30 January 2023

Why antisemitism must be the focus of Holocaust Memorial Day


One of the interesting outcomes of the 2020 Abraham Accords is that this year the United Arab Emirates announced it was going to start teaching its children about the Holocaust. 

Until now, many children in the Arab world have not been taught about the genocide which so shames the West, mainly because it involves Jews and might require them to pity and maybe understand the people they have previously been told to hate. 

Here in the West, meanwhile, we seem to be going backwards as Jews gradually become erased from Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD). In fact, in recent years Jewish people have been accused of greedily trying to hoard the Holocaust to make the Nazi crimes all about them.

In America, for instance, this staggeringly ill-judged syndicated newspaper editorial insisted:

‘Jews do not have a monopoly on persecution and atrocities. For one group to claim that the hate and violence towards them is more important than another’s only encourages more acts of violence against others.’

Perhaps most depressingly, the determination not to centre Jews in a day that commemorates their own genocide has reached Germany.

This year the Green Party, who are part of the ruling coalition, decided to give its HMD commemorations a theme to concentrate on – not the Jews, but the queer people who died in the Holocaust. Elsewhere, the country’s Independent Commissioner for anti-discrimination, Ferda Ataman, wrote a press release ostensibly ‘commemorating’ HMD by pushing for more protection for gay and gender non-conforming people, and not mentioning Jews, Roma or any other group targeted for genocide by the Nazis:

‘Many people in Germany no longer know that homosexual and trans people were also killed by the Nazis in concentration camps,’ Ataman writes. ‘That’s why it’s all the more important that ‘sexual identity’ is finally named as worthy of protection in our constitution.’

German historian Alexander Zinn, who specialises in the persecution of homosexuals under the Nazis, was incandescent. While up to 15,000 gay people (mainly men) were killed by the Nazis because of their sexuality, there is no evidence that trans people were victimised. He warned against ‘bending history in order to get hold of the prestige that comes with belonging to a persecuted group’. 

More concerningly still, some 53 out of 78 members of the right wing AFD were missing from the parliamentary commemoration of the Holocaust, all claiming ‘sickness’. Just a few days earlier 16 of them had attempted to introduce a law banning the kosher slaughter of animals.

The main argument of those who want to reduce the centrality of Jews to HMD seems to be that we want to create some kind hierarchy of suffering, diminishing the horrors perpetrated against other minorities by making it all about ourselves. Absurd though this argument clearly is, it has obvious appeal to those who would use any excuse (or any mention of Israel) to indulge their own prejudices. It is little wonder that many of my Jewish friends find HMD increasingly problematic, as every social media post about it gets flooded with hatred and Palestinian flags. 

It’s worth recalling the genesis of Holocaust Memorial Day, and why the day is so important to Jewish people.

Israel, a state founded in part by Holocaust survivors, started commemorating the Jewish dead in 1949. No one else was really interested at that point – almost everyone in Europe had suffered some sort of privation, lost loved ones, been bombed or invaded. 

After some debate, a date was set in April, around the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Every year on what is known as Yom HaShoah (Shoah is the Hebrew word for ‘catastrophe’) Israel becomes a place of mourning. Theatres and cinemas are shut, flags on public building are flown at half mast and at 10am an air-raid siren sounds for the start of two minutes of silence; even motorists stop their cars in the middle of the road to stand up and reflect on the huge loss. 

The Western version of Holocaust Memorial Day – first initiated by the Blair Government in the UK in 2001 and then taken up by the UN – is on January 27 because it is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, where around 1.1 million Jews were herded into gas chambers and their corpses burned.

None of this has stopped attempts to broaden the scope of Holocaust Memorial Day. In 2008, for instance, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Peter Bottomley sponsored a cross-party motion calling for Holocaust Memorial Day to be renamed to remove the word Holocaust and instead be called ‘Genocide Memorial Day – Never Again for Anyone.’ 

Tellingly, the initiative had come from an anti-Zionist group called the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network IJAN who made their reason quite clear:

‘The Zionist exploitation of this genocide to justify colonisation, displacement and apartheid in Palestine is a dishonour to those who survived and those who did not.’

And while the motion failed, its demands have come true anyway. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust now enjoins us to remember not just the victims of the Nazis, but those in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur too. But though an undoubtedly noble idea, this doesn’t leave much space for the very particular form of hatred – antisemitism – which led the Nazis to murder two thirds of Europe’s Jews, including 1.5 million children.

It also doesn’t leave much space for the specific hatred of the Roma and Sinti people – another huge issue which, like antisemitism, continues to this day. They rightly have their own memorial day, August 2, which (like Yom HaShoah) commemorates a famous fightback, when they briefly held out against the Nazis in Auschwitz. 

And how do the complex stories behind the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur get jumbled up together with the Holocaust? Rather than folding other events into HMD, wouldn’t it be better to have a separate Genocide Day where we look at not only genocides of the past, but ones of today such as the Chinese mass incarceration of the Uighurs?

The most pressing issue at the moment, however, is that antisemitism continues unabated, with recorded incidents at a record high in 2021. British children need to be taught not just the historical facts of the Holocaust, and the Nazis crimes against humanity, but that antisemitism remains a threat today.

One need only look at the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre or the violence meted out to French Jews to see just how lethal that hatred can be. And on the evening of this year’s HMD, seven Israelis were killed in Jerusalem as they left synagogue, a reminder for Jews like me that we will never be safe from people who want to kill us, even in our ancestral homeland. 

The Holocaust isn’t a cautionary tale that this could happen to ‘anyone, anywhere’. It is a lesson about what antisemitism if left unchecked can lead to. And that needs to start by putting the reality of anti-Jewish hatred at the heart of HMD.

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Nicola Lampert is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.