Mr President, distinguished guests, it is a great pleasure to be here today on behalf of the Liberal Democrats on this very happy occasion.
Before I talk about this momentous anniversary, I want to mention another reason why today is special.
As many of you will know, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, AJEX, is today conducting its 76th annual ceremony and parade at the Cenotaph on Whitehall. I saw the preparations myself as I walked past earlier this morning.
That event is an opportunity to remember the service of thousands of Jewish men and women in the British forces, including those who fell in battle.
Were it not for their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of so many other British service personnel, we would not be free to celebrate here today. They must never be forgotten.
250 years – a quarter of a millennium – is a landmark anniversary for any organisation. I congratulate you.
The Board is a shining example of how a faith group can represent itself. Your history is a very distinguished one, mirroring that of Britain’s Jewish community over the equivalent period.
It’s fascinating to look back to 1760 and to consider the great battles for Jewish emancipation which still lay ahead. I wonder how many people beyond this hall know about the struggle for Jewish civil rights in this country?
How many outside this gathering know that Jewish MPs were elected, but then forbidden to take their seats because they were not Christians? Or that Benjamin Disraeli, as a Jew, could only become Prime Minister because he had converted to Christianity?
Actually, when I look at this history, I am pleased at how much my party figures in it.
Those first Jewish MPs, who won the battle to take their seats in the 1850s, David Salomon and Lionel de Rothschild, were elected as Liberals. The first openly Jewish Cabinet Minister was another Liberal, Herbert Samuel, later our party leader in the 1930s.
On a more contemporary note, I am delighted by the announcement that Monroe Palmer will be joining me and my colleagues in Parliament. His election to the peerage is proper recognition of his years of service to the Jewish community and the wider community he represents in Barnet.
I am very proud of this Jewish Liberal history. And as Scottish Secretary, I am proud for other reasons.
When Edward I shamefully expelled the Jews in 1290, they were forced out of England – but not from Scotland.
Edward’s cruel hand did not extend north of the border. Indeed, we Scots showed what we thought of Edward I at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297.
So Jews were never expelled from Scotland.
Sadly, there are not many other European countries that can make such a claim.
Of course, there have been instances of anti-Semitism in Scotland down the centuries and regrettably it still happens today. I am not at all complacent and I condemn all acts of anti-Semitism, wherever they occur.
Having taken a moment to reflect on Scottish Jewish history, which is a proud chapter in the history of the wider British Jewish community, I am grateful for your indulgence.
Across the UK, since 1760, the Board has been present – sometimes as a witness, sometimes as a participant – through all the great events that have affected Jewish people in Britain and worldwide.
Amidst them all – from the Napoleonic Wars to the creation of the State of Israel, from the Industrial Revolution to the development of the Internet – one tragedy stands out, and that is the Holocaust.
Nobody can consider Jewish history without recalling the genocide of so many millions of Jews and others. Even on such a happy occasion as this 250th anniversary, the Holocaust still casts a shadow.
It is right that we remember, and I applaud the work of groups like the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Board itself for the ongoing work in Holocaust remembrance.
Mercifully, Britain, with the tragic exception of the Channel Islands, was spared the horrors of Nazi occupation.
The Board played a pivotal role in the two world wars and the tumultuous events surrounding Britain’s Palestine Mandate.
The story makes compelling reading – the sacrifice of Jewish servicemen in the British forces, the arrival of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, the creation of the State of Israel.
But there’s something else to be remembered in the British Jewish history of the last 250 years.
It’s the smaller, human story of a community living its life – going about its daily business, recorded in ledgers of births, marriages and deaths. The reality of a healthy community - bringing up families, worshipping in synagogues, building schools.
In a way, perhaps, that’s the main story of the British Jewish community. With the Board ever-present in a leadership role, helping the community to practise its faith in peace, freedom and security.
And the history of British Jews is all the more remarkable when one considers the history of Jewish immigration.
From the Cromwellian re-admission in 1656, to the arrival of many Eastern European Jews in the late 19th century, the British Jewish story is one of successful integration of migrant communities.
The bustling Jewish East End which, I am told, gave Britain its first fish and chip shops; the pioneering efforts of children of immigrants in the arts, in business, in the sciences and in sport. This is one of the great success stories of British immigration.
Jewish people remaining proudly, openly, distinctively Jewish, while also being entirely British. Another achievement of which the community and the Board can be deeply proud.
But there has been a darker side to the community’s history.
One must not exaggerate the importance of anti-Semitism in the British Jewish experience – but one must not downplay its significance, either.
Anti-Semitism is an ugly prejudice, aptly called “the longest hatred”. There is no acceptable level of such prejudice, especially when it leads to violent hate crimes. It is intolerable. It must always be opposed.
The Liberal Democrats and the Coalition Government are committed to working with the Board and the Community Security Trust to fight anti-Semitism here and abroad.
When it comes to the ongoing debate about Israel and the Palestinians, feelings frequently run high.
Israel has every right to defend itself against the threats that it constantly faces.
As the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, recently said: “Israel’s right to thrive in peace and security is non-negotiable for Liberal Democrats”.
Whatever reasonable criticisms some people may have of Israeli Government actions – such criticisms can never justify hostility towards British Jews.
There can be no justification for the sheer hatred expressed towards Jews by some of Israel’s more extreme critics.
Across the globe, Jewish communities have been the target of terrorist attacks. This remains a concern in the UK.
I hope you will be assured that the Government understands this threat and the fears it raises, as do the counter-terrorism authorities.
But neither anti-Semitism nor the terror threat defines the lives of Jews in Britain today.
It is self-evident to say the British Jewish community is thriving, vibrant and deeply integrated into this country’s life.
An array of schools, voluntary organisations, synagogues and a charitable sector that contributes so very much to our national life, are testimony to this.
Alongside this, the Board continues to exercise the leadership role that has defined its purpose for 250 years.
It’s a democratic, representative body, speaking for a broad spread of our highly diverse Jewish communities.
As a Minister in the Government of the United Kingdom, I not only congratulate the Board, but also thank you. Thank you for all that you do to represent the British Jewish community to government.
The Board is an organisation of which British Jews should be very proud.
I wish you a very happy 250th birthday.
I hope that you shall continue to play such a valuable and constructive role for many more years to come.