The fragility of freedom

We like to think of a world where each generation will be healthier, wealthier and safer than the last. There are undoubtedly periods in our global history where this happens. The fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s saw generations of people in Eastern Europe stepping into the light and gaining independence of thought once more. The end of apartheid in South Africa brought with it hope for a better tomorrow: one based on equality and respect. We desperately wished that the moving aside of the military junta in Myanmar for Aung San Suu Kyi would herald a new beginning for the Burmese.

Authoritarians around the world were seemingly evaporating in the latter half of the 20th century, ousted by peaceful movements and a citizenry hungry for statehood without division, pain and hurt. I passionately believe that the arc of history does bend towards justice, but as we are reminded all too often the route it travels isn’t linear.

Humanity has the power to do extraordinary things. Over the centuries freedom of expression has unlocked the shackles holding individuals back from creating art, literature and scientific discoveries. But we must never forget that despots are people too. They are not other, they are not aliens who have arrived from another planet. They are us. They are people who make appalling decisions and whose world view is so very different from our own. Their actions confirm every day that our humanity also includes the destructive elements to bring with it sorrow, suffering and hardship.

The 21st century started with a genuine hope that the concept of vibrant democracy was winning around the world, but it wasn’t long before the disease of dictatorship infected parts of the globe once more. Tyrants thrive on division and hate. Finding a minority to blame, persecute and banish is the only way authoritarians can maintain their grasp on power. The playbook they use is always the same: capture a perceived grievance based upon reported failures of a democratic government; find a scapegoat to inculpate; convince the population that a simple solution is on offer and that the despot is the only one to implement it.

79 years after the end of World War Two our democratic dividend was meant to ensure that this cycle of hate and division was broken once and for all. The Holocaust had shown us the horrors this politics can lead to.

But nearly eight decades later whilst we may have hoped that history would never be repeated, recent history has shown us our own naïveté.

The ‘fragility of freedom’ has become the watchword of this century and is the theme of this weekend’s International Holocaust Memorial Day, a day which reminds us that horrors we believed were behind us are not only haunting our collective memory, but are still happening to this day.

Children abducted from parents. Religious minorities murdered for their faith. Women banned from an education. LGBT+ people sterilised. Journalists disappeared for reporting the truth. Writers attacked on stage. The list of atrocities happening around the world goes on. And demonstrates daily how fragile the freedoms we take for granted really are.

Every genocide which has taken place started with restrictions of freedom. It is why Index on Censorship gives a megaphone to dissidents. We do all we can to strengthen freedom of expression. Our contribution in the effort to fight for the democratic values we hold so dear.

Our work takes us to every corner of the world and we do this because we know that free and open societies don’t happen in a vacuum. They require nurturing in a connected planet.

Saying ‘never again’ is one thing. Acting is another. We must never take our freedom for granted. The world must be united with one voice in standing up for religious freedom, freedom of self-identity and freedom of expression. If we can do that the best of humanity will outshine our darkness and ensure future generations inherit the hope that delivers a secure future.

So I hope you’ll join me in lighting a candle this Saturday evening as we try and find a little light in a world that can feel like the darkness is winning.

Ordinary people, extraordinary times

The theme of Holocaust Memorial Day this year is ordinary people. Words have power and their meaning changes with context – and in the context of the Holocaust the word ordinary is one that brings conflicted emotions. Those killed were indeed ordinary people who happened to be different, Jewish, gay, Roma, disabled, trade unionists and political dissenters. Many of those that killed them probably started as ordinary people who believed the propaganda that inspired hate and murder. Those that intervened to save them were ordinary people with an incredible value set that demanded in many cases that they risked their lives to save people that they barely knew.

In the run up to Holocaust Memorial Day I had the privilege of hearing the testimony of Janine Webber, a Holocaust survivor who lost huge swathes of her family. There is nothing quite so stark and shocking as hearing first-hand the stories of those people who were confronted with the ultimate evil. Janine survived the ghetto and was hidden and betrayed several times, eventually finding sanctuary in a convent and then with an elderly Polish family. She was saved by ordinary people and betrayed by ordinary people and before this happened to her she was an ordinary little girl in Poland. But in the course of four years she lost her parents, her brother and all of her extended family – the only other surviving members of her family were her aunt and an uncle. Her story will stay with me – and everyone else who heard her testimony – for as long as we live.

The question that has stuck with me since I had the privilege of listening to Janine, is what happens when she is sadly no longer with us. When the survivors are no longer with us to challenge those people who seek to deny or distort the facts of the Holocaust? The onus is on all of us to tell their stories and to shine a light on the lies and misinformation spouted by political extremists who seek to use one of the worst chapters in human history as a political football.

Last week the British House of Lords held its first debate to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. As a new member of the Lords, it was my privilege and responsibility to contribute to the debate. You can read my speech here.

Speaking about such an important topic in a national legislature is not something that anyone would or should take lightly, it was politics at its best – informed, considered and heartfelt.

The debate has made me think repeatedly about the fundamental importance of our core human rights and how we have to cherish and protect them. I can write this blog today because I have a guaranteed right, under British law, to express myself and articulate my opinions. Tyrants and dictators, always, as one of their earliest actions, seek to restrict a free media, undermine academic freedoms, remove books from libraries, and silence their critics. Index exists to provide a platform to those being silenced and we always will – but we also provide a voice to those who seek to tell truth to power, who seek to challenge misinformation, who stand against tyranny. We have for the last fifty years and we will for the next fifty.

“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.