When the headline “1 in 20 Britons denies Holocaust took place” swept across the media landscape two weeks ago, I must admit I was barely shocked. 1 in 20 does not sound too bad, I thought. I quickly realised that the headlines were misleading. 1 in 20, is 5 per cent of the (adult) population. That means more than two million British adults do not believe the Holocaust took place. Now, this is a truly shocking figure.
I do not want to portray Holocaust denial or anti-Semitism in general as a particularly British problem. Sadly, anti-Semitic incidents and those which target minorities seem to be on the rise in several European countries. I do not intend to portray myself, a Jew, as the ultimate victim either. Nevertheless, as the German-Jewish grandson of two Holocaust survivors, one of whom escaped Nazi Germany to England in 1939, I am especially saddened by recent trends in Britain which show that anti-Semitism is far from being eradicated in our society.
Recent discussions on anti-Semitism in Britain have largely focussed on its presence in the role it plays in the Labour Party. Undeniably, it is absolutely disastrous that the party hoping to lead this country after the next elections has shown its utter incapability of dealing with anti-Semitism amongst its own ranks.
First and foremost, it is unacceptable how long the Labour party took to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) official definition of anti-Semitism. When determining what constitutes hatred towards a specific group, naturally members of that group will be most aware of how such hatred is commonly expressed. I trust my homosexual friends when it comes to defining homophobia, just like I trust my Muslim friends when it comes to defining Islamophobia. It is not my role to determine what homophobia or Islamophobia means for them. Likewise, it is not Jeremy Corbyn’s role to determine what anti-Semitism means for me and almost 300,000 Jews living in the UK.
That being said, I am not convinced the leader of the Labour Party is an anti-Semite himself. Perhaps he even truly believes he is a ‘friend of the Jews’. Nevertheless, to say that he has fared poorly in tackling anti-Semitism within the Labour Party is an understatement. To me, Corbyn is either ignorant of the severity of the issue, hoping that suspensions of some members (see Ken Livingstone, who inexplicably was never expelled by the Labour Party, but rather left of his own accord) and apologies from others (see Naz Shah, who is now Shadow Minister of State for Women and Equalities) will be enough; or he is deliberately trying to downplay it.
The latter would not only be outrageous, but it also escapes my mind what benefit Corbyn derives from it. What does he have to fear from maintaining a zero-tolerance policy on anti-Semitism? Does he believe he would lose support from his base? If that were true, Labour truly would have a massive anti-Semitism problem. Or is he afraid of losing his credentials as a strong Israel critic? That would be ridiculous: it is perfectly possible to maintain a tough stance on anti-Semitism while remaining critical of the Israeli government’s policies (although perhaps Corbyn should avoid calling clearly anti-Semitic groups which have denied the Holocaust, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, his friends).
This criticism should not focus on the Labour Party alone. Unfortunately, I believe there are far wider issues in British politics and society which allow anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance still to be expressed. Coming from Germany, where, given the historical context, expressing national pride is somewhat of a taboo, I have noticed something since moving here to study which I can only describe as ‘British exceptionalism’ (Brexit, anyone?).
Primarily, I am deeply sensitive to what I perceive to be the UK’s anti-immigration stance. On the one hand, I come from a country which has accepted more than one million refugees over the past years, many from war-torn Syria and Iraq. Compare that to a few tens of thousands arriving in the UK.
In relation to anti-Semitism, some have argued that letting people from certain societies with deep-rooted anti-Semitism enter Europe will exacerbate the problem. This concern needs to be taken seriously. At the same time, one should think about how to tackle this indoctrination: by integrating people into our society, exposing them to a tolerant value system, or by rejecting newcomers, thereby showing intolerance ourselves and allowing further exposure to abhorrent Jew-hatred in some of the places refugees to Europe come from?
On a more personal note, the reason I am alive to write this today is because my grandparents fled Germany and were allowed to enter other countries – as refugees. My grandmother came to London in 1939, was deemed a ‘friendly alien from an enemy country’ when war broke out and became a nurse in Nottingham. My grandfather first fled to France, before escaping to Switzerland with his mother, where they were placed in refugee camps. My grandparents met again in Paris in 1947, married, and eventually moved back to Germany. My family’s story has a somewhat happy ending. Many others do not.
After arriving in the UK, my grandmother tried to arrange the necessary documentation to allow her parents to follow. That was not possible – my great-grandparents died in Auschwitz. British and American authorities, as well as those in other countries, were extremely hesitant to allow Jews, wanting to escape Nazi Germany, to enter their countries, heavily restricting immigration quotas.
Unforgotten is the story of the 907 Jewish refugees on the MS St. Louis, who were denied entry into the US, Cuba and Canada, before returning to Europe, where more than 250 of the passengers died in the Holocaust. Last year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued an apology for Canada’s refusal to allow the refugees entry into Canada, accepting partial responsibility for their eventual fate.
In the meantime, the UK marked the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport, priding itself for saving 10,000 Jewish children. While this feat is undoubtedly applaudable, it is high time the UK (and other countries) follow in Canada’s footsteps in recognising they could have saved many more.
Like then, ‘fear of the other’ remains a fundamental issue in today’s society. This fear, which includes anti-Semitism and any other form of xenophobia, is preventing us from saving the lives of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. Saying ‘enough is enough’ seems inadequate, rather: too much is too much. The trend in Europe, the US, and other democracies towards populism and anti-immigration policies must be reversed. Only then can anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred truly be eradicated from society.
Finally, I am convinced that education plays a vital role in promoting tolerance, whilst giving Holocaust deniers no room for credibility. Where I went to school, in Germany, Holocaust education is a set part of the curriculum.
Classes visit museums, memorials and concentration camps. For me, the most profound way to drive the message home is hearing testimonials from Holocaust survivors. Once you have faced someone who went through the horrors of the Holocaust, it becomes close to impossible to deny said horrors took place.
Unfortunately, it will not be long until the last of the Holocaust survivors leave us, but until then, everything possible should be done, by the UK government and others, to ensure as many people as possible have the opportunity to hear their stories.
The post-Holocaust slogan of ‘Never Again’ has clearly failed to prevent subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and elsewhere. It is time to concentrate our efforts in ensuring that similar atrocities never occur again.
Image: Hannah Robinson