The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1993Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech to the Board of Deputies of British Jews – 25 March 1993

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, held in London on Thursday 25th March 1993.


It is not often in the life of a politician that he has such a warm welcome and it is not often in the life of a politician that he is as pleased as Norma and I are tonight to be precisely where we are tonight.

Samuel Pepys summed up my feelings 200 years ago on dining with the Board of Deputies, a very great diarist, a man of great prescience, and he wrote as follows: “A good dinner and company that pleased me mightily, being all eminent men in their way”. Well he was an unreconstructed man of course, these days he would have reminded us that there were some eminent women here tonight as well.

This evening, may I say to all of you that your Board has done Norma and me a very great honour. We come to you tonight as friends and as admirers of the Jewish people. And as Martin Gilbert’s Jewish History Atlas tells me, my Parliamentary constituency, Huntingdon, was the home to a Jewish community as far back as the 13th century.

A few moments ago, Your Honour, you spoke of freedom of access to the British government and the British Prime Minister. Let me just respond to that directly and immediately. The Board of Deputies will always have free access to me for as long as I remain in Downing Street.

And let me just pick up something else you said a moment ago for it was something that touched my instincts in the light of some events that we have seen this week. You spoke in your remarks just a few seconds ago of the victims of violence. The victims of violence are international, we had that brought home to us very vividly on the streets of Warrington just last weekend and as a result of that particular piece of evil two small boys with their whole lives ahead of them are dead. Their death was pointless and wicked. But it does I think remind us that wickedness is alive and wickedness must be confronted and that is a first duty of democratic governments in every part of the world.

Mr President, the Board of Deputies may not be quite as old as Samuel Pepys, but it has played a unique role in this country for more than 200 years. It speaks authoritatively for the Jewish community, its officers in many ways know the ins and outs of Whitehall and Westminster almost better than the government Chief Whip. They have a two-way relationship with the government from which I personally have learned a great deal.

I would like this evening to repay just a little of that debt by touching on subjects that I know concern you greatly. I do so tonight from the point of view of a friend of Israel, but I do so also in particular from the point of view of a candid friend, a candid friend perhaps but nonetheless a genuine friend. That is true I believe, as you yourself said, of my country and I think it is true of me as well.

Let me first if I may this evening confront a subject which is painful for all of us and Judge Feinstine mentioned it, he mentioned racism. I have a deep and a personal loathing of racism and throughout their history since the Diaspora Jewish people have contended with racism and with anti-semitism. This century began with problems in Eastern Europe and the flight of hundreds of thousands of Jews. In mid-century Europe descended into the unfathomable horrors of the holocaust. In the Soviet Union many Jews suffered discrimination or were persecuted simply for seeking to emigrate to other parts of the world.

It would I think have been reasonable to hope that by the 1990s more civilised standards of behaviour would have prevailed throughout Europe. So they do – at the level of state and government. But I have to say to you this evening that the problem of racism has not been eradicated in Europe. There has been a disturbing resurgence of racist and anti-semitic attacks in different countries, we have heard ugly words from factions on the fringe of politics.

And at a time when different parts of Europe are in turbulence and transition, and in some cases in distress, we must not, dare not, allow demagogues to reignite the flames of racial hatred.

The European Council which I had the privilege to chair in Edinburgh condemned all racism and racist attacks. But empty words are insufficient. Those words need to be matched by action and we are looking for collective action in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. From the mid-1970s the principle of the CSCE played a vital part in our joint struggle to change official attitudes in the former Soviet Union. Your Board’s Soviet Jewry section distinguished itself, distinguished itself particularly campaigning for the prisoners of Zion in all those years. And it is a remarkable testament to that noble campaign that last autumn the Board found itself entertaining the Russian Ambassador. I greatly welcome that and I hope it continues for many years in the future.

But the CSCE needs to do more than it has done in the past. It needs now to change attitudes at the popular level. Its members should compare their different experiences. The CSCE’s international seminar on tolerance held in Warsaw last November was an encouraging step in the right direction. But we need action elsewhere, action too for example in the Council of Europe and there we propose practical measures of immediate benefit to groups at risk, for example, but one of many examples, on police training.

But there must also be national action as well as international action. And Britain has a good record. Your President spoke a few moments ago of the relationship with governments of different political complexions and I echo what he had to say. Britain does have a good record here, we have the high levels of protection afforded by the Race Relations Act in the mid-1970s passed by a Labour government, and by the Public Order Act of the mid-1980s passed by a Conservative Government.

But we can, in my personal judgment, never be complacent. Xenophobia and racism are repugnant, there can be no room for them in Europe, not now, not ever again, and that means eternal vigilance to make sure that they never return to our way of life.

Mr President, let me touch also on a matter you raised yourself – the peace process in the Middle East. In a speech here in February President Herzog declared, and I quote: “central in our national purpose is the achievement of peace with our neighbours by means of the peace process.” That process, that necessary remarkable process, began at Madrid in October 1991, it is central not only of course to Israel but to all who have the best interests of the Middle East at heart.

Each party, each party to the process has strong reasons to seek peace. In Lebanon peace is essential if the state is to be rebuilt. The Jordanians need peace because it will strengthen the political and economic climate of the region as a whole and that is vital to their own particular state. For Syria peace would help the restructuring of the economy and the improvement of relations with the West. The Palestinians want a settlement that would end life under occupation and allow them to run their own lives. And the people of Israel do not wish to live in a state of indefinite tension with their neighbours, exacerbated by the acute and unresolved problems of the occupied territories.

So there is at stake a great deal. A peace is necessary to each and every one of those states for different reasons. What if we should fail? What if there should be no peace? Failure would carry risks and consequences which no responsible leader would wish to entertain. Failure would accentuate economic problems, it would risk greater political instability and widespread social unrest, it would provide fertile ground for fundamentalism and for extremism.

Let me digress for a moment simply to say this. Fundamentalism is a dark cloud the world should watch very carefully indeed in the years immediately ahead.

And we should recognise other impediments to peace as well. As well as extremist movements, certain governments not involved in the peace process would like to see that peace process fail, not everyone wishes well for the peace process. There are governments that would like to capitalise on failure in order to increase their influence in the region and I do not think in this company, on this occasion, that I have any need to name the names of those countries. But that is why I think it is so vital to sustain the momentum.

There is a window of opportunity for peace but it is a window that may not remain open indefinitely. Over time, governments in the region will change, acts of violence could provoke a change of attitudes and we must therefore get the parties – all of the parties – back to the negotiating table and urge them to pursue agreement while the opportunity is there. So far Israel, only Israel, has responded favourably to the co-sponsors’ invitation to the further bilateral talks due to start in Washington on the 20th April.

Clearly, the increase in tension and violence in the Occupied Territories and within Israel has seriously complicated the peace process. Murderous attacks have been carried out on Israeli civilians and soldiers and they cannot by any yardstick be condoned. The Palestinian leadership must do everything in their power to reduce the violence. Most of the attacks would appear to be the work of extremists who oppose and would like to derail the peace process that is so vital to the future for the Middle East. They must not be permitted to succeed.

I said earlier to this company that I came here tonight as a candid friend and I must be so now. I know the sort of provocation the Israeli defence forces are under. No-one is suggesting for a second they pursue a deliberate policy of violence but I would be at fault to my friends here this evening if I did not express my deep concern about some of the actions in the Occupied Territories. The deaths of over twenty children and young people since December in shooting incidents grievously undermine the case of Israel’s friends as I know this company will recognise. That is realism, not pessimism.

I am not pessimistic about our opportunities for peace. Like President Herzog, I believe the fact that the peace process is taking place represents a major and beneficial change in Israel’s history. He said during his visit – and I quote that remarkable man again – “Who dreamed when I entered office that we would be sitting down and negotiating in direct bilateral negotiations with a view to achieving peace with the Syrians, with the Lebanese, with the Jordanians and with the Palestinians?” Who indeed would have dreamed that was possible and it is a matter of hope today that people are now talking to each other, not past each other. They are beginning to understand the political realities and the public perceptions on the other side. We must give full credit to the United States Government for leading that peace process and it is good news that the new Administration in Washington is ready to become a full partner in the negotiations. From my own meeting with President Clinton, I can confirm to you that that is certainly the case.

So what is there that our country, that Britain, can do to help? We of course don’t claim to be a central player. Of the countries outside the region the United States are the prime movers helped by their Russian co-sponsors. However, the parties will need help, encouragement from all quarters in taking the difficult decisions that lie ahead. With our European partners, Britain stands ready to assist that process.

In this connection – and it is a matter I will not duck this evening – the British Government took one step earlier this month on which I know many of you have strong feelings and some reservations. I refer of course to our decision to receive at ministerial level a Palestinian delegation including two PLO representatives. I know how unpopular that was with many of our friends in Israel. Let me explain, for there is nowhere better to do it, our purpose.

I spoke earlier of the need to maintain momentum in the talks and to encourage everyone to take part. That means if we are to have peace that the Palestinian leadership must be persuaded to return to the peace process. We – by which I mean in this instance the British Government – wish to see them return to that peace process and it is clear to us that to achieve that the PLO will influence that decision. It is hard to influence them in the right direction without talking to them.

Our talks are a means of impressing our strong views on them, in particular our view that there must be an end to violence in the Occupied Territories. Those on all sides who genuinely desire peace must, through their own actions, help to create the right climate. That, I tell you this evening, is the motive behind the actions of the British Government.

The value to Israel of a peace settlement could scarcely be overstated. It must of course be a settlement which offers a lasting guarantee to Israel’s security. Any friend of Israel, anyone who has studied Israel’s history, can only be keenly aware of that country’s vulnerability. No proposal which fails to take account of that has a chance of success in the peace process. The peace process itself would not be alive without the recognition that Israel’s security could be assured through a fair and a durable settlement and a settlement, were it to be achievable, were it to be achieved, would relieve the burdens that have so long hung over every family in Israel and upon the minds of every friend of Israel around the world. Let me reiterate a point I believe you all know: the Israeli Government has our wholehearted support in its pursuit for peace.

Let me finally say a few words about the European Community and about relations between Britain and Israel. Britain has traditionally played a vigorous part in the Community’s work on the Middle East. We shall be represented in next week’s ministerial visit by the Community’s Troika to the region. The Troika’s purpose is to demonstrate the Community’s commitment to the peace process and to support the resumption of negotiations.

On the economic front, the European Community has become Israel’s largest trading partner. Remarkably for a country of five million people, Israel is the European Community’s 17th largest export market. A peace settlement would lead in my judgement to a further increase in our economic states. It would stimulate increased investment in regional development from all the countries throughout the European Community.

Perhaps of equal concern to you this evening is the European Community’s action over the Arab trade boycott. At the Lisbon Council last June, the Community called on the Arab League to end the boycott. It followed up by making direct approaches to Arab governments and urged them to respond positively to the moves made by Israel to curb settlements in the Occupied Territories. I cannot promise this evening in present circumstances that the Community will succeed in securing an early assurance by Arab governments that the boycott will be lifted. I can assure you this evening that we will continue to press unremittingly for this in the months and years ahead.

And that brings me back almost to where I began. Over the years, many years, Britain’s relations with Israel have had their ups and had their downs. They are now, as your President said, very close and very warm relations. I had the honour last month of entertaining the President of Israel at Downing Street. Heini Herzog will soon be retiring after a distinguished decade in Israel’s highest office. During that period he has been a beacon of wisdom and of moderation. His personal contribution to British-Israeli friendship has been immense. He left here recently declaring that he was more than ever convinced of the profound bonds of friendship which unite our peoples for all time. I look forward to meeting his newly-elected successor, Aza Weizmann who shares a strong British connection with President Herzog. As a war-time pilot in the Royal Air Force and there can be few closer connections than that, and as one of the architects of Camp David, he seems to me to have the perfect qualifications and I have today sent him both the Government’s and my own warmest congratulations upon his new responsibilities. [Applause].

I had the pleasure of meeting Prime Minister Rabin here only last December. Members of his Government are assiduous and very welcome visitors to this country. Indeed, over recent months there are times when I have thought of suggesting that the Israeli Cabinet might itself meet here in London [laughter]. Four Israeli Ministers have been here in the last few weeks and another arrived today. I believe, alas, we have no fresh arrivals tomorrow.

One of my predecessors, David Lloyd George, said of the Jewish people in 1925 the following words: “You may say you have been oppressed and persecuted. That has been your power. You have been hammered into very fine steel and that is why you have never been broken.” Steel was the quality which has carried the Jewish people through their long search, a search which culminated in the establishment of the Jewish national home in 1917. I can imagine – but not with the depth of feeling and instinct that you can – quite how much that means to everyone who is Jewish.

Let us then not in 1917 but in 1993 do everything in our power to achieve a peace settlement which will secure that home sought for so long and loved so much, to secure that for all time. That is something that we must all pray for. That is something, I assure you this evening, that the British Government will continue to work for and I express again to you tonight my thanks for the honour you gave me in inviting Norma and I to join you this evening as your guests. [Applause].