Holocaust Memorial Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 10:35 am ar 2 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Pickles Lord Pickles Ceidwadwyr 10:35, 2 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I draw attention to my entries in the register of interest, particularly those relating to Holocaust remembrance. That is a particularly fine speech to follow. I have to say that all the speeches have been really good today. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, talked about the exhibition at the Bundestag. Perhaps I could give notice that it is his intention to bring that exhibition to these Parliaments. By joining the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in that regard, I hope that I can make up for the appalling reference that I made to him the other day, when I described him as the very epitome of a dapper English gentleman.

I thank the usual channels for arranging this debate, which I hope will be a regular feature of Holocaust memorial week, like the long-established one in the other place. I also thank the Lord Speaker for organising, in conjunction with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, a thoughtful discussion on the nature of genocide last week. I join in thanks to Karen Pollock for her excellent work with the Holocaust Educational Trust and to Olivia Marks-Woldman of the HMDT for organising so much in a very difficult year: 5,000 different organisations putting together local events, 3,000 buildings lit up, including the Blackpool Tower and the London Eye; thousands of candles in peoples’ windows and 6 million digital candles on billboards across the United Kingdom.

I am also grateful for the commitment given by the Government, the Leader of the Opposition, the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party to the building of a memorial to the Holocaust and a learning centre next to Parliament in Victoria Tower Gardens. We will soon have an opportunity to debate this long overdue measure, and I look forward to debating it with some vigour—though I am mindful of the very wise words of Sir Peter Bottomley, the Father of the House of Commons, when he said that perhaps this debate was not an appropriate place to spend much time on that, and that we should concentrate on the Holocaust.

I took over the post of the Holocaust envoy in 2015. In that time, I have visited many death camps in Europe, had the opportunity of listening to very distinguished historians and met many survivors. But there is one thing I have never entirely understood—something I have never been able to get my mind around. Why did we not do something about Hitler, when it was there and it was plain? The nature of what was happening in Nazi Germany and the death camps was known to the authorities in the United Kingdom many years before the liberation—and even at the time when we decided to announce that they were occurring, we underestimated the number of people who had been killed at that point by 1 million.

However, by midday on 7 October, I knew exactly why we did nothing. Before Israel had an opportunity to get much of a defence and before Israel did anything in Gaza, people were dancing in the streets throughout the world—and, to our eternal shame, in the United Kingdom—celebrating the murder of children. I came to the conclusion that the world is very happy to bow its head once a year in remembrance of long dead Jews, but it is indifferent to the fate of living Jews and hostile to the thought that Jews might defend themselves.

Even when they saw the full extent of the horrors that Hamas committed—many Members will have seen the film and heard testimony this week—many of the #MeToo campaigners and the campaigners against female genital mutilation turned a blind eye to Israeli suffering. We were asked to consider these mutilations “in context”. Have we really become a country in which parents are advised not to send their children to Jewish schools in school uniform; where Jewish students are reluctant to wear a kippah on campus; where travellers are advised not to wear a Star of David on the Tube; where Hebrew-speaking tourists are assaulted on London streets; or where a decent, hard-working MP is hounded out of office for standing up for his Jewish constituents? The very nature of liberal democracy is at risk.

So I hope we will not hear any statements in future from university vice-chancellors, from police commissioners or politicians, about having a zero tolerance approach to anti-Semitism, because it is clearly not the case. It is a lie. Casual anti-Semitism is widespread in modern Britain: you need only to look, every Saturday, to see those useful idiots marching alongside Jew-hating anti-Semites, giving them credibility and credence and inadvertently encouraging them on to even greater depravity.

Before Israel had a chance to defend itself, even while the crowds in major cities were dancing with glee at the murder of children, the twin pillars of denial and distortion were working to form an alternate reality, a distorted truth. The term “genocide” is habitually misused and distorted. My noble friend the Minister read out the definition, so I will not repeat it—but from their mouths Hamas are condemned. United States President Joe Biden summed it up well when he said that Hamas’s goal had always been to annihilate Israel and to murder Jews. The South African attempt to subvert the meaning of genocide at the ICJ and to use it against Israel is a distortion of the truth. For the victims to be guilty of the crimes committed by the perpetrators is a perversion of reality. The Foreign Secretary is correct when he says:

“I take the view that Israel is acting in self-defence after the appalling attack of 7 October”,

and that the argument that Israel has

“the intent to commit genocide, I think … is nonsense”.

Denial is the first stage of genocide. That process was truncated in the October pogrom. I participated in an interview on LBC with an imam from east London who laughingly told me and the listeners, a few days after the massacre, that no children had been murdered by Hamas. Queen’s College Muslim Association went one step further, saying that there was a great deal of video evidence that Hamas deliberately avoided targeting women and children. Denial and distortion are formidable obstacles to the truth when there are plenty of witnesses about; consider their potency when the number of survivors who witnessed the Holocaust is diminishing. That is why the presidency of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which the UK begins this month, will strengthen the coalition that rebuts denial and distortion. One of the first events will be a gathering of experts to examine the possibility and pitfalls of artificial intelligence on the digital records of the Holocaust.

The last 15 years have focused on gathering testimony from survivors, including from many people who experienced the Holocaust as children. A great effort has gone into digitising records. The amount and the depth of the material is impressive. The worry is that the very strength of this evidence might be our Achilles heel. We live in an era of seeing is not believing. Images and testimony are vulnerable. History is up for grabs.

The consequences of cheap, widespread fakery are already with us. Holocaust survivors were recent recently distressed by a photograph of the then Home Secretary laughing at the gates of Auschwitz. It was a photoshop. It was not a very good fake, but it was good enough to cause hurt. Misleading words might be put into the mouths of survivors, mimicking their voices and trivialising the Holocaust. “The food might have been a bit bland, but there was plenty of it”. “On Sundays, we used to play football with our SS guards”. “Tuesday night was bridge night”. The fake recording of Sir Keir Starmer shouting at staff is a harbinger of what is to come on the road to a zero-trust society. AI will enable Jew haters to identify and target anti-Semites with a precision previously not thought possible—an echo chamber of bigotry that encourages deeper hatred.

Our presidential year will bring perpetrators of violence and the conditions that caused the Holocaust more into focus. Our theme this year is “In Plain Sight”. It comes from something profound that my friend and Holocaust survivor Ivor Perl said to me on a visit to Auschwitz. We first met on the March of the Living, an annual event taking place in Poland. People attend from all over the world and they are of all ages and backgrounds. There are plenty of enthusiastic youngsters about, which makes it a more uplifting experience than I would have expected. Gradually working our way through Poland, we arrived at the end of the march at Auschwitz.

I am on the international committee supervising the preservation of the Nazi concentration camp and consequently I am a regular visitor. While Ivor had visited the camp since he was a prisoner there, it had been some time. We stood as a group on the separation ramp, where families were torn apart. Ivor movingly describes this moment in his memoir Chicken Soup Under the Tree. For the first and only time that week, Ivor looked vulnerable, and I went up to him and said possibly the world’s most stupid thing, which was, “Are you all right, Ivor?” He firmly gripped my wrist and said, “Listen, Eric, don’t believe all that crap about ‘The birds never sing in Auschwitz’. It was a day like this when we first came here, a warm, sunny day, blue skies with cotton-wool clouds, birds were singing and butterflies were fluttering between the lines. The Holocaust did not happen in dark corners, hidden away; the Holocaust happened in broad daylight, in plain sight, with the whole world watching”.

We will anchor historic memory with a schools project across member countries addressing what happened in the Second World War in their home towns. The best projects will be presented to a special youth conference in London later this year. The 80th anniversary of the camps’ liberation will be explored in short clips on social media in 80 objects. Countering anti-Semitism in sport will be launched in Scotland in the summer. Our legacy project will be a data portal that unites and combines testimony and digital records from around the world. It will be easier to find out the truth of the Holocaust.

In conclusion, today the words “Never again” ring hollow and false. We have work to do. Let people of good will work together to make the UK a beacon of hope and tolerance. We will have succeeded only when we can say “Never again” in our hearts as well as our mouths. I hope that better times will come.