Yad Vashem's big British error

The Shoah should not blind Israelis to the fact that not all Europeans betrayed the Jews

By Martin Bright, September 2, 2010

I recently lost my rag at Yad Vashem.  I didn't shout and stamp my feet. I'm not that crass. Being British, I just quietly fumed and grumbled to a friend who was with me. But I was properly angry, not just on my own behalf but that of my whole country.  Why? Because my guide, a senior curator at the museum, had chosen to lump Britain in as part of her sweeping picture of European capitulation in the face of the Wehrmacht.

"Look how they all surrendered," she said, pointing with a series of thrusts of her finger at the map of Europe with a look of  disgust.

"Every single European country." I have never felt myself to be a particularly patriotic person, but I couldn't help it. It just bubbled up. "Except one," I said, half expecting her to correct herself. But no, the guide simply looked me in the eye and said: "Well, I suppose you had the good fortune of the Channel."

I decided to visit the rest of the museum without the benefit of her expertise. Yad Vashem is such a devastating assault on the intellect and emotions that it is best experienced alone anyway.

I have thought a lot about my reaction. Was I being self-indulgent? After all, this was just one off-the-cuff comment from a hassled official at a crowded museum on one of the hottest days of the summer. On the other hand, this was the official Yad Vashem narrative.  And for whatever reasons, geography undoubtedly being among them, Britain did not capitulate. On the contrary, it did, for a short time at least, stand alone against the Nazi threat, whatever David Cameron might think.

This unfortunate exchange reminded me of the first time I visited Yad Vashem a few years ago, when I was shown around by a young British Jew who had recently made aliyah. As with all migrants, there were "pull" and "push" factors. On the pull side, was his deeply-felt Zionist utopianism: he wanted to help build a better Israel and with it a better world. More disturbing, for me, was the push side: his experience as a Jew in Britain, where he said he had never felt entirely at home. This went beyond a general discomfort about antisemitism. "I am sorry," he said, knowing I was not Jewish myself. "I don't mean this personally, but you Europeans let us down. You had your chance to make us welcome and you blew it."

I was deeply struck by what he said, though not offended. His words immediately gave me a deeper understanding of Israel and of those Jews who identify with the Zionist state. As he spoke to me he was standing in front of Nathan Rappaport's sculpture, Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a representation of heroic Jewish resistance to fascism.  I understood that this young man felt, even in the 21st century, that a fresh start had to be made in a new land. His position will be utterly familiar to readers of this newspaper, although I suspect it would still come as a surprise to large sections of the British public.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, the British still see themselves as exceptionally tolerant, welcoming and, in that bumbling way that we describe as "plucky", we also like to think of our nation as heroic.

Constructions of national identity are built on a combination of myth, denial and utopian idealism. But this is not all. They are also built on cold historical fact. Just as the modern Israeli state is built on the reality of the resistance of the Jews who fought in the Warsaw ghetto, so is the modern British consciousness built on the knowledge that our grandparents did not capitulate in 1940. Shimon Peres is correct to identify a residual British antisemitism in the de-legitimisation movement. Britain's history of antisemitism has been well documented, most recently by Anthony Julius and Robert Wistrich.

When I look at those maps of the Shoah showing the numbers of Jews in the countries of Europe before and after the war, I feel a deep shame.

But I can't be the only visitor
to have noticed how Britain stands
out: the Jewish population of Britain was 300,000 before the war and 300,000 after.

A more telling challenge for British visitors to Yad Vashem than whether or not we were saved by the channel in 1940 would be to ask why the population of Jews did not grow. And even more fundamentally, why it is still around 300,000, 60 years later.

Last updated: 11:38am, September 2 2010