A decade since the founding of Holocaust Memorial Day, the event remains a contested space.
Thankfully British memorials have not carried the unabashed Zionist and exclusive edge of the Washington-based Holocaust Memorial Committee. The US organisation still refuses permanent membership to any Romany representative; founder Elie Wiesel went so far as to say that the inclusion of Gypsies would ‘degrade the memory’. By contrast, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust in Britain this year welcomed the oral history of a family of Gypsy survivors, and made no attempt to censor their subsequent account of persecution both in the Czech Republic and as asylum seekers here.
The first event in Britain belatedly invited an Armenian patriarch and a Romanian violinist, making an attempt at diversity which local councils have tried to further. Over the years a young Kosovan refugee has helped a Kristallnacht survivor plant a tree; a Turkish poet has read an elegy for the Armenians; a gay mayor has spoken of the men in pink triangles; Cambodian and Rwandan survivors have told their stories with political insight as well as tragic detail.
But no-one confronted two foundational myths: that of Britain the liberator of Belsen and historic refuge for all those fleeing persecution; and that of the genocide of the Jews as the central, supreme horror in the whole of human history. This latter story normally includes an unspoken coda, the founding of Israel as an act of restitution for centuries of anti-Semitism.
It was distasteful to say the least that the UK, a country which had just turned its back on the Bosnian killing-camps and whose government still boasts of turning away thousands of asylum seekers every year, should be making such pious claims. And it was inevitable that the UK’s opportunist ‘Jewish establishment’ , presenting itself as a template for advancement to other minorities, should come up against similarly petty reactions such as the refusal of its Muslim counterpart, the Muslim Council of Britain, to attend the early Holocaust Memorial events. Over time that overt opposition has faded, but a more lasting concern is the axing of local Equalities/Diversities officers and the potential dwindling of Holocaust Memorial Day into a parochial ‘Jewdo’ attended by politicians on the make.
At first sight the official Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration at the Guildhall looked worrying. There was visibly less diversity than even at the first hastily-assembled crowd in 2001.
Massive security and a front row made up of Margaret Hodge MP [who explicitly denies any connection between her own German refugee background and the stories of asylum seekers today], Jonathan Sacks [the platitudinous and timid Chief Rabbi who always seems to cave in to pressure from the right of the community, and who named Israel’s 1967 war as the event which turned him from a trainee accountant into a man of G-d], and David Cameron [ “Conservatives should be friends of Israel… Israel is in the front line in the international struggle against terrorist violence… Conservatives… appreciate in their hearts what makes Israel strong”] did not raise the spirits.
But the programme took as its theme the Warsaw ghetto’s legacy, also giving video space to Rwandan and Romani woman survivors as well as the majority Jewish refugees and their families in the body of the hall. It was presented by black playwright Bonnie Greer, and put out a coded final message to support today’s persecuted outcasts. It seemed the organisers really had tried to make an open event.
Unfortunately some of the participants, Jonathan Sacks and that egregious Holocaust opportunist David Cesarani in particular, could not avoid claiming prime possession of the Holocaust for Jews as ‘unparalleled’ and ‘the greatest evil in human history’. What could Bonnie Greer have felt, as a survivor of the Middle Passage?
A few days earlier a very different Genocide Memorial Day had been organised by the Islamic Human Rights Commission. Knowing IHRC’s admiration for the Iranian model, it was interesting to see no trace of Holocaust denial in the exhibits. Instead the Nazi Holocaust took its place beside less-remembered instances like Japan’s invasion of China, the US invasion of the Philippines [1.4m dead], the Belgian Congo [8m, half the population] and today’s slaughter in Darfur and Gaza.
Speakers included Randeep Ramesh of the Guardian on newly discovered evidence of millions of people ‘disappeared’ after the British Army revenged itself on the Indian Mutiny of 1857; Lee Jasper on the crimes and legacies of three centuries of the slave trade; and a venerable Holocaust survivor from the ultra-orthodox Naturei Karta sect, who made a clear distinction between Judaism and Zionism. Jewish attendants were made welcome. It was a pity therefore that the main speaker, anti-apartheid veteran and Robben Island survivor Imam Abdurrahman Kassiem, misgauged his audience and made two specific remarks which appeared to invite or expect an anti-Semitic ‘conspiracy’ reaction. This left a question mark over the event which it otherwise did not deserve. It was in the main a brave and considered response to the need for a wider memory of genocide and its often ignored links to empire and colonialism.
On the evening of Holocaust Memorial Day, ‘Never Again – For Anyone’ took place at Portcullis House in Parliament, the climax of a tour organised by the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign. The explicit aim was to spend the evening remembering, learning from but never ‘exceptionalising’ or sacralising the Nazi Genocide. The understanding of the organisers was also framed by Hannah Arendt’s insight that the concentration camps were the return to Europe of Europe’s crimes against people worldwide.
Auschwitz survivor and Resistance fighter Hajo Meyer was the chief speaker, telling of his sense of betrayal and outrage that the universalist Jewish culture of his youth had morphed into callous nationalism supporting a racist settler state. He deplored the way that Zionist leaders – who had once despised concentration camp survivors as “unusable material” – were now making a religion of the Holocaust to justify war crimes and mass reprisals against civilians. The second guest speaker , Dr Haidar Eid, had to speak down a phone line from Gaza, which has become a living prison. Both Hajo Meyer and Dr Eid described ‘a slow motion genocide’ against the Palestinians – the term first used by Israeli historian Ilan Pappe and recently by Palestinian boycott leader Omar Barghouti.
‘Never Again – For Anyone’ was structured as an open reminder of all genocides: somewhere Native Americans could speak with the Roma facing murder today, and survivors and resisters from the Irish Famine, Rwanda and the colossal genocide of slavery could share their stories without being told arrogantly that Jewish suffering was ‘unequalled’ and ‘beyond telling’.
However, a tiny group of Zionist fanatics invaded the gathering and shouted so continuously that the careful programme was derailed, though not prevented from happening. This was a total destruction of the democratic space for over an hour – something I’ve never seen before in any Parliamentary meeting. It was sickening to hear the hounding of 85 year-old Dr Meyer, and the bellows of ‘boring!’ every time any survivor of a different genocide tried to tell their experience. For any readers of ‘Good-Bye to Berlin’, stormtrooper analogies were hard to avoid.
Shockingly, Louise Ellman MP – who as Vice Chair of Labour Friends of Israel was presumably attending as an observer with her companion the Vice-Chair of the Board of Deputies – both sat unmoved without making the slightest attempt to quell their fellow supporters of Israel and create an open space. They later tried to guilt-trip MPs Jeremy Corbyn and Brian Iddon for bravely hosting the event.
Bizarrely, the stormtrooper-faction also apparently had some Zionist legitimacy. At first sight in the lobby of Portcullis House they resembled grizzled veterans of some embalmed Trotskyist groupuscule, but a friendly offer to read their pamphlet was greeted with a glare and the somewhat unusual response: ‘We only give our papers to neutrals. You’re an enemy’. The group’s horrifying behaviour in the meeting reminded Bangladeshi speaker Ansar Ahmed Ullah of the jihadi thugs who break up secularist meetings in Brick Lane, and reminded the Italian Romani woman speaker [who had to remain anonymous because of danger at home] of the Italian Forza Nuova fascist MPs who invade their Parliament every time Roma human rights abuses are being reported. Apparently shouter-in-chief Jonathan Hoffman – eventually escorted out by a policeman and wearing the blissful smile of a bomber achieving a death penalty – actually boasts the status of Vice-Chair of the Zionist Federation. His campaign of intimidation certainly gives a glimpse into the core politics of that organisation.
Holocaust Memorial Day has to open itself wider or it will die as the last of the camp survivors reach the end of their lives. It is vital that the day opens itself to other voices. The organisers of ‘Never Again – For Anyone’ are already planning further events. Doubtless the wall-eyed defenders of Israel will be continuing to defend the indefensible. It is a pity, because both ‘alarmists’ and ‘deniers’ of anti-Semitism are in some ways drawing closer, with the sensitive analysis of Professor Robert Fine given a respectful reception by anti-Zionists at the recent Historical Materialism conference.
Amanda Sebestyen is a journalist and the founder of the Asylum Education and Legal Fund. She started the ‘Asylum Watch’ column for Red Pepper magazine. Her paternal family were Hungarian Jews, many of whom died at Belsen; the survivors kept their origins secret.
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This post was written by Amanda Sebestyen