Holocaust Remembrance Day

On this day of commeration of the atrocities committed by the Nazi Regime, it is important to look to the present and future.  However, it is also essential to remember the extent of the abhorrences against the Jewish and other 'untermenschans'.   Nothing can illustarte this more than Auschwitz, the foremost component of Hitler's 'Final Solution'.  I visited in early November as part of the 'Lessons from Auschwitz' programme run by the Holocaust Education Trust. It intended to humanise the victims and perpetrators of the genocide, and to glean some positivity from this monument to human torment.

Auschwitz Birkenau
I have reflected greatly on the whirlwind trip to the infamous site, and I have come to the distinct conclusion that I have not received any sudden flash of enlightenment, or any other similarly seminal realisations.  Before departing, I read numerous accounts describing how visiting Auschwitz has given them new perceptions on life, torn up their religious beliefs or has given fresh impetus to act against the prejudiced status quo. Indeed, in my application to take part in this great opportunity, I believed that by 'bearing witness to the remnants of the Holocaust, and by divulging the horror of what happened within the walls of Auschwitz, I can encourage people to perform simple acts of kindness, become mindful in every interaction and subsequently plant the seeds of goodness that will blossom into a better future'.  It is with great regret that this optimistic presumption never materialised.

On seeing the barbed wire, the red brick barracks and the perfectly preserved gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz I, I was deeply affected by the surviving abhorrences.  I have a vivid imagination, and when visiting a museum exhibit or a historical site, I see more than my eyes can bear witness too; the rusting machine gun nests are suddenly manned by ruthless SS guards, bellowing commands and insults at the hundreds of stripy-uniformed inmates freezing in the raw cold of the empty parade square below.  

A spectre of death presides over Auschwitz.  Everywhere you look, the most sickening event in the human story comes to life, the walls of Building Four are painted in the blood of children murdered by Mengele, the surrounding fields are sown with bodies of slave labourers and the ashes of Europe's Jews silently drifts from the crematorium.  By witnessing such scenes, it was no wonder that I was profoundly disturbed, my tears freezing in the bitter wind and my sobs stifled by a scarf.  

On the journey back, the same question plagued my mind; 'What is the lesson from Auschwitz?’  Even after hours of contemplation and discussion, I still lack an answer to this mystery.  My conclusion is therefore that there is no lesson, wisdom or positivity that can be imparted by visiting this abomination.  There is only the apparition of hatred, suffering and death bearing silent testimony to the derelict walls of the camp, seeing this enhances the curriculum’s strait-jacket education, but my perspective remains largely unchanged. My only viewpoint altered by the visit was my view that all artefacts should be preserved, regardless of their purpose and symbolism.  Seeing the terrible arch of Birkenau instilled my mind with a fervent desire to raze this aversion to the ground and replace it with a glorious memorial and a Synagogue on the scale of the lost Synagogue of Oswiecim to commemorate the lives of individuals, and not the grisly deaths of millions.  

That was my reflection two weeks after returning from Auschwitz, now however, the trip and my role as an ambassador to the Holocaust Education Trust has opened my eyes to the uncomfortable parallels between the present day and the 1930s that preceded the Holocaust.  In the decades following the genocide, the ugly spectre of semitism seemed a thing of a prejudiced past.  But not any longer.

In the first half of 2016, there was an 11% in the number of anti-Semitic incidents. Britain might still be one of the safest places in the world to be a Jew, but Jews here are increasingly becoming a target. Last year saw the 3rd highest record of anti-Semitic hate incidents in the UK ever recorded. The same organisation that reported that rise, the Community Security Trust, has demonstrated that this worrying jump isn’t a one off. Back in 2004, it said there had been 532 anti-Semitic incidents. That was the highest annual total they’d reported since the eighties. Yet by 2014, that figure had risen by 200% to 1,162 incidents.
Even university campuses – allegedly hubs of free speech and freedom of thought – aren’t immune to the ascension of anti-Semitism. Last year, a former Chair of the Oxford University Labour Club resigned from his post, claiming that a high proportion of members seemed to have ‘some kind of problem with Jews’.

In June, Zachary Confino, a Jewish student at York University received a public apology and £1,000 from the Student Union for the anti-Semitic abuse he was subjected to over two years as an undergraduate. The taunts, which included ‘Jewish prick’ and ‘Israeli twat’ were, he said, not acted upon quickly enough by the university. This type of incident should have acted as a spur for universities to realise anti-Semitism was alive and well. Yet over the summer, the NUS voted to remove the right of Jewish students to vote for their Jewish representative on the union’s Anti-Racism and Anti-Fascism Committee – a worrying lack of representation for a student group which is being increasingly targeted. These feelings of concern within the Jewish community were clear when, in September, 44 student leaders signed an open letter saying that: ‘Jewish students have not felt safe participating in our national movement’.

This climate is possibly even affecting which universities Jewish people are choosing to study at. More and more Jewish students appear to be picking universities based on the size of their existing Jewish communities. The Union of Jewish Students estimates that more than sixty per cent of Jewish students attended one of six universities – Leeds, Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Nottingham and Birmingham. 
All too often, criticism of Israel seems to be a scant cover for criticism of Jews generally. As Jews are expected – for some unknown reason – to have some kind of innate and stubborn loyalty to Israel and the Zionist cause.
This isn’t always the case. Mainstream Zionism has evolved from Herzl's ideals to mean the belief in the right of existence of the State of Israel. It doesn’t mean that Israel should be immune to criticism. I, like thousands of others, disagree with the actions of the state of Israel routinely. Its so-called ‘Peace Wall’, which separates Israel from the West Bank, its illegal settlements on the West Bank and its actions in the 2014 Gaza War, are both occasions where I think Israel have committed crimes against the Palestinian Arabs. Yet a sizeable chunk of the left is happy to turn a blind eye to the sins of other countries in their myopic focus on the wrongs of Israel. From here, it’s just a small step to explicit anti-Semitism.
At the very least, a pattern of behaviour in the Labour party is hardly making Jews feel welcome. After a summer in which the Chakrabarti report identified a ‘toxic atmosphere’ in the party, last month’s Momentum conference in Liverpool saw the ‘Jewish Anti-Zionist Network’ handing out leaflets accusing the ‘Jewish Labour Movement’ of being ‘a representative of a foreign power, Israel’. The leaflet also asked ‘why is there so much emphasis on anti-Semitism, rather than other much more prevalent forms of racism?’. These are just some examples of the left’s troubling tendency to especially target Israel.

These attacks aren’t only confined to fringe events though. Only last week, Baroness Tonge, a Liberal Democrat peer resigned from the party after chairing a meeting in which Israel was compared to ISIS and Jews were blamed for the Holocaust. Worryingly, this wasn’t a sentiment being bandied around in some town hall but in Parliament itself. The spread of anti-Semitism – from university campuses to the heart of Westminster – is pernicious. Many may think of anti-Semitism as being a disease of another time. I, too, shared that belief. Yet the troubling truth is that this belief is outdated: anti-Semitism is alive and well. It’s time to kill it off before it’s too late.


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