Over the next couple of months there will be a variety of activities and events to commemorate the Nazi Holocaust, with a strong emphasis on “learning the lessons” and encouraging activity and commitment to oppose currently genocides, racism and xenophobia both locally and across the world. January 27th is formally designated as Holocaust Memorial Day and around this date there are special commemorative events around the County. For the whole of February the world-famous and acclaimed “Anne Frank and You” exhibition will be at the Guildhall in Northampton.
Dates/times for all these can be found at: www.northampton.gov.uk/annefrankfestival
All this activity is unfortunately taking place at a time when the proclaimed Jewish state of Israel is engaged in some clearly documented serious human rights abuses and war crimes as it invades Gaza – killing hundreds of civilians in the name of rooting out and destroying the Islamist, albeit democratically elected, Hamas.
In such a situation there is a temptation to question involvement in or support for holocaust memorial activities and/or a continuing focus of the European “Jewish” holocaust. This would be a grave mistake for following reasons.
Firstly the Nazi holocaust was not just directed at the Jews of Europe, although this was their prime target group for elimination. The Nazi’s genocidal intent also extended to Gays and Lesbians, Roma Gypsies and the Slav populations of Eastern Europe. Their political project also extended to the elimination of all opposition. In short, the holocaust was a crime against the whole of humanity.
Secondly, unlike other genocides that preceded it, and have occurred since across the world, the extent and scale of the killing was unprecedented (with over 6 million murdered and millions of others displaced and reduced to utter terror). The whole European continent was virtually destroyed by the Nazi inspired attempt at world domination.
Thirdly, all the functions of a modern 20th Century state, and all the modern advances in science and technology, were drawn into the project - systematically and ruthlessly.
Finally, across Europe million of ordinary people, and the political, economic and social elites of many nations, were seduced and drawn into supporting this project, either actively or passively.
Putting all these factors together (and there may also be others) The Holocaust was unique and is therefore deserving of our unique attention and commemoration.
But commemorating the holocaust raises important and profound questions about all genocides and how they can be prevented in the future. Following the Second World War the nations of the world, through the United Nations, Council of Europe and other initiatives, pledged themselves to establishing new, or strengthen existing, international legal frameworks to act as a standard against which the activities of any state and their political leaders would be judged or held to account. These included the Geneva Convention, the European and UN Conventions on Human Rights, the definition of a ”War Crime”, strengthening of the role and neutrality of the International Red Cross/Red Crescent etc. In short a new, secular, and world-wide univeral morality was establish reflected in law. In the history of humanity this was new and hugely important for everyone across the globe.
At the heart of many of these conventions and treaties was a clear statement that it is totally unacceptable for any state to set out to eliminate or persecute any (minority) group based on their race, ethnicity, nationality or national origins, or gender, disability, sexuality; or to engage in collective punishment of any group; and to protect civilians and non-combatants (especially the most vulnerable) from the effects of war or civil conflict.
It is therefore right and proper that we should judge all states and governments against these international standards of behaviour. Indeed it is our duty to do so, to be a witness, to say “no”, if any state steps away from these basic standards. This is one of the main messages of holocaust memorial activity; and it remains at the heart of why I, and many others, see it as so important. If we are to learn anything from the Holocaust, to commemorate all those who died in this and other genocides, it is this!
The Israeli state arose out of the ashes and despair of the holocaust and has created an enduring legacy in its own right. It provides us with a vivid example of how one historic tragedy and injustice can lead on to others, in a cycle of revenge and retribution that can continue to haunt us. Without the holocaust there is little doubt that the state of Israel would probably not have come into being. Prior to the holocaust Zionism had little resonance within the world Jewish diaspora dispite centuries of European persecution of the Jews. But afterwards the yearning for a safe homeland became almost irresistable.
But the state of Israel was established at tremendous cost – not by the peoples of Europe (from where the holocaust was planned and executed) but by those who traditionally lived on the land that became the new Jewish state. A tragedy for the Jews of Europe became another for the Palestinians of the Middle East. We are still living with this new tragedy, with a new set of victims, and it lies at the heart of the current problems for which a long-term solution seems further and further away. Justice for the Jews in Israel cannot be obtained whilst there is a continuing and enduring legacy of injustice to the Palestinians.
Over the years Israel has become a modern state, with extensive and sophisticated weaponry supplied (mainly but not exclusively) by the United States. Israel must therefore itself live up to the international standards for judging the behaviour of states.
But what we are now witnessing in Gaza at this time is clearly and unambiguously breaching these international standards. In short, the state of Israel is currently engaged in war crimes, breaches of international human rights conventions, and is committing crimes against humanity. There are no gray areas here. Such international standards cannot be varied or watered down or subject to qualifications – they are absolute and must apply equally to all states and governments.
Whilst the state of Israel acts in such a manner there can be little or no likelihood of finding a long-term and just solution which guarantees the rights and safety of Israel and the rights and freedoms of the Palestinians. Injustice can only lead on to more injustice and everyone suffers. The despair and hopelessness that the Palestinians feel, and which has existed for generations, in itself can only lead to the strengthening of extremists within their community – and thus the cycle of conflict continues, with each extreme feeding off each other. Time and time again history tells us that this is so and the cycle has to be broken if a lasting solution is to be found.
And this is why holocaust memorial is so important - there are historic lessons for all of us to discuss and learn from!
Images from Gaza (thanks to the BBC website):
For more photos go to: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/7810145.stm