On January 27th, coinciding with the date of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1945, Holocaust Memorial Day (which started in 2001) provides an annual opportunity to not only commemorate the Holocaust, but also to renew our opposition to all forms of racism.
Commemorating the Holocaust inevitably brings up many issues, such as treatment of those fleeing oppression today, how such commemorations might impact on black/Jewish relations and what is the role of memorialising in our society?
This year, by uneasy coincidence, the House of Lords has just been debating proposed legislation (The Nationality and Borders Bill) to remove some of the protections for refugees fleeing present-day atrocities.
For many in the Jewish community, the Bill has hit a raw nerve: our parents and grandparents came to Britain as refugees, and might well have been denied entry if the legislation proposed today had been in place then – for example, your application for asylum being determined by how you arrived, not by the circumstances that forced you to flee in the first place. This part of the Bill is a threat to human rights. We must resist it and instead demand safe and legal routes for today’s refugees to the UK.
Britain’s welcoming of refugees during the Kindertransport, when it allowed the entry of almost 10,000, mostly Jewish, unaccompanied children from Nazi-occupied Europe, retains an iconic place in the public imagination. Some people see it as an example of this country at its generous and humane best – although many maintain that the government of the day could have rescued many more, including the parents they never saw again.
This year’s HMD also takes place when the spectre of antisemitism still looms over Jewish communities world-wide, against a background of increasing tensions in the Middle East, and conspiracy theories about Jews creating and spreading Covid. The latest high-profile event, only a week ago, was the hostage-taking in a synagogue in a suburb of Dallas, Texas. Closer to home, the Community Security Trust, which has been monitoring antisemitic incidents in the UK since 1984, found a 49% increase in the first six months of 2020. This is the highest number recorded in the first half of any year.
As with many things, Holocaust Memorial Day, as well as having its particular and unique meaning for Jews and many others, also makes me think of wider, universal issues.
For me, one of the universal messages of Holocaust Memorial Day is the immense suffering of other peoples, and this year, I want to highlight and bring into focus the relationship between Black and Jewish communities, and the question of whether slavery should be recognised as part of the day or commemorated separately. There can be a tendency for Black and Jewish people to debate which of us has suffered most in the past, a point made by the Black academic, Paul Gilroy, who wrote, “The dismal competition between groups for the moral legitimacy that suffering confers becomes a therapeutic substitute for politics." This can lead to the distasteful situation of judging which atrocity was worse, slavery or the Holocaust.
In these discussions, we need to be mindful that Black-Jewish dialogue built on an essentially negative agenda is not a good foundation for the development of positive and meaningful Black-Jewish relations. And let us not forget that Black and Jewish are not mutually exclusive categories –the existence of black Jews, Jews of colour, has been ignored for far too long.
Holocaust Memorial Day should also speak to the whole of our diverse country, as not just a Jewish event but as one that belongs to us all. As such, it prompts several questions: how to commemorate when there are no longer survivors or witnesses from that period? How to protect the terms ‘Holocaust’ and ‘genocide’ from misuse? How to commemorate other groups who perished under the Nazis – homosexuals, Roma, communists – and in other genocides? And how to make sure official commemorations do not fall victim to culture wars, thereby obscuring the very issues which have been overlooked, such as the transatlantic slave trade. For years there has been a campaign to build a permanent memorial to the victims of the transatlantic slave trade. This campaign, and the funds needed to make sure the memorial becomes a reality, has not been supported by the government. Surely there is a role for black and Jewish communities to come together to support this campaign.
In recognising the importance of the need to memorialise particular events, it is important not to overlook the personal side. For me, no matter how many times I see something about the Holocaust and think that there is nothing more to learn or to feel, I find that it is, and will remain, beyond comprehension. This is partly because the mere fact of my Jewishness would have conferred a probable death sentence on me and my family, had they not immigrated to the United States.
The Jewish community, in common with others, needs to commemorate events that are unique to it, both separately and with others. To have them acknowledged by the wider community is in itself healing. But we cannot, and should not, interpret all events as being the same. The challenge is how to hold on to this uniqueness while accepting the distinctiveness of other groups’ experiences and, using past pain as a catalyst, work creatively with others for the benefit of our diverse society and the wider world.
Dr Edie Friedman is Executive Director of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality (JCORE).