What a world we live in. Despite us all enjoying a decade and a half of schooling, despite the numerous survivors whose harrowing testimony is presented in our schools nationwide, despite the photos, the visits, the rubble: still there are those who deny the truth.
As a Holocaust Educational Trust Ambassador since 2016, I have been determined to speak up to defend the truth. Persistently and increasingly, sections of society have questioned historical fact; it is our duty to call them out.
What shocks me most is that the Holocaust is treated so distinctly from other eras of history. History is based upon debate – debate about the presentation of facts and the motivations of those who write the narrative – but history has never been about an outright denial of the existence of that era. We may debate who was responsible for the end of Apartheid, but we do not question the very existence of Apartheid itself. We may debate the possible immorality of British methods in the Boer War, but we do not question the very existence of the Boer War itself. We may debate the strategic strengths and flaws of the Allies on the Western Front, but we do not question the very existence of the First World War. History is full of questions and debates, but it has rarely been a debate about a subject’s very existence. History – to me, at least – has always been about shades of grey, not black and white. But the Holocaust has been the subject of not just scrutiny – like any other historical issue or period – but outright denial. An entire generation, an entire era, an entire continent denied.
What makes this denial so disgusting is its complete obliviousness to the human story; the Holocaust impacted far more than a generation, far more than a single group of people. It was an international outrage. It is, in short, a human outrage. A human problem. One that all of humanity, and not just one section of society, must confront.
If anti-semitism is a problem for all of humanity, then the greatest way to combat the problem is to focus on the humanity of its victims. That way, we have not ‘us’ and ‘them’, but just: ‘us’. Anti-Semitic propaganda – be it Nazi pamphlets or more recent murals – seeks to emphasise division, underlining differences and in doing so dehumanising the Jewish community. However, in recognising the humanity of Holocaust victims, we show that they are just the same as us; for a non-Jewish person like me, it allows us to focus on major similarities instead of minor differences.
Tragically, a section of society characterised by intolerance and ignorance is creeping out from the woodwork, dehumanising the Jewish community based on a political perspective rather than a human one. Debates around Israel have become conflated with debates about the Holocaust; attitudes to a religious group are being determined by opinions on contemporary politics. Conflating questions around Israel’s current strategies with questions about the Holocaust is pure ignorance: the Holocaust is not a political question, but a historical fact. The Holocaust does not fly a political flag.
This ignorance – where disapproval of Israel informs a questioning of the Holocaust and results in prejudice against Jews – fails to be consistently challenged at the highest levels, precisely because such prejudice has been misconstrued as politics. Antisemitism is prejudice, not politics. It is a human problem, not one reserved for a specific group. This prejudice is once again being swept under the carpet in the vain hope that no-one will notice, or that the problem will just disappear.
This is not new. The Holocaust started with words; it started when normal individuals went about their daily lives as if nothing had changed, turning a blind eye to hatred if it was not directed at them. That is why all sections of society – including those who do not share the Jewish faith, like me – must speak out.
We must speak out because those who undermine the truth are shouting loud, and in increasingly public spheres, seemingly legitimised by the oxygen of publicity.
We must speak out because, too often, we hear from those who seek to undermine the truth. Hollywood movies have been made of those who question mass murder, and yet for every denier there are a thousand stories of heroic individuals, determined to protect the truth. Why must we focus on deniers when there are such neglected heroes as Irena Sendler, Chiune Sugihara, Varian Fry, Janusz Korczak, let alone the better-known individuals like Sir Nicholas Winton and Maximilian Kolbe? If we seek to defend the truth, then we must start to focus on it. In addition to calling out ignorance and intolerance, we must also shine a light on those who work tirelessly to defend the truth.
I began by expressing my dismay at the contemporary world. But perhaps that is melodramatic. In my song for the HET – ‘One Day’, written the day after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau with the charity – I include the line “We are the ones to be”, and 2018 certainly seems more immediately positive than the early 1940s. We have a democracy, we have freedom of expression, we have a vote, we have a right to life. However, we should not take these values and freedoms for granted. They came at a cost; these are privileges, not foregone conclusions. Complacency is the greatest danger.
We should be proud of the world we live in, and so where we see fault we must speak out. “We are the ones to be” should be a proud statement of our values, of an ideal that we uphold and continue to defend. We can only truly say this when we stand up and say that we have a problem. Antisemitism is not an issue to hide under a rug, but an issue that needs to be brought out into the full light of day. It is not a problem for one group in society, but a problem for society as a whole. Only when all areas of our communities feel safe, valued and equal can we truly proclaim that “we are the ones to be”.