Holocaust Memorial Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 11:01 am ar 2 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Austin of Dudley Lord Austin of Dudley Non-affiliated 11:01, 2 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow a moving and brilliant speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Anderson.

I will start by telling your Lordships about a 10 year-old Jewish boy from a town called Ostrava, in what was then Czechoslovakia. One night in March 1939, he was awoken by a noise in the street. He got out of bed, peered out the window and saw the German soldiers march into the town square. It was the night Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. A few days later he was waved off on a train by his mum and teenage sisters. It was the last time he would see them: they were rounded up and sent first to a ghetto, then to Theresienstadt, and finally to Treblinka, where they were murdered in October 1942.

That little boy arrived in the UK a few months before the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. When he arrived, he was able to speak only three words of English: “hot”, “cross” and “bun”. However, he grew up to become the youngest grammar school head teacher in the country, was honoured with an MBE for his work in education and charity, and brought up four children—of whom I am the second.

As noble Lords can imagine, I grew up hearing about the Holocaust from my parents, hearing about the suffering and the appalling cruelty, and the industrial nature of the slaughter. That left me with a lifelong conviction that prejudice leads to intolerance, then to victimisation and then to persecution, and that every one of us has a duty not to stand by but to make a difference—to fight discrimination, intolerance, bigotry and racism wherever we find it.

Every year, we have these debates and Holocaust commemorations. Every year, politicians pledge to combat anti-Jewish racism and proclaim “never again”, but look what we have seen over the past year. On 7 October, more Jewish people were killed on a single day than on any day since the Holocaust. This was not resistance or self-defence, as Hamas and its supporters claim. This was mass murder motivated by racial hatred, organised by anti-Semitic fascists committed to destroying the world’s only Jewish state and not just wiping out the Jewish people who live there but causing the genocide of Jewish people worldwide. The Hamas charter makes that absolutely clear. On campuses, on social media and even here in Parliament, we see history distorted with deliberate and offensive false equivalence drawn between what the Nazis did in the Holocaust and a democratic state defending its citizens.

Let us be really clear what we are commemorating today: this debate is to commemorate the Holocaust. It follows Holocaust Memorial Day last Saturday. That date—27 January—was chosen because it is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a death camp where 1.1 million people were murdered after being transported from all over Europe in cattle trucks. We are commemorating what happened there and at other death camps: the industrial slaughter of 6 million Jewish men, women and children, and the Nazis’ attempt to wipe out the Jewish people in their entirety. That is what the Holocaust was. It is very specific.

Yet this year, disgracefully, people and organisations have attempted to mark Holocaust Memorial Day without mentioning Jewish people at all. Even the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Scottish First Minister and some local authorities chose instead to waffle meaninglessly about general vague genocides. We have also seen messages from Holocaust charities and even survivors or their families besmirched by comments calling them Nazis or accusing them of supporting genocide, even as they carry out the solemn act of remembrance.

I believe—I am sure there is not a person in the House who does not—that the humanitarian disaster in Gaza is dreadful. War always is. The death of innocent people is always devastating, and I want an end to the death and suffering as soon as possible. However dreadful it is, though, and however much pain and suffering there is, it is not genocide and it is not comparable to the Holocaust. In fact, drawing these comparisons is the latest form of Holocaust denial: not only does it minimise the industrial scale, the planning and the determination of the Nazis’ attempt to wipe out the Jewish people in their entirety but it is the latest attempt to accuse the victims of the Holocaust and the victims of genocide of being its perpetrators.

We have seen placards on the streets of London since 7 October at the so-called pro-Palestine demonstrations comparing Israeli policy to the final solution, comparing Israeli leaders to Hitler, and replacing or equating the Star of David with the swastika. On Holocaust Memorial Day itself, “Gaza Holocaust” was trending on social media. The poster advertising a demonstration in Glasgow scheduled for Holocaust Memorial Day said, “This Holocaust Memorial Day, join us as we protest the genocide in Gaza and demand that never again is now”. Claiming that Israel is committing genocide, calling Israelis Nazis, comparing the world’s only Jewish state to Hitler’s Germany or saying that Zionism is racism is not just completely untrue; they are appalling insults. What could be worse than smearing a country that Holocaust survivors helped set up as a safe haven after centuries of pogroms and persecution, and then the systematic attempt to wipe out the Jewish people in their entirety? What could be worse than comparing it to the Nazis?

Think about this: in the Middle East, half a million people have been killed in Syria, almost 400,000 have been killed in Yemen and almost a quarter of a million have been killed a little further away in Afghanistan. The victims of these conflicts are barely spoken about, are not on the news every night, and their deaths are certainly not labelled genocides or compared to the Holocaust. The perpetrators are not called Nazis. The charge of genocide and comparisons to Nazis are reserved for the Israelis because of the pain and grief this specific insult causes them.

As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, within hours of the attacks on 7 October—even as people lay dying and before the bodies of the dead had been recovered—people were celebrating on the streets of London. People were justifying or supporting the attacks. We see marches every Saturday and anti-Semitism on the streets of London. I have been down to look at some of those marches for myself. You see lots of signs calling for Israel to be eradicated; you do not see any calling for peace, for Gaza to be freed from Hamas or for the release of the hostages.

There were people chanting about a massacre of Jews by a Muslim army and a mob outside Downing Street calling for Hamas to bomb Tel Aviv. No one is marching in London every Saturday for victims of slaughter in Yemen, Syria, Somalia or Sudan. I am not saying that everyone who joins these marches is a racist, of course, but if the only country you march and protest against just happens to be the only Jewish one, do not tell me you are not an anti-Semite.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Anderson, did, I want to thank the Community Security Trust for its work to protect the Jewish community and fight anti-Semitism. Sadly, since 7 October, that work has never been more important. Last week in north London, a man with a knife attacked a kosher supermarket. What did he say to the visibly Jewish staff? “What’s your side? Where do you stand on Israel and Palestine?” Restaurants and synagogues have been vandalised. The noble Lord, Lord Polak, and I met a group of students here in Parliament only yesterday. We heard how they have been subject to racist abuse, been targeted on campus and are scared to show religious symbols on their way to lectures, as are pupils on their way to school. Anti-Semitic incidents referencing the Holocaust have increased by over 100% in 2023. According to the CST, incidents involving Holocaust denial also rose by 268% on the year before. All this tells us why the work of organisations like the CST and the Holocaust Educational Trust is so important.

We need to teach people very specifically and clearly about the racism and the truth of the Holocaust. We need to be clear about the nature of anti-Semitism that led to this greatest tragedy. Yes, of course, it was a human tragedy, but people were not herded into the gas chambers because they were human beings; they were human beings who were herded into the gas chambers because they were Jewish.

This is not genocide memorial day; this is Holocaust Memorial Day. It is not too much to ask to have just one day in a whole year that is reserved for the commemoration of history’s greatest crime, and to give us the opportunity to pay our respects to its victims. It would be a wonderful thing to have a genocide memorial day to commemorate the victims of other atrocities. Of course I would support that and help organise it. However, that is not what Holocaust Memorial Day is about. I have always felt strongly about this. When I go to events, I see equivalence drawn between the Holocaust and other terrible atrocities. I have always thought about this, but it is particularly important this year because of the false comparisons that we have seen drawn that I listed earlier.

I ask the Minister to ensure that we commemorate the Holocaust properly and specifically, that she will ensure that government-sponsored events commemorate the Holocaust properly, and that the new memorial and learning centre she is leading concentrates on the Holocaust properly and specifically. I also ask her what steps the Government will take to support proposals for a Jewish history week or month, so that people can learn about the contribution Jewish people have made to our country and the whole world, and so that Jewish people are not seen merely and purely as victims. What more can the Government do to support wider teaching on racism and the Holocaust? We need all this because we need people to understand that the Holocaust did not start with gas chambers and the industrial slaughter of 6 million people; it started with words, speeches, prejudice and hatred. It started with conspiracy theories and scapegoats. It started with communities being divided and people being singled out and bullied on the basis of how they worshipped, what they looked like, or their race and religion. That is how it always starts.

In conclusion, as we honour of the memory of the people who were murdered and pay tribute to the survivors, let us pledge again to fight anti-Semitism, prejudice, racism and bigotry wherever it is found, because that is the best tribute any of us can pay to the memory of those who were killed in history’s greatest crime.