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Interview: Laurence Brass, chair, Oasis of Peace UK 

15 December 2023

‘Between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem lies this settlement where Arabs and Israeli Jews live together in equal numbers

I was obliged — very reluctantly — to retire as a judge upon attaining the age of 70. I felt I was on top of my game, enjoying the work, and I think I was quite good at it. My only current quasi-judicial role is as one of the chairs of the NHS doctors’ disciplinary-procedure panel.

I jumped at the chance that retirement from the judiciary gave me to return to the political fray.
In May 2021, I was elected as the Lib Dem county councillor for my home patch of Bushey, on Hertfordshire County Council. I was especially pleased to be able to help Afghan refugees who were settled in my area after escaping from Kabul. I now serve on the county’s education panel.

I contested five General Elections between 1970 and 1987.
In 1970, I was the youngest parliamentary candidate in the country, and then, in 1974, I twice fought Margaret Thatcher in her Finchley constituency. In the first of those 1974 elections, I was only 6000 short of beating her.

I served as an asylum and immigration judge for almost 18 years.
During that period, I also chaired social-security appeals tribunals, particularly over Disability Living Allowance [DLA]. I learned a lot about medicine during that period, sitting with a doctor to hear the appeals of people refused DLA. Most of the appeals were successful because the Department of Work and Pensions assessors were not particularly sympathetic or accurate. I was pleased to help those who would have been destitute without it.

Prior to my first judicial appointment, I was senior partner of a London firm of solicitors.
My raison d’être of choosing a legal career was a desire to represent those unable to speak for themselves; so, in my early legal career, I concentrated on advocacy in the criminal courts.

My work as an asylum judge was motivated to some extent by my own family history.
My grandparents on both sides were immigrants to this country; so I always felt some empathy with those who appeared before me.

I always remember one of my first cases as a judge,
when I was visibly irritated by an appellant who refused to confirm his name. When I learned that his tongue had been removed under torture and he was unable to speak, I felt so embarrassed at what must have seemed a lack of compassion for his situation.

The message our parents gave us was that it was important to work hard
and give something back to the community, because this country had been willing to accept previous generations. It saddens me very much that many present politicians who are against asylum-seekers and immigrants seem to have forgotten their own roots.

I get angry when I hear racist views being expressed in the media.
I didn’t mention that I spend eight years until recently as a trustee of JCORE, the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, which campaigns for refugees and racial justice.

I’ve always been interested in communal work.
I served as an elected representative for four decades on the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and served as the vice-president for six years between 2009 and 2015. It was during that time that I helped to found the Hertfordshire Inter-Faith Forum, which continues to flourish.

The Board of Deputies is accountable because all its 300 or so members are elected by their own community
— synagogues and Jewish organisations. They deal with every aspect of Jewish life in this country, and represent it directly to the Government; so they are part of the Establishment and can raise any issues regarding our way of life.

We are not the Israeli Embassy.
I’m very critical of the Israeli government, but the Board of Deputies does try to portray it in the most favourable light; so these are very testing times. I was serving in its higher ranks in previous wars, and we always wanted to do this, because the land of Israel is so central to the Jewish religious faith.

I’ve helped with “A Jewish Living Experience”,
which is an exhibition of Jewish culture and artefacts — like a wedding canopy and a menorah — which we take round schools. I’m very sad that Hounslow London Borough Council cancelled this last week, because it’s not what you want in these times — and it’s nothing to do with politics or the Middle East. We had one recently in Borehamwood, which was very successful, and last week, another in south Wales, where 1500 children came.

I became chair of the British Friends of Oasis of Peace UK in May this year,
following on from Sir Andrew Burns, the former British Ambassador to Israel. Halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem lies this quite remarkable settlement where Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews live together in equal numbers. The land is leased by a Lateran monastery, and we get on very well with them.

There’s a primary school,
where Arab and Jewish children from the village and the outlying community attend in equal numbers. Although the population of Israel is 78 per cent Jewish, everything here is 50/50 — teachers, pupils, and houses — and that’s very strictly adhered to. And it works so well.

The people there say we don’t think of the other side as our enemies.
I wish there were more villages like ours on both sides of the border. The teaching is bilingual. The village also has a School for Peace, which runs programmes for Jewish and Arab professionals, and students of all faiths and ages, aimed at promoting understanding between the two communities.

The village is called Neve Shalom/ Wahat al Salaam,
and it was established in 1970 by Fr Bruno Hussar, a Dominican priest. Fr Bruno derived the name from Isaiah 32.18: “My people shall dwell in an oasis of peace.” Since its early years, the village has been evenly split between Palestinians and Jewish families. Despite a recent expansion, and with 30 new housing units being built, there’s still a long waiting list of families eager to live there. The village honours all three of the region’s major religions, and it also has a guest house where tourists can stay.

Life in the village is a constant challenge, especially now.
There have been two arson attacks on our School for Peace in the past two years by extremists from one community or another. The primary school is still operating, and, uniquely, every textbook used is printed in both Hebrew and Arabic. I find this very inspiring. The children refuse to be divided into two tribes.

We’ve had new additions from Arab villages and Jewish kibbutzim recently,
because parents feel there’s more security here, but we’ve made sure that we’re maintaining the 50-per-cent balance. Everyone’s having to make do, and we’ve not turned anyone away.

British Friends of Oasis of Peace has trustees drawn from all faiths,
including the current chairman of Muslims Against Anti-Semitism and an Anglican priest. Our patrons also belong to different faiths, and include Sir Terry Waite, former envoy to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I was educated at Clifton College,
a traditional public boarding school in Bristol, but with a unique Jewish house, which enabled the 70 Jewish pupils to learn about their own religion. I’ve always been a believer, and I’m an active member of my synagogue, and I attend services every week. My faith is a very important part of my life.

My wife and I usually like to take my whole family abroad for the Christmas period.
This year, the children and our four grandchildren will be on holiday in Cape Verde. It’s being away with them all that makes me most happy.

My favourite sound is the roar of the crowd at Arsenal stadium
when my team score a goal. I’ve been a season-ticket holder at Arsenal for 60 years.

My hopes and prayers are focused on the need for peace in my beloved Israel.
I have a house in Netanya which I am currently lending to a family evacuated from their own home near the Lebanese border: 300,000 people can’t live safely there at the moment, because they’re being subjected to Hezbollah rockets. I pray that they and all Israelis and Palestinians will soon be able to enjoy a peaceful existence. I do support the two-state solution. I can’t see any other way.

I’ve selected the former Chief Rabbi the late Lord Sacks
to be locked in a synagogue with, because, as a philosopher and theologian, he had few equals.

Laurence Brass was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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