July 24, 2020
An artist's rendering on the proposed Holocaust museum in London's Victoria Tower Gardens. (Credit: Adjaye Associates & Ron Arad Architects)
The British baroness Ruth Deech, whose family were Jewish refugees from Nazism, recently delivered an impassioned address to the Oxford Jewish community about the way the Holocaust is being evacuated of meaning by memorials and museums in its name.
Her concern was prompted by the controversial plan to build a Holocaust memorial and learning center in London's Victoria Tower Gardens, a small park near the Houses of Parliament.
Westminster council, the local planning authority, has turned down this proposal on environmental grounds. The space is a small, green oasis that would not only be marred by a jarring brutalist structure, but risks becoming submerged by tourist traffic and anti-Jewish vandals alike.
The British government is making extraordinary and arguably irregular efforts to overturn this decision and get this center built. Its insistence is all the more strange given that there are already five major Holocaust memorials in Britain.
Deech's concerns, however, go far deeper than inappropriate positioning. Her sharpest point is that these memorials tend to shy away from the real causes of Jew-hatred. Instead, they are increasingly being used to promote a self-congratulatory and sometimes self-exculpatory image of the country that erects them.
Britain's memorials, for example, do not note how in the 1930s and 1940s, the U.K. government blocked the entry into Palestine of desperate European Jews in flagrant repudiation of the British Mandate to settle Jews there, thus facilitating their extermination in the Nazi slaughter.
The Holocaust didn't involve "injustices" against the Jews. It involved the attempt to exterminate the entire Jewish people.
Hungary, Ukraine and other Eastern European countries have used Holocaust memorializing to erase their own complicity in the slaughter of the Jews, presenting themselves instead as historic victims of the Nazis or else equating the Nazi killing of Jews with the Soviet killing of other minorities.
As Deech observed, the Holocaust tends to be lumped together with other genocides and examples of racism or persecution, thus watering down its significance. The message becomes a generalized one of avoiding hatred and intolerance.
But that doesn't address or explain the roots of the Holocaust: "Namely, centuries of Jewish persecution; first, on the grounds of religion, and then on the grounds of race, and now on the grounds of a distorted left-wing view of the State of Israel."
Of course, governments and nations should stand against all bigotry and persecution. But this kumbaya-esque mush robs Holocaust memorializing of its key point: that the Holocaust was a unique atrocity.
So it's not surprising that more and more people are viewing it as just one of many equivalent crimes against humanity.
That's why it's been used to draw a comparison with the appalling treatment of the Uyghurs by the Chinese regime. Video footage has surfaced of blindfolded and shackled Uyghurs being led onto trains taking them to indoctrination camps. There are reports of forced sterilizations, abortions and rapes.
Many Diaspora Jews run a mile from any suggestion that the Jews are fundamentally different.
This caused Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, to protest to the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom about the "similarities between what is alleged to be happening in China" and "what happened in Nazi Germany 75 years ago: people being forcibly loaded onto trains, beards of religious men being trimmed, women being sterilized, and the grim picture of concentration camps."
A London rabbi, Moshe Freedman, agreed and writes in The Jewish Chronicle that Holocaust education "was never exclusively about the survival of the Jews or the injustices that were perpetrated again us. It was about global human decency, morality and justice."
But the Holocaust didn't involve "injustices" against the Jews. It involved the attempt to exterminate the entire Jewish people.
The measures against the Uyghurs and other Chinese Muslims amount to an attempt to stop them from practicing their faith and turn them instead into indoctrinated clones of the Chinese Communist Party.
That's horrific, of course. But it's not the same as the Holocaust, whose unique characteristic was its aim to wipe the entire Jewish people off the face of the earth.
It took a non-Jewish British MP, Alistair Carmichael, a vice chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on China, to uphold the principle that is in such danger of being lost.
Observing that states around the world "need to hold the Chinese government to account for their brutal suppression of the Uyghurs," he added: "It is never a good idea to compare any contemporary incident to the Holocaust. My fundamental rule is that nothing can be compared to the Holocaust."
Renowned scholars have also stated in the past that the Holocaust was an event without parallel. The philosopher Emil Fackenheim said that, while it belonged to the category of "genocide," the planned and largely executed borderless extermination of the Jews was "unique."
Another Jewish philosopher, David Patterson, went further and said that the Holocaust couldn't be reduced to a case of genocide.
"The Nazis set out to annihilate more than a people. — They set out to annihilate a fundamental principle; to obliterate millennia of Jewish teaching and testimony; to destroy the living God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; to eradicate a way of understanding God, world and humanity embodied by the Jews in particular."
The main driver of the Holocaust was not racism, nor hatred of "the other," nor a dehumanizing view of certain groups — a view the Nazis shared with much progressive Western opinion in the 19th and early-20th centuries.
It was instead a paranoid and deranged view of the Jewish people as an evil conspiracy of positively supernatural proportions, and who therefore had to be wiped off the face of the earth. This is not recognizable in any other prejudice, bigotry or hatred directed at any other people or group.
But for some, the uniqueness of Jewish suffering is an intolerable fact that must be suppressed. Progressive "post-colonial" scholarship holds — preposterously — that emphasizing the singularity of the Holocaust diminishes and squeezes out other suffering and victimization.
Many Diaspora Jews, moreover, run a mile from any suggestion that the Jews are fundamentally different. They believe their safety and security rest upon not standing out from their surrounding societies.
Which is why they are so anxious to claim that their historic persecution is on the same level as the suffering of others, and that anti-Semitism is just another form of "racism" or "othering."
They thus join forces with those who want to deny Jews their true status as the world's ultimate victims.
And it's been but a short step from that to the false and malevolent view that the Jews of Israel have ended up doing to the Palestinians what was done to them.
As Baroness Deech observed: "The more the national Holocaust remembrance day events are packed out, the more the calls for sanctions on Israel that would result in her destruction, and the more the Holocaust is turned against the Jews. I hear it in parliament — 'after all you people went through, look what you are doing to the Palestinians; have you learned nothing.' "
Many peoples and groups in the world suffer untold horrors at the hands of brutal regimes. Jews and others have a duty to speak out against the persecution of the Uyghurs and all who are being victimized by the Chinese Communist Party.
But there is also a duty to speak up for the uniqueness of the Holocaust: a duty not to betray the facts of Jewish history by minimizing the particular evil of Europe's darkest moment, a madness that singled out the Jewish people for a fate reserved for them alone.