“You cannot tell the story of the Holocaust without challenging imagery”

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, marking 77 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. Every year this is a day for reflection. To remember not just those that were murdered at the hands of the Nazis but also the trauma of those that survived and the impact on not just their families but on all of us in different ways.

I am a British Jewish woman, born 34 years after the end of the Second World War. My family had fled the Tsarist pogroms not the Nazis and had arrived in the UK in the 1890s. In theory the Holocaust, the Shoah, should be a horrible chapter in European history. Except it is more than that – it is an integral part of my identity and of our collective history. It has shaped my values, led me to campaign against political extremism, against neo-fascists of all ilks, it has made me wary of populist politicians and it has ultimately led me to Index – to be a voice for dissidents and those being persecuted.

In hindsight, this was because of my amazing mother. As a child Judaism for me was as much about cinnamon balls and chicken soup as it was about synagogue. I was raised in a very liberal and culturally Jewish home. Synagogue was for festivals, weddings and bar-mitzvahs. But when I was 11, I was staying at a friend’s house and her mum used an antisemitic trope. I didn’t really understand what she meant and why she was later so embarrassed which led to a long conversation with my mum.

My mum sat me down to explain what antisemitism was. This then led to a conversation about what had happened to our extended family in Eastern Europe during the war. She described the politics of Hitler and where they ended – of where hate can lead and our responsibilities to stand strong against it – no matter who it was directed at. And she finished by telling me that it didn’t matter whether I decided to be a practicing Jew or not – others (well the baddies) would always consider me a Jew, they would target me because of it and I needed to be prepared (how true that was!).

This led me to read – a lot. About the Holocaust, about Jewish life in Europe before the rise of Hitler. I read, I listened to testimony, and I was so lucky to meet survivors from the camps and to get to know some of the Kindertransport [children who were sent to the UK in order to survive]. I visited Auschwitz. I have cried for those that I never had the opportunity to meet and for the horror that the Holocaust brought to the world.

I was able to do this because of our free press and democracy. Because brave survivors have recorded their lived experiences for posterity. Because brave journalists reported on and filmed the camps during liberation. Because writers, artists and illustrators have worked tirelessly to ensure that the Shoah is not forgotten. To ensure that “Never Again” is not just a slogan.

This brings me to small county in Tennessee, McMinn County. Population 53,794. Earlier this month their school board unanimously voted to ban a cartoon book called Maus. Not only is it beyond my comprehension for a school board to believe it is appropriate to ban educational books but in this instance, it is beyond parody. Maus was written and illustrated by Art Spiegelman. It is the story of his parent’s experiences during the Holocaust. As a graphic novel it helps educate a new generation about the horrors of the Shoah. The human cost. You cannot tell the story of the Holocaust without challenging imagery and graphic depictions. The associated language is of course coarse. But how an earth can you expect to teach one of the most harrowing periods of human history without addressing what actually happened? And how can you believe that banning books, books about the Holocaust, when books were so famously banned, is an answer to any problem?

Education is the most important tool in our arsenal to make sure that the Shoah is never repeated. This is an affront.

Index is the UK lead on Banned Books Coalition – highlighting the absurdity of banning culture. We didn’t need any more examples of the irony of banning books – but if we did the school board in McMinn County have given us the most ludicrous example.

Stop holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of Israel

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116776″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Here’s an experiment. When you read about the systematic persecution of the Uyghurs in China, what’s your reaction? Do you think it’s acceptable to tweet that the Chinese, as a people, are Nazis? And when you read about the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar, do you believe it’s a legitimate response to comment on social media that the Burmese, as a people, are genocidal racists? We don’t see Buddhist temples daubed with swastikas in Europe as a reaction to discrimination against the Rohingya (although Buddhist temples have been attacked in racist incidents believed to be triggered by coronavirus). But we are seeing synagogues in Europe (including a synagogue in Norwich) defaced and attacked following the current violence in Israel and Palestine. It is the Jews, as a people, who are considered guilty. Not just Jews in Israel, Jews everywhere.

Israel is an ethnic state. Zionism was a nationalist movement, its claim to Palestine based on the historical roots of the Jewish people. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 resulted in the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Arab Palestinians. Since the Six Day War, Israel has occupied territory illegally; since Oslo, it has expanded settlements and ensured that a two-state solution is unviable. The international community (Arab states as well as the US and Europe) has, shamefully, allowed this to happen. But is it acceptable for the actions of a state (currently resulting in the deaths of innocent men, women and children) to lead to racist abuse against a people?

Not all Jews are Zionists. And there are Zionists, too, who want equality for Palestinians. If you read the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, you will regularly find vociferous condemnation and criticism of the state (from Palestinian as well as Israeli writers). When Netanyahu was moving towards annexation of the West Bank last year, public figures from the left and the centre in Israel signed a petition published in Ha’aretz condemning the action as apartheid. The Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem declared Israel’s actions to be apartheid months before Human Rights Watch did the same. There are Jewish grassroots movements inside and outside Israel fighting for justice for the Palestinian people.

Yet it is Jews as a people who are guilty. Israel’s actions regularly trigger familiar antisemitic tropes: cartoons of hook-nosed Israeli soldiers dripping with blood who look like Nazi caricatures or claims of a Zionist conspiracy that echo the old accusation that the Jews are seeking to control the world. This kind of expression is not political commentary on the abuses of the Israeli state and not speech that should be protected – it is a racist attack on all Jews. Four men were arrested at the weekend, following an incident in London where antisemitic abuse that incited violence was broadcast from a convoy of cars emblazoned with Palestinian flags (the image at the top of this article is from a video of the incident). According to the Community Security Trust, there has been a fourfold increase in antisemitic incidents since the escalation of the current conflict.

It is a reservoir of prejudice that runs deep. European antisemitism has repeatedly cast the Jews, victims of racism throughout the history of modern Europe, as victimisers – a group that seeks to cause harm and is secretly plotting to do so. It is a chilling inversion of victimhood that characterises much of antisemitism. The Israeli state’s actions play into this narrative, confirming the now ancient prejudice of Jews as oppressors.

We are currently witnessing supremacist nationalism in Israel and a prime minister clinging on to power who has cosied up to the most extreme elements in society. Let’s call it what it is – without resorting to racist abuse. It’s high time for the Palestinians to have their own state and it’s also time for Europeans to let go of a prejudice that rots political discourse and endangers Jews.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

He is loathsome, but I will always defend Ken Loach’s right to offend me

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116256″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]I can think of few public figures I hold in greater contempt than Ken Loach. Mr Loach may be an esteemed film maker but I regard his politics as those of the sewer. His involvement in the cancelled original production of Perdition, the notoriously antisemitic play, ought to have led all decent people to shun him. Far from that happening, however, he has been widely feted and his career has soared. And yet not only do his views remain the same, he misses few opportunities to promote them.

In short, I loathe the man and find him deeply offensive.

All of which is true, but all of which should be irrelevant to anyone but me and those who are interested in my views of Mr Loach. There are many other public figures whose views I find deeply offensive. To which you rightly respond: Who cares?

Except people do care. Not about my specific response, but about the offence Mr Loach generates among many of my fellow Jews. And that is an issue.

Earlier this month, a brouhaha arose over a decision by students at St Peter’s College, Oxford, to invite Mr Loach to speak (as it happens, about his films rather than, er, Jews). Would I have invited him? I think you know the answer to that. But the invitation was issued, Mr Loach accepted, and we are where we are.

Vile as I – and, let’s be clear, many others – may find him to be, if a group of Oxford students wish to hear from Ken Loach, so be it. He has broken no laws when speaking and has as much right to put forward his views – and, of course, to talk about his films to a group of people interested in hearing from him about them – as anyone else.

Ordinarily, that would have been the end of the matter. But when the event was made public, the Board of Deputies of British Jews weighed in, demanding that the invitation be withdrawn. They argued – correctly – that many Jews find Mr Loach’s views deeply offensive. But, bizarrely and ludicrously, they concluded from this that he should therefore have been banned from speaking.

The sheer idiocy of this position takes some grappling with. For most of my time as editor of the Jewish Chronicle, a recurring story has been how representatives of Israel face violence and intimidation on campus to stop them speaking. In other words, one group of people believe that the offence they take at hearing a certain view entitles them to silence that view. The Board of Deputies has rightly criticised such attempts.

Do they really not see the contradiction? For Jewish students, the greatest campus battle at the moment is the right to be heard. All too often they are shouted down and attacked by anti-Israel activists. The Board of Deputies’ position is that if someone is regarded as offensive by enough people, they should be denied the opportunity to speak. Presumably anywhere, always. If Mr Loach is to be denied the chance to speak at St Peter’s, is he also to be barred from promoting his films? Or from making films?

As one can see, the whole thing unravels with a moment’s thought – as well as being so obviously counter-productive. It will not be long before the next attempt to silence an Israeli speaker, this time doubtless claiming to be based on the Board of Deputies’ own logic, that their presence is offensive to many people.

As readers of this site well know, free speech issues can be complicated. But not always. Sometimes the issue is obvious. I loathe Ken Loach. But I defend his right to speak.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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