Why it is crucial to fight the language of hate

To trivialise the Holocaust is to fail the millions who were murdered


By Rabbi Barry Marcus, June 24, 2010
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I cannot imagine any JC reader for whom the words "Holocaust" and "Nazi" do not resonate. These are words with terrible connotations that speak of the darkest night we have ever endured. We do not use them lightly. When we hear them used in inappropriate or even trivial contexts, we feel wounded.

In recent years, we have repeatedly been confronted by the poison of Holocaust denial. Courageous people like Deborah Lipstadt have proven in court that Holocaust denial cannot hide behind the right to freedom of expression. British law recognises that language - the language of hate - has the power to undermine the foundations of democratic societies. The language of Holocaust denial is an insidious form of antisemitism with implications not just for Jews, but for anyone concerned with human rights and democratic values.

But it is not only the deniers who threaten the memory of the Holocaust. By calling an anti-smoking local councillor "a Nazi", the broadcaster Jon Gaunt could be taken as implying that National Socialism is an ideology characterised by mere officiousness, and de-emphasising the hatred and murder at its heart. And, as recent elections here have sadly shown, along with the resurgence of far-right extremism across Europe, there are still people who subscribe to that noxious brand of politics. We need to remain vigilant.

The scale of the Holocaust and its impact on Jewish communities across Europe remain unimaginable. When apparently respectable politicians compare events in the Middle East to the Holocaust, it is insulting. Such trivialisation of the Holocaust desecrates the memory of the millions of victims of Nazi tyranny, and offends the memories of those who survived.

If we fail to understand the lasting relevance of the Shoah to our lives, then we fail the millions who were murdered. That is why the Holocaust Educational Trust's Lessons from Auschwitz project is so important. When, in 1996, I began arranging visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau for the Jewish community, I did so in the initial belief that it was important for Jews to understand their own history. But this particular history is significant not only for Jews. In 1999, the Holocaust Educational Trust began to take students and teachers of all backgrounds to Auschwitz, affirming that the Holocaust is part of the story of humanity. It has been a privilege to have been able to take part in these visits and to have led ceremonies at the Birkenau crematoria.

Visiting the site where more than a million people were murdered can be a transformative experience. I can testify to the positive impact that it has had on thousands of students and teachers. When, at the crematoria, I ask the students to consider not "where was God at Auschwitz?" but, rather, "where was man?", their reactions never cease to move me.

Now, with government support, the trust takes sixth-form students from every school in the country. Organising up to 17 visits annually, the HET has just achieved a remarkable milestone: the 10,000th student has now participated in Lessons from Auschwitz. All of the young participants gain not only a deeper knowledge of the Holocaust itself, but also an understanding of why it is so important to oppose prejudice today.

Barry Marcus is minister of the Central Synagogue in London

    Last updated: 2:24pm, August 13 2010

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