Holocaust Memorial Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:54 pm ar 2 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Llafur 12:54, 2 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Singh of Wimbledon. It is not that I was too keen to stand up and say my bit but simply that I mistook his place for mine.

I am greatly puzzled by this whole question of anti-Semitism. I grew up in a country where anti-Semitism was never heard of: India. In Kerala in India, the king, gave refugee Jews who were running away from Iraq a kingdom and said, “You are the kings of this area. You have your Jewish subjects. You are entitled to ride an elephant. You are entitled to collect taxes”. There they lived happily ever after. This is the history I was taught of the Jewish people, and it turned out to be true when I checked documents afterwards and was taught by a Jewish professor of English literature at St Xavier’s College, Bombay. He also happened to be the national poet of English—namely, Nissim Ezekiel.

All through my life, as I was growing up in India, I had Jewish friends—not very many, because the Jewish population was rather small—and after the creation of Israel, many of them moved there. In fact, even now, just outside Jerusalem there is a colony of Indians and there are Indian restaurants, as I discovered during my second visit to Israel a few years ago. So there was this Jewish community in India, and I grew up among them. Then I landed in England and talked to a lot of people, and I initially began to hear snide remarks. As I interacted, I heard vicious remarks, and I began to ask myself, “Where is this anti-Semitism coming from?” Philo-Semitism is easily understood, but what is anti-Semitism composed of? What is it based on? Why is a particular community singled out and made an object of jokes, hatred and other undesirable treatment?

The process did not begin 100 years ago; it goes back to the Greeks and the Romans—Philo the Greek and others. Why has this process continued, changing form here and there but nevertheless persisting? Well, Christianity accused Jews of deicide—that is an old story—and another element was added: Jews turned away the offer of accepting Christ as their leader. In the Middle Ages, Jews were asked to dress differently so that they could be easily recognised. The process went on and culminated, as we know, in the Holocaust.

If you deconstruct this process and ask how it was formed and what elements were added to it at what stage, you begin to see a fascinating picture. That picture is in danger of being ignored today if we are not careful. Here, I will tell how the word “Holocaust” came into our vocabulary and what it means. The word is Roman and first appeared in the third century, when it was used fairly widely and came to mean a burnt offering to God. It appears again in the 14th century, when it simply meant burning or destroying something totally.

If you look at the Holocaust, it has three characteristics that distinguish it from the normal forms of genocide. First, it is not limited to a particular group, as genocide would be. It can include, as Hitler’s camps did, gays, disabled people, Gypsies and others. So the Holocaust includes not just one particular group but simply a large collection of heterogeneous people. Secondly, the Holocaust included the systematic and total annihilation of a people. That was the goal. Thirdly, and just as importantly, is the pseudo-religious orientation. From the time of the Romans, a “holocaust” meant that you eliminated people as a kind of sacrifice to God, purging society of an undesirable element and offering it to God, so holocaust becomes a ritual—there is a theology of holocaust—which is what makes it such a dangerous and frightening thing. That is why the Holocaust happened only once, and you cannot compare it to other elements or say that there are different forms of Holocaust. The Holocaust happened to the Jewish community, which suffered intensely. That is why I would say that the word “Holocaust” should be reserved entirely for what happened to them under the Nazi’s.

That brings me to the next issue, about the mass or systematic destruction of a people. Why would anybody want to do that? Killing individuals I can understand, but why kill a whole people? Why do you want to kill a whole people, and how do you kill a whole people? If you do not like them, avoid them or ostracise them—why do you want to kill them? There again, something interesting begins to happen. You take a group of people and straightaway there are certain characteristics that you find unacceptable. In India, I saw this when Isb was growing up, in the days of the partition of the country, when I saw Hindus butchering Muslims and Muslim blood on the streets, and I asked myself, “Why are Hindus so beastly to Muslims?” They were tolerant of other minorities—of Christians, Jews, Parsees and others—but not of Muslims. Why, and how?

You take a community, abstract certain characteristics of that community and refer to them not by their concrete designations but in terms of those abstract characteristics. For example, you say, “I’m not disturbing you—I’m disturbing a Muslim”. Or you say, “You don’t appear to me as you in your concrete social designation—you appear to me as an abstraction, a Jew”. Even here, in our conversation, we talk about “a Jew”, and I find it offensive to talk about somebody as “a Jew”, or “a Hindu”, or whatever. This man is a human being with certain concrete characteristics that distinguish him from others. Why are we abstracting that away and talking about him entirely in terms of those characteristics, which subsume him under others, so he is seen as other Jews? Then you have formed a group, which is now ready to be sent to a camp.

The first thing is, with any kind of mass killing, you abstract certain characteristics that you disapprove of, abstract those characteristics from those individuals, and those individuals now become ready for killing. They are targets—but why are they targets for killing? Why do you want to kill them? You could avoid them, as the Spanish did to the Muslims—send them away from the country—but why kill them? You kill them because another element comes in: you find them undesirable and devious, so their very presence contaminates your people, and you want to get rid of them. Why do you find their presence undesirable? How do you make that kind of judgment? That judgment is entirely untenable, not just in the case of Jews but in the case of Hindus.

There is another element that I have been able to detect. Hindus have suffered in many ways, in the same way as the Jews have, in being expelled from three countries—Sri Lanka, east Africa and Burma. They were expelled, and the description that was given to them was more or less the same as that given to Jews in certain parts of the world. Happily, they were not killed, but they were thrown out of the country, and lock, stock and barrel they arrived here, or elsewhere.

So, you abstract certain characteristics, classify them in a certain way, get rid of them. But are all human beings like this? Can you persuade anyone to kill anybody? No: there are sensible people in any society, but how are those sensible people swept off their feet? That happens because of another element, which is “drip, drip, drip”: the kind of prejudice you are attributing to a community, racism, is in these people in small doses and has been permeating for a long time, and they are neutralised by the “drip, drip, drip”, so that a person may not be a downright blatant racist, but nevertheless he will make remarks which will indicate racial discrimination. We draw the distinction in our own language between racial discrimination and racism. So, we have this peculiar scenario of a large body of people which is mildly racist and another layer which is rabidly racist, or dehumanised, and that is where the scene is set for mass murder or whatever. And when that scene is set up, there is nothing we can do. That is where the problem comes in.

“Never again”: but how are we going to stop something happening again? What mechanisms have we developed by which we can educate people into resisting murderers? That we have not thought through, which is why holocausts have occurred in Bangladesh and in China, with Uighur Muslims and others, and will continue to occur, unless we are able to find out how to stop people becoming victims of this kind of abstraction.