Justin Cohen
Justin Cohen

We owe chums Michael and Sir Eric a huge debt of gratitude

Less than a week into the general election campaign and already we know the next Parliament will be missing two of Anglo-Jewry’s greatest friends in Westminster.

Having decided not to contest their seats, Yorkshire duo Sir Eric Pickles and Michael Dugher will be sorely missed by the constituents they’ve served for a combined total of more than 30 years, but also by a community they’ve consistently gone out of their way of support – despite having no significant presence in their patches.

Sir Eric’s work as chair of Conservative Friends of Israel and the government’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues has made him chief Commons chum (to use the Yorkshireman’s preferred word for friend) over the past two years.

Such has been his impact that colleagues joked about renaming the lobby group Conservative Chums of Israel.

Sir Eric Pickles
Sir Eric Pickles

Over the last 24 months, as well as during his time as Secretary of State for Communities, it seems as if he’s been on almost as many communal guest lists as the chief rabbi (he would be in Poland now for March of the Living now if not for election campaigning).

During recent years, barely a day has gone by when he has not tweeted about issues connected to those two roles. His Twitter byline shows a man for whom these are not just jobs but vocations he cares passionately for.

You won’t often see politicians retweeting colleagues from other parties, but doing so when Sadiq Khan posted about Holocaust Memorial Day offered a reminder of his determination that Holocaust remembrance should cross party divides.

But it isn’t just through words and online gestures that he showed support. When an anti-israel disturbance led to police being called to UCL, Sir Eric was among the first to stand up for Jewish students. Amid local authority boycott motions, he advocated a crack down. And when the UK backed a United Nations resolution on settlements in December, he wasn’t afraid to criticise the actions of the government.

Michael Dugher
Michael Dugher

But it was also during his time as CFI chair that this government undertook some of the  most supportive moves towards Israel we’ve seen – from calling out the bias of the UN Human Rights Council to making changes to the way aid is directed to the Palestinians, amid fears it could be abused.

In the fight against discrimination, undoubtedly his greatest personal achievement was the work that led to Britain becoming the first country to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. It’s an achievement that will be positively felt by our community for decades to come, and news that he will continue as Holocaust envoy will be universally welcomed, no more so than by survivors.

Add to his political experience a larger than life personality and you have, according to those that have worked most closely with him, an irresistible cocktail that has enabled the causes he has devoted himself to to get their messages out like never before.

Who else but Sir Eric would have the chutzpah to  joke about Al-Jazeera cameras being welcome at one recent CFI event, just days after the channel’s undercover investigation? I’m sure I’m not the only one who will miss his inimitable MC’ing of the annual CFI fringe reception! Rumours he’s quitting parliament to become a barmitzvah toast master, however, appear to be premature.

On the opposite side of green benches, Dugher has been one of the most outspoken defenders of the Jewish community and Israel – a record which friends say goes back to his student days. As support for Labour among British Jews wained under Ed Miliband and virtually collapsed under Jeremy Corbyn, he has been unafraid to put his head above the parapet, putting himself at odds with his leader even before it became regular practise to do so.

His stand when Ed Miliband imposed a three-line whip on the symbolic Commons vote to recognise Palestine and description of himself as a “proud Zionist” at a time when the term has become akin to a swear word in parts of his party were among his most noted shows of public support. At a time when a number of Labour friends appear vulnerable at the ballot box, his early departure from the political scene will be felt even harder.

But all good things must come to an end. Parliament’s loss will be something else’s gain and we look forward to see what Michael and Sir Eric have in store next.

Until then, let’s give them a send-off fit for two true chums.

About the Author
Justin Cohen is News Editor of the Jewish News.