Four years ago, on a flight to Poland to cover the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I interviewed Likud politician Silvan Shalom. He told me that the proudest achievement of his career had been as Israel’s foreign minister in 2005, when he had been part of the campaign to get the United Nations to designate an international Holocaust Remembrance Day.
I was certainly never a fan of Silvan’s, but on that issue, I used to believe he was right. At the time I thought it was a commendable idea and the right way to ensure that the destruction of a third of the Jewish people would continue to serve as a universal message. I don’t think so anymore.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day has been desecrated by politicians and activists and needs serious reconsideration. Here are just a few small examples from this week.
In London, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who’s never met an anti-Semite he didn’t like, made a big show of signing a book of Holocaust remembrance in the UK parliament and then attending another remembrance event in his Islington constituency.
As if that could make British Jews ignore how his Labour party - in the very same week - reinstated members who had been suspended for anti-Semitic remarks. Or indeed expunge his own hypocrisy, as having been one of the co-sponsors of the parliamentary motion for Britain to rename Holocaust Remembrance Day as Genocide Remembrance Day, because obviously dead Jews get too much attention.
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Holocaust Remembrance Day was also a great moment for Corbyn’s supporters to school Jews online, about how they should be acting. One of his main cheerleaders, journalist-activist Owen Jones, actually accused Jewish television presenter Rachel Riley - the target of sustained abuse for speaking out about racism in Labour - of undermining his own noble crusade against anti-Semitism.
This was only slightly less hypocritical than American activist Linda Sarsour, who two years ago called out the Trump White House for omitting Jews from their Holocaust Remembrance Day statement. Since then, she’s been busy making the Women’s March movement a place in which many Jewish women feel excluded. Her own Facebook post this year on Holocaust Remembrance Day did not mention Jews once.
And it’s not as if Jewish and Israeli politicians are any better. Holocaust Remembrance Day is when the annual report assessing anti-Semitism around the world is presented to the Israeli government. This year’s report highlighted the rise of anti-Semitic violence from the far-right in the West – but, of course, he didn’t mention that in his remarks. He chose instead to focus on the "new anti-Semitism in Europe, which comes from the extreme left and pockets of radical Islam on the continent."
It was the same Netanyahu who, it transpired the next day, will be hosting next month in Jerusalem a summit of the Visegrad Group, whose leading lights, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki, have been busy whitewashing their countries’ war-records of details of the widespread collaboration of their countrymen in sending the Jews to their deaths.
And on Tuesday, Netanyahu warmly received Saulius Skvernelis, the prime minister of Lithuania, where locals - who had begun murdering Jews, even before the Nazis arrived in 1941- are today lionized as anti-Soviet "freedom fighters."
But these are Netanyahu’s populist allies in undermining any European Union consensus on criticizing his government’s policies, so all is forgiven.
A number of left-wing websites posted this week features on brave "anti-fascist" and "working-class" socialist Jews who had died in the Holocaust, which must have made them feel very woke. But the Nazis tried to eradicate all Jews, capitalists and religious ones as well.
Holocaust Remembrance has become selective. Just as anti-Semitism is selective. No one is an anti-Semite anymore. If you’re on the radical left, you only hate Zionists. The far-right are fine with Zionists, it’s just the Soros globalists who are ruining their world.
It doesn’t matter whether you are an anti-Zionist radical-left British gentile like Corbyn, or an Israeli Jewish-nationalist like Netanyahu. You can have as many Holocaust-denying or revising and anti-Semitic friends as you like and you can still pretend to venerate the memory of the six million on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
In the past, those who were hostile to Israel saw the very mention of the Holocaust as a threat to their political agenda. The Communist regimes that controlled Eastern Europe after the war, following the Soviet Union’s orders, did everything to play down the fact that millions of Jews had been murdered simply for being Jewish. They didn’t fit in to Stalin’s narrative of a great patriotic war that had been fought by, and on behalf of all Soviet nations.
The murdered Jews were subsumed for decades in to the general category of "victims of fascism." Acknowledging their Jewish identity was inconvenient, especially from the 1950s onwards, when Marxist propaganda began to establish its comparison between Zionism and Nazism. In fact, it’s ironic that the international Remembrance Day has set for January 27, the liberation of Auschwitz, when for decades under Communism, it was hard to find any mention of Jews at the memorial site in Auschwitz.
More recently, the UN resolution itself establishing the Day back in 2005 was even at the time considered problematic. The vote may have officially been "unanimous," but that was only after a great deal of care was taken over the wording, especially not to emphasize the Jewish angle too much. And even then, Iran and nearly all the Arab members of the UN abstained. In Britain for the first three years in which the day was marked as a national event, the Muslim Council of Britain boycotted it.
But as the debate over anti-Semitism has become more toxic and at the same time, much more complex and nuanced, politicians like Corbyn who once tried to erase the word "Holocaust" realized that it was actually an opportunity for them to signal their anti-racist virtue.
All you have to do is tweet #HolocaustRemembranceDay. It even has its own emoji, along with some appropriately bland and non-committal sentiments. The bar has never been set so low.
The designation of an International Holocaust Remembrance Day has helped boost many valuable education programs in some countries and helped to widen general consciousness, but it has also reduced the Holocaust to a set of symbols, words and gestures, which at best are hollow cliches, and at worst a convenient cover for populist politicians and revisionist policies. The good work done by serious people on teaching messages of tolerance, equality and democracy, is trivialized and dissipated.
My original inclination was to write in this column of how for those of us, who have grown up with Holocaust survivors as parents and grandparents, whether we were told their stories, or suffered in their silence, this is a deeply personal issue. But I don’t need to assert my third-generation privilege - and that really isn’t the point.
An international day of remembrance was always going to intrude on our personal spaces of memory and it was inevitable that as Jews we would lose part of the control over a narrative that is our sad inheritance. That was a price worth paying. It turns out however, that the price was much steeper.
As long as a dwindling number of Holocaust survivors still live among us, they should receive all the attention on remembrance days and of course, their welfare must be taken care of throughout the year.
But in the not too distant future, when the survivors are no longer with us, or incapable of standing up and telling their stories, serious consideration should be given as to whether national and international days of remembrance are the best way of ensuring the world doesn’t forget.
As Jews and the descendants of the victims, we don’t need a special day to remember. And as the world doesn’t seem to have learned the required lessons, we shouldn’t be allowing racists and charlatans to exploit our tragedy for their political agenda.