Interview: Lord Greville Janner
A member of the British House of Lords since 1997, Lord Greville Janner previously served in the House of Commons as a Labour Party representative for nearly three decades. The 79-year-old lawyer, author, lecturer and media personality is one of Britain’s most senior Jewish leaders. He was president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and played an instrumental role in international efforts to secure compensation and restitution for Holocaust survivors. His latest books areTo Life! The Memoirs of Greville Janner (Sutton Publishing) andJewish Parliamentarians, coauthored with Derek Taylor, which will be published in July by Valentine Mitchell.
Q. Media perceptions can be misleading, but many Americans are concerned about the concentration of radical pro-terror Muslims that has apparently mushroomed in England. Do you share these concerns?
A. The impression is generally inaccurate, but we are making sure that it never becomes accurate. There are today in the U.K. perhaps 1.5 to 2 million Muslims. Because we have a concern that they are integrated both here and elsewhere, colleagues and I have formed an organization called the Coexistence Trust. I created it together with Prince Hassan of Jordan four years ago after visiting Serbia, where extremists had set fire to a mosque and nobody lifted a finger. [The] organization now has Muslim and Jewish parliamentarians from 45 countries. And we have included from the U.S. the only Muslim in Congress, Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN). In all truth, the situation here is considerably better than that in France, the Netherlands, Belgium or Denmark. On the whole, we have good relations with the Muslim community, but of course real problems from their small radical minority remain that preoccupy us all.
Q. What are your concerns about the other countries you mentioned?
A. In most of those countries the mainstream is seeking to bring the Muslims into their world, where often the Muslims themselves prefer to stay in their own. To cite one example: There are three Muslims in the French parliament so far, but when they became members, their own communities kept apart from them, more or less ostracizing them. This is a whole different outlook on the relationship between minorities and the majority that must find common ground.
Q. Are you worried that while it may not have happened yet, bloc voting by British Muslims could eventually become a problem?
A. There are places where one can readily be concerned about bloc voting, whether by Muslims, Jews or Hindus. One absolutely must realize that Britain has become a very multicultural, multireligious country, which it never was in the past. Jews have been here for many, many years. My grandparents came around the 1880s. My father was elected to Parliament in the early part of the 20th century. Today, there are many Jews in Parliament and very few Muslims, but the Muslims who do sit in the House of Commons have all entered only in the past 10 years.
Q. What is your take on the British national elections?
A. The national elections indicate that the long out-of-office Conservatives are 13 to 14 percentage points ahead. Yet there is still quite a while to go, and we all know that in politics anything can happen. As far as I am concerned, I was a Labour member of Parliament for 28 years. Now I am a Labour peer and member of the House of Lords. [Labour Prime Minister] Gordon Brown is a very close friend both of mine and of our Jewish people, who enjoys very good relationships with our community and the Jewish state.
Q. There is a long-standing tradition in America of active Jewish participation in politics, both as candidates for office and as campaign contributors. Is the British model a lower-profile approach?
A. I think it’s very similar, actually; there are no great differences between the two political cultures. When times are good for Israel, then Jewish MPs tend to be more relaxed than when there is war or the Jewish state is in trouble. We have Jews who are very actively and openly pro-Israel and other Jews who are not. It’s interesting that the first Jew who became an MP was Lionel Rothschild. This was 150 years ago. Until then, no Jew was allowed to take the [parliamentary] oath on the Old Testament. In fact, he had been elected three times, but was unable to take his seat because they insisted that…he had to take the oath on the New Testament—which he refused to do. Since then, there have been over 200 Jewish MPs. Together with a colleague, I have written a book about them, which will be published in time for this auspicious anniversary.
Q. You served as a British Army investigator of Nazi war crimes after World War II. Why did so many of the murderers simply get away? Didn’t it leave a tremendous blot on the ideal of justice?
A. Yes, it was disgraceful and inappropriate, and I was shocked. When they packed up the war crimes group, we still had at least 10,000 names on our list of wanted men. It was indeed an affront to civilization, but it happened because the prevailing view in those times was that the limited strength and facilities and availabilities of the British Armed Forces should better be directed against the Soviet Union and the present and future dangers represented by that country rather than focus on crimes of the past.
Q. What do you make of the publicized cases in which some senior Israeli officers have avoided visiting the United Kingdom, apprehensive that political pressure might be applied to arrest or try them for their military activities? Do you take these reports seriously?
A. Look, one must take it seriously, but I honestly don’t see this as some kind of growing threat, just an unacceptable irritant. I understand that it can be a concern for members of the Israel Defence Forces. It is also something that would clearly be prohibitive of better relations between the two countries, Britain and Israel, in terms of exchanging military technology or cooperation. So, yes, there is a concern, and the situation needs to be looked at.
Q. You were born in Wales. Was there much a a Jewish presence there?
A. Both my [grandfathers] came from Lithuania. When the ship stopped, they got off, one disembarking in Dublin and the other got off in a little town called Barry in South Wales. Later on, they moved to the big city, Cardiff. That’s where I was born. There wasn’t a large Jewish community at all there. We were lucky to have a small synagogue.
Q.I understand you spent part of your childhood, during the war, in Canada. What was the reason?
A. My father was on Hitler’s death list…. Our parents decided that my sister and I should be sent to Canada for our safety. These were the times when an invasion of Great Britain by the Germans was considered a real possibility. So we were in Canada for four years.
Q. You have witnessed considerably more history up close and personal than most people. What conclusion do you draw from it all?
A. I am very proud to be British. I am very proud to have been a member of Parliament for 28 fascinating years, serving as an elected member from Leicester, a Midlands city—[where] to the best of my knowledge there are only 12 Jewish people out of the 1.5 million people in my district. I was totally accepted by my constituents. I am proud now to serve in the House of Lords. My conclusion is that this is a good country for Jews to live in, and I am very proud of this place.