Remembering the past to fight hatred today

auschwitz---gateIt’s 70 years since Auschwitz was liberated and the anniversary is being marked in Poland with a gathering of international leaders at the death camp to remember the horrors undertaken there and throughout Europe by the Nazis.

The anniversary is also a natural opportunity to think about and ponder the significance of the Holocaust, how it happened, what it means today, and the lessons that can be drawn from that terrible chapter of history. The BBC decided to use the occasion to raise the issue yesterday on its appropriately named ‘The Big Questions’ TV programme asking, ‘Is the time coming to lay the Holocaust to rest?’

The BBC is entitled to pose such a question, but it is also fair to ask, what were the programme-makers thinking?

Would they have asked: What is the point in honouring British War dead? (to coincide with Armistice Day) Or alternatively: ‘Isn’t wife-battering a private matter? (on the eve of Day of Remembrance for victims of Domestic Violence). I doubt it.

‘The Big Questions’ normally concentrates on more anodyne issues: ‘Should Parliament force the Church of England to appoint women bishops?’ Are today’s young being expected to pay too much for the baby boomers? And should governments pledge a percentage to foreign aid?

Asking such a question on the Holocaust is also telling in what it implies. The subtext suggests: ‘haven’t we heard enough about the Holocaust and isn’t it time that people (i.e. mostly Jews) stop going on about it.’

‘The Big Questions’ also raises other issues – including, what exactly is meant by laying the Holocaust to rest? Does that mean that countries should cease teaching about it in schools? Should we move memorials to the millions of Jews, Communists, Roma, homosexuals and other murdered to somewhere less public and more discrete – so we don’t have to be confronted by such nastiness?

Troublingly, the mindset of dismissing and diminishing the Holocaust which underlie such questions are to be found among significant numbers of people around the world. According to a study last year by the Anti-Defamation League, 44% per cent of people polled in France think that, ‘Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust’.

The same study revealed that in the Middle East and North Africa 38% of those questioned were aware of the Holocaust, and of that number only 8% believed in the factual historical account of what occurred.

Bluntly put, the survey reveals Holocaust fatigue twinned with growing antipathy towards Jews around the world. In the aftermath of the Second World War, anti-Semitism was drowned out (in Europe and the West) by the nightmarish images that emanated from the concentration camps. But as the generation that suffered through that orgy of Jew hatred is dying out, so anti-Semitism is springing back to life with renewed vigour.

Men, woman and children gunned down in a kosher supermarket, in a religious school, in a museum for the simple fact of being Jewish. This is happening now, within the lifetime of many Holocaust survivors in the same Europe that hunted and annihilated Jews in their millions.

In 1995, neo-Nazis desecrated a Jewish cemetery in the small French town of Carpentras as a tribute to Adolph Hitler. They exhumed one of the corpses defiling it, and destroyed over thirty graves. In protest, one hundred thousand French people led by then President, Francois Mitterand marched through the streets of Paris to protest.

In 2012, four Jews – a rabbi and three young children were murdered in their school in Toulouse by a Muslim extremist. Following that outrage, just six thousand people turned out for a rally in the city.

And if had not been for the massacre in the offices of Charlie Hebdo earlier this month, then how many would have gathered to mourn those murdered in the kosher supermarket?

Anti-Semitism on Europe's streets. Geneva, November 2014.

Anti-Semitism on Europe’s streets. Geneva, November 2014.

In France, throughout Europe and beyond, anti-Semitism has become quite literally part of the scenery. A few months ago while visiting Geneva, I passed graffiti showing a Star of David alongside a swastika. I was shocked but not surprised. The ancient hatred has found a new guise.

It is a paradox among anti-Semites the world over, from jihadists to neo-Nazis that while they wish Jews dead they also dispute the Holocaust.

So in answer to the BBC’s inane and offensive question: Is the time coming to lay the Holocaust to rest? The answer is emphatically that such a moment must be further away than ever.

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