisations involved eventually offered apologies, sometimes partial and begrudging, but I was dismayed by the initial denial and incomprehension that their behaviour was antisemitic.
The history of antisemitism shows the worst atrocities can begin when ordinary people turn a blind eye to small acts of discrimination, and minds drift lazily towards a mainstream, even fashionable, acceptance of prejudice.
Even some left-wing councils have jumped on the bandwagon. Labour-run Leicester considered it acceptable to play student union politics and ban Israeli-manufactured products. The Mayor of Tower Hamlets tried to create his own municipal foreign policy by flying the Palestinian flag. These public bodies should use their position of authority to promote community cohesion – not to grandstand and stir up tensions.
There is no excuse for this behaviour, or discrimination of any kind. Britain is a country where people of all faiths, and all backgrounds, can live peaceful and prosperous lives. British Jews have made and continue to make a huge contribution to national life: in business and commerce, the arts and literature, through volunteering and charities.
Britain without its Jews is not Britain at all, and this Government will remain at the centre of efforts to combat anti-Semitism. Last month, my department published a report about what we’re doing. That includes paying for extra security at Jewish schools, punishing online hate crime, and tackling anti-Semitism in football.
We are also ensuring all schoolchildren are taught about the Holocaust, so the next generation understands the horrors caused by inaction, and challenges any attempt to dilute the British values of tolerance and mutual respect.
Extremist behaviour has no place in modern Britain. It is a direct challenge to the values that define our nation. These values are very precious to us, and this Government will ensure they are never surrendered at the expense of British Jews. Freedom of religion is a hard-fought British liberty, and it is one that we will robustly defend.