Betraying Jewish history by watering down the Holocaust
In my JNS column below, I refer to a talk given by Baroness Deech. Her text is reproduced below my own article.
The British baroness Ruth Deech, whose family were Jewish refugees from Nazism, recently delivered an impassioned address to the Oxford Jewish community about the way the Holocaust is being evacuated of meaning by memorials and museums in its name.
Her concern was prompted by the controversial plan to build a Holocaust memorial and learning center in London’s Victoria Tower Gardens, a small park near the Houses of Parliament.
Westminster council, the local planning authority, has turned down this proposal on environmental grounds. The space is a small, green oasis that would not only be marred by a jarring brutalist structure but risks becoming submerged by tourist traffic and anti-Jewish vandals alike.
The British government is making extraordinary and arguably irregular efforts to overturn this decision and get this center built. Its insistence is all the more strange given that there are already five major Holocaust memorials in Britain.
Deech’s concerns, however, go far deeper than inappropriate positioning. Her sharpest point is that these memorials tend to shy away from the real causes of Jew-hatred. Instead, they are increasingly being used to promote a self-congratulatory and sometimes self-exculpatory image of the country that erects them.
Britain’s memorials, for example, do not note how in the 1930s and 1940s the U.K. government blocked the entry into Palestine of desperate European Jews in flagrant repudiation of the British Mandate to settle Jews there, thus facilitating their extermination in the Nazi slaughter.
Hungary, Ukraine and other eastern European countries have used Holocaust memorializing to erase their own complicity in the slaughter of the Jews, presenting themselves instead as historic victims of the Nazis or else equating the Nazi killing of Jews with the Soviet killing of other minorities.
As Deech observed, the Holocaust tends to be lumped together with other genocides and examples of racism or persecution, thus watering down its significance. The message becomes a generalized one of avoiding hatred and intolerance.
But that doesn’t address or explain the roots of the Holocaust: “Namely, centuries of Jewish persecution; first, on the grounds of religion, and then on the grounds of race, and now on the grounds of a distorted left-wing view of the State of Israel.”
Of course, governments and nations should stand against all bigotry and persecution. But this kumbaya-esque mush robs Holocaust memorializing of its key point: that the Holocaust was a unique atrocity.
So it’s not surprising that more and more people are viewing it as just one of many equivalent crimes against humanity.
That’s why it’s been used to draw a comparison with the appalling treatment of the Uyghurs by the Chinese regime. Video footage has surfaced of blindfolded and shackled Uyghurs being led onto trains taking them to indoctrination camps. There are reports of forced sterilizations, abortions and rapes.
This caused Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, to protest to the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom about the “similarities between what is alleged to be happening in China” and “what happened in Nazi Germany 75 years ago: people being forcibly loaded onto trains, beards of religious men being trimmed, women being sterilized, and the grim picture of concentration camps.”
A London rabbi, Moshe Freedman, agreed and writes in the Jewish Chronicle that Holocaust education “was never exclusively about the survival of the Jews or the injustices that were perpetrated again us. It was about global human decency, morality and justice.”
But the Holocaust didn’t involve “injustices” against the Jews. It involved the attempt to exterminate the entire Jewish people.
The measures against the Uyghurs and other Chinese Muslims amount to an attempt to stop them from practicing their faith and turn them instead into indoctrinated clones of the Chinese Communist Party.
That’s horrific, of course. But it’s not the same as the Holocaust, whose unique characteristic was its aim to wipe the entire Jewish people off the face of the earth.
It took a non-Jewish British MP, Alistair Carmichael, a vice chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on China, to uphold the principle that is in such danger of being lost.
Observing that states around the world “need to hold the Chinese government to account for their brutal suppression of the Uyghurs,” he added: “It is never a good idea to compare any contemporary incident to the Holocaust. My fundamental rule is that nothing can be compared to the Holocaust.”
Renowned scholars have also stated in the past that the Holocaust was an event without parallel. The philosopher Emil Fackenheim said that, while it belonged to the category of “genocide,” the planned and largely executed borderless extermination of the Jews was “unique.”
Another Jewish philosopher, David Patterson, went further and said that the Holocaust couldn’t be reduced to a case of genocide.
“The Nazis set out to annihilate more than a people… They set out to annihilate a fundamental principle; to obliterate millennia of Jewish teaching and testimony; to destroy the living God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; to eradicate a way of understanding God, world and humanity embodied by the Jews in particular.”
The main driver of the Holocaust was not racism, nor hatred of “the other,” nor a dehumanizing view of certain groups — a view the Nazis shared with much progressive Western opinion in the 19th and early-20th centuries.
It was instead a paranoid and deranged view of the Jewish people as an evil conspiracy of positively supernatural proportions, and who therefore had to be wiped off the face of the earth. This is not recognizable in any other prejudice, bigotry or hatred directed at any other people or group.
But for some, the uniqueness of Jewish suffering is an intolerable fact that must be suppressed. Progressive “post-colonial” scholarship holds — preposterously — that emphasizing the singularity of the Holocaust diminishes and squeezes out other suffering and victimization.
Many diaspora Jews, moreover, run a mile from any suggestion that the Jews are fundamentally different. They believe their safety and security rest upon not standing out from their surrounding societies.
Which is why they are so anxious to claim that their historic persecution is on the same level as the suffering of others, and that antisemitism is just another form of “racism” or “othering.”
They thus join forces with those who want to deny Jews their true status as the world’s ultimate victims.
And it’s been but a short step from that to the false and malevolent view that the Jews of Israel have ended up doing to the Palestinians what was done to them.
As Baroness Deech observed: “The more the national Holocaust remembrance day events are packed out, the more the calls for sanctions on Israel that would result in her destruction, and the more the Holocaust is turned against the Jews. I hear it in parliament —‘after all you people went through, look what you are doing to the Palestinians; have you learned nothing.’ ”
Many peoples and groups in the world suffer untold horrors at the hands of brutal regimes. Jews and others have a duty to speak out against the persecution of the Uyghurs and all who are being victimized by the Chinese Communist Party.
But there is also a duty to speak up for the uniqueness of the Holocaust: a duty not to betray the facts of Jewish history by minimizing the particular evil of Europe’s darkest moment, a madness that singled out the Jewish people for a fate reserved for them alone.
Text of address by Ruth Deech to the Oxford Jewish community
THE HIJACKING OF THE HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL
Let me start by persuading you that I know what I am talking about. My father came to the UK on 3.9.1939, at the last moment, having lost his chances to be a lawyer and a Zionist activist in Vienna.
He had been a founding member of the World Jewish Congress and worked for them in London for the rest of his life. He always told me to be grateful to this country for the opportunities it gave me, and to contribute in return.
He also said, as an aside, that a little antisemitism is good for you, meaning, as I came to realise, that a reminder of who one was did a lot to prevent total assimilation.
I grew up in a very modest home on the wrong side of London where Zionism and its history were everyday discourse, a house filled with pictures of Herzl, Zionist and Yiddish newspapers and books. But when other children had bedtime stories of Peter Rabbit, I had my mother weeping over the loss of her mother in a Polish concentration camp because the UK had not allowed her entry as a refugee; and my father telling me stories of the shtetl where he grew up, and the family who had died there.
I don’t personally need a Holocaust Remembrance day – every day is HR day to me. Not a day goes by without some relevant thought. In my extensive travels, I have never let a city go without visiting the Jewish museum if there is one, or the Holocaust memorial.
But what got me going on this topic was the annual Holocaust Remembrance day in Parliament where MPs and peers queue up to sign a book of memory. It is regarded as a photo opportunity for constituents, with a photographer in attendance complete with lighting and a background banner saying something like “never again”…
And then I understood: to pay homage to the memory of dead Jews is first, a badge of non-racism; and second, absolves you from respecting living Jews, whom you can carry on attacking in an antisemitic way; and third, frees you up to call for the destruction of Israel.
The more the national Holocaust remembrance day events are packed out, the more the calls for sanctions on Israel that would result in her destruction; and the more the Holocaust is turned against the Jews. I hear it in parliament – “after all you people went through, look what you are doing to the Palestinians; have you learned nothing” etc. A “holocaust” of animals; a “holocaust” of refugees and so on.
It was deeply inappropriate for Jonathan Dimbleby to have used his keynote address at the main commemoration on Holocaust Memorial Day 2018 to claim that allegations of antisemitism are being used to silence Israel’s critics. As the son of broadcaster Richard Dimbleby, Jonathan was honoured with the keynote address at the ceremony. His father had given the British public their first clear account of the concentration camps and had bravely insisted on broadcasting on the incredulous BBC what he saw after British troops liberated Bergen-Belsen.
Whilst Mr Dimbleby gave a very moving address, he also decided to use the moment to repeat the smear that allegations of antisemitism are in fact used to silence Israel’s critics, warning against confusing “antisemitism with the right to criticise – even strongly – the policies of the Jewish state to the same degree as one might any other democracy”.
And the schoolchildren for whom Holocaust studies are a compulsory part of the curriculum are the same youths who, a couple of years later, are at university, where some of them shout down or are violent in stopping Israel speakers from lecturing, who persecute individual Jewish students, who try to hinder Israel societies and will not accept the IHRA definition. Some teaching of the Holocaust in schools is linked to the current situation in the Middle East in order to promote a particular point of view. So what is going on?
The picture accompanying the notice of my talk is of a planned Holocaust memorial and learning centre in Victoria Tower Gardens, a small park alongside Millbank, just behind parliament, which is about the size of 3 football pitches. Christ Church is 28 times bigger. It has several statues in it, the Burghers of Calais, a small memorial to Buxton the abolitionist, Emmeline Pankhurst, and a sizeable children’s playground.
It is the only green space near parliament, and near the office blocks and mansion flats stretching towards Pimlico. The memorial would overwhelm the park, and disrupt the playground and its recreational use. I will come to the practical objections later.
It is not clear why it was chosen over say, St James’s, or areas near Whitehall. It would be the sixth major Holocaust memorial in the UK, alongside the ones in Nottinghamshire, Huddersfield, Hyde Park, Imperial War Museum Holocaust Exhibition (which has just had £30 million spent on it), the Wiener Library and other smaller ones. The government has granted £75 million towards it and the community is expected to raise another £30 million or so, not to mention running costs and maintenance. This is painful when one thinks of what has happened to our usual charities because of the pandemic effect.
Let me first address the straightforward planning objections, the reasons why permission was rejected by Westminster City Council. It means the loss of a park, whose green status is actually protected by a 1900 statute declaring it eternally open. 27 per cent of the space will go, not to mention the queues, the food stalls, deliveries and security apparatus. It is part of planning policy that there should be parks and breathing spaces, more than ever now.
Security: the memorial is bound to be the target of protests, as has been seen from the desecration of Holocaust memorials all over the world. Very recently we witnessed the vandalism of once-revered statues in Westminster during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. No, we should not be put off by that, but those memorials that are devoid of an immediate visible message about the Holocaust, for example a menorah or figures, are more likely to attract vandalism than those that relate to it. There is nothing in this London plan to indicate any serious historical reference.
It will have to be protected by a fence. It may well become a target for terrorist attacks, being conveniently situated right by the BBC Millbank studios and the river. If it includes memorialisation of LGBT, Roma and other victims, it will attract protests related to them as well. We know what turmoil is like in central London. Security checks will be for everyone entering the park, not just those who have booked tickets for the memorial. Other minorities, such as black people, are also asking for memorials, funded by the government – fair enough.
The design for Westminster is entirely unsympathetic to the surroundings. It is almost identical to one that the same architects entered for the Ottawa Holocaust memorial competition, and which was not chosen. There it would have been on a concrete traffic island, and of course the Canadian context both historical and geographical, is entirely different, and yet the same design was trundled out for London.
It looks like a fence, forbidding, not inviting, not reverential. It is likely to be treated with disrespect as is the case with the open air memorial in Berlin, those concrete slabs with no reference point, where people go to picnic and lark around, not knowing what it is all about. The design is disliked by the neighbours, not for Nimby reasons but because it is out of place and ruins their little park.
It is not a good idea, it seems to me, to force a Holocaust memorial into a place where it is not wanted – there are other sites. But objectors have been described as antisemitic, and considerable pressure has been placed by some politicians on the most reasonable of objectors. The project even hired a PR firm to solicit yes/no answers to the planning consultation at a cost of over £100K. Did you know about it? Were you consulted? The Jewish community is in fact divided; there are many non-Jewish leaders anxious to press on, and it has become politicised in a way I will explain.
The original Board of Deputies vision for a memorial, in its report of 2014, was for an expansion of the Imperial War Museum exhibition; and it noted the inadequacy of Holocaust education, a problem not yet resolved, and the need for restitution for victims of the Holocaust, primarily from Poland, which is still awaited. And it noted that modern antisemitism often takes the form of excessive attacks on the state of Israel.
That report was followed by the National Holocaust Memorial Foundation report in 2015 which envisaged a place where people can pay their respects and pray, a lecture theatre, offices and space for gatherings of up to 500 people for commemorative events: none of those criteria are now met. I will come back to Holocaust education shortly.
There are over 300 Holocaust memorials around the world, from China to NZ, and, sadly, the countries which have the most, namely the USA and France, are also those that have seen the sharpest rise in antisemitic incidents. Many of them have learning centres attached. The new London one would comprise the overground memorial you have seen, and an underground learning chamber which would present Britain’s reaction to the Holocaust.
The design of the visible memorial comprises 23 fins 7 metres high. They are said to represent the number of communities destroyed by the Nazis, but there would be no other outward symbol to tell you what it was that you were approaching.
Did you know the significance of that number? It is planned by a board that is headed by Lord Pickles and Ed Balls, and includes Gerald Ronson, Natasha Kaplinsky, (a newcomer to her heritage) and Baroness Harding, currently in charge of Covid testing. They claim it has to be sited next to Parliament, (albeit it would be on the wrong side, if you are coming as most do from Whitehall, or the underground), in order to make the point that democracy protects against genocide.
Now this is simply not the case. Jews have thrived in countries in the past where there was no democracy. The Holocaust did not take place because Germany was undemocratic at the outset, but because of centuries of racial and religious hatred across Europe, hatreds that are again simmering just under the surface.
Democracies across Europe have been powerless to stop the rise of antisemitism and extremism in recent years – on the contrary – it is on the rise in the most democratic of countries, because the acts that persecute Jews come not from the parliaments but from the people.
Britain, itself the mother of democracy and parliaments, saw one of the first expulsions of Jews in 1290, and tolerated centuries of persecution of Catholics and discrimination against Jews and ethnic minorities. Memorials do not in themselves combat antisemitism, and proximity to government central buildings has no discernible effect. Arguably politicians are the category of persons least in need of being reminded about religious and racial intolerance. Lambeth Palace, across the river, or Westminster Abbey, might be a better site if you want to place a reminder where it would be effective.
Overall, the plan shies away from the real causes of Jew hatred. It is meant, according to Cameron and other politicians who have espoused the cause, to be a statement of British values. In fact this national ideology is what has been grafted on to Holocaust memorials around the world. They are increasingly used to promote a self-congratulatory and sometimes self-exculpatory image of the government that erects them.
In our case, British values. That is to overlook the exclusion from Britain of most refugees from Europe in the 1930s, and to place emphasis only on the relatively small numbers in the Kindertransport. Not the tens of thousands of adults who were turned away. Not the thousands or millions who might have sought refuge in Palestine in the 1930s when Britain, as the mandatory power, kept the doors shut, and continued to block Jews from entering Palestine even after the war, even after the discovery of the concentration camps: the UK put Jewish refugees in displaced persons camps in Cyprus and Germany.
If there is a lesson to be learned from the British reaction to the Holocaust it is that if Britain had quit the mandate in 1938, and an independent Israel had been created then, millions of deaths might have been avoided. And if the UK had admitted more adult Jewish refugees in the 1930s, more too would have lived. The statement of British values that the project is to embody is actually a flag- waving tribute to the government and a statement that “we are not Corbyn. It was not our fault. We did much to assist”. It is also a tribute to the wealthy donors who support the Tories.
The new Hungarian Holocaust museum likewise is controversially designed to portray Hungary as a largely innocent bystander, and the deaths of 565,000 Hungarian Jews as an exclusively German crime, against a background of Hungary now refusing to accept any refugees. In the Ukraine and other former Soviet territories, there is an attempt to equate the Nazi killing of Jews with the Soviet killing of other minorities, who have to be remembered as well.
Yes, that is true, but the politics behind it are intended to prop up the nationalist sentiment: ie it was our brave heroes who resisted the Soviets, and downplay the Jewish experience and the complicity of the Ukrainians. And so on.
Take the Babi Yar memorial plans, a site where 33,771 Jews were murdered in 1941. It is alleged that the Soviets tried to cover up this massacre. Russian billionaires are financing the new memorial, not the local Jewish community, which arouses suspicions as to motives. It is planned to be an “immersive theatrical experience” with visitors taking on the roles of victims and executioners. There will be psychological experiments, Greek masks, soundscapes and artistic collaborations, along with a photograph of Michael Jackson. This sounds to me like a travesty, fitting within the concept of “dark tourism”, a category of outings to sites of extreme horrors and tragedies, for a vicarious thrill.
Or to take a small example closer to home. There was a Holocaust exhibition in the Oxford Town Hall recently sponsored by, amongst others, the very union that has sheltered university lecturers who attack Israel, the University and College Union. The descriptions and the accompanying explanations were slanted towards a condemnation of the right wing, whatever that is. I pointed out to the attendant that it is frequently the left wing today who attack Jews and the existence of Israel, to be met with blank denial. So Holocaust remembrance can be a way of attacking the Right, or the Left, as convenient. And always in the past, not looking at what is going on right now.
Poland, by way of contrast, has the right approach – although it is not a country ever to be forgiven or forgotten because it is the only modern European state to refuse any recognition of restitution of property that was abandoned by the 3m Polish Jews who were killed, and whose homes and factories were taken by their neighbours and then by the state. The Polin museum in Warsaw covers the over 1000 year history of the Jews in Poland; and the post war pogroms when a few survivors tried to return to their homes; and the emigration to Israel. Although I have not seen it, I understand that there is a new Russian Holocaust museum with the same approach.
So we come to another nub of my objection. Many visitors to the London memorial, if built, will know nothing about Jews. They may never have met one in their entire lives. Is it right that the only picture they will take away is of dead Jews, persecuted Jews, skeletal Jews in camps, Jews begging to leave? Should they not be told of Jewish history, what it was that was so cruelly destroyed by the Nazis, the immense beneficial contribution of Jews to the history of mankind, and, even more striking, the partial recovery after the war and the establishment of Israel?
Unless the antisemitism that led to the Holocaust is explained, and its modern guise of extreme anti-Israelism understood, those who visit will have only that one picture of Jews and may feel free to attack Israel, as is fashionable now.
This will be all the more of a failure if, as I believe will be the case, other genocide victims are included. Yes, there was devastating genocide in Rwanda, and of the Roma, of the Armenians. But by including them all, wrapping everything in the cloak of “racism”, the lesson is watered down. It becomes one of avoiding hatred and intolerance, which is of course good in itself. But it does not face up to, or explain the roots of the Holocaust. Namely, centuries of Jewish persecution first, on the grounds of religion, and then on the grounds of race, and now on the grounds of a distorted left wing view of the state of Israel.
In all the Holocaust remembrance that goes on in the UK, where is the finger pointing at Christianity? And at the extreme left and right wing? It provides convenient displacement. No, it is not us or our forebears who were at fault. It is a failure of democracy, or it was only the Germans, or it was all in the past. Antisemitism and its causes hardly get a mention. So Corbyn says – I condemn all forms of racism. His allies say: “He doesn’t have a racist bone in his body”- because he and his ilk have turned the spotlight away from antisemitism to some generalised form of discrimination.
We do not know what are the lessons to be learned if the planned London centre revolves around the British response to genocides. What will be done differently in the future and by whom? Genocide is not a failure of democracy, which is what it is promoting. Genocides happen to minorities who have no state of their own to protect them. The Rohingya in Burma; the Uighurs in China and of course the Armenians and others whom I have mentioned. It also occurs when there is no movement in the rest of the world to protect them, or because the killers are too powerful to alienate. “Never again”: an empty slogan, as the eminent historian Yehuda Bauer has said.
If the memorial is to include a learning centre, there is no need for it to be located in Westminster. What we need is accessibility to the learning materials by schools all over the country, and of course the recording of the memories of the survivors. Holocaust education has left many school leavers with only the haziest notion of how many were killed, by whom, and above all why – they are not taught about the meaning of antisemitism, only about hatred and Germans. They are not shown Jewish lives, then and now.
A new learning centre ought not to be London-centric. The current lockdown has shown how the internet can be used more widely. The project’s objectives could be met more effectively, more accessibly and more economically by digitalisation, some of which is already in existence. This would extend information to those who cannot travel to London. It would avoid the need to have a learning centre that will become just another tourist attraction in Westminster.
I do not want thousands of visitors in buses to come to gawp at pictures of Jews in death camps. There are good films and documentaries covering that. I want their reverence, in some cases their apologies, and their understanding of the millions of Jews today and their vulnerable place in the world. The over used phrase “Never Again” means what exactly?
Holocaust denial and tales of Jewish conspiracies abound today, sadly. You remember the court case of Deborah Lipstadt v David Irving. The rate of Holocaust denial in the UK is low, six per cent has been alleged, and it is highest in the Middle East, especially the West Bank and Gaza. If there are particular difficulties in teaching children in remote parts of the country, or sensitivities surrounding teaching Muslim pupils, then a building in London will not assist.
Moreover, Holocaust denial is not subject to rational thought, and it seems to me unlikely that any deniers would visit the new building and change their minds. The growth of memorials around the world has not put an end to Holocaust denial; hate speech laws and regulation of internet media may be more useful in this regard. The memories of Jewish survivors are recorded in two oral history projects of the British Library, the Living Memory of the Jewish Community; and the Holocaust Survivors’ Centre interviews.
By passively going along with these plans and fearing to voice our concerns, we have allowed today’s politicians to hijack the Holocaust memorial for their own ends. I’d like to see the allocated sum of over £100 million spent on a complete overhaul of Holocaust education, turning it into the history of the Jews with progression from the past to the future.
And there must be no disguising of the menace of antisemitism behind a cloak of generalised hatred or distortion of history. The finger points at Christianity, at the extreme right and the extreme left and at Islam. Generalised and expensive waffle about democracy and “Never Again” will not do it. Just as pulling down statues will not in reality improve the existence of black lives, so putting up a memorial will not promote safety and tolerance of the Jewish – and other – minorities. Building it could set back the cause of combating antisemitism for decades.