Last September, Prime Minister David Cameron launched a Commission on the Holocaust, which Jewish Leadership Council head Mick Davis had graciously consented to chair. Last week, Cameron announced the names of other members of this august body. Top of the list is the actress Helena Bonham Carter, whose maternal grandfather had saved hundreds of Jews during the second world war.
Other commission members include the headmistress of Watford Grammar School, Dame Helena Hyde, the chairman of Arts Council England, Sir Peter Bazalgette, a TV newsreader, Natasha Kaplinsky, who lost family members in the Slonim ghetto, and the first Asian woman to be appointed chief executive of a FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 company, Ruby Mcgregor Smith. Supporting chairman Mick will be his deputy at the JLC, property tycoon Leo Noé, son of Holocaust survivors.
If some detect a slight hint of cynicism on my part, you are not mistaken. I am deeply sceptical as to the whole exercise. But before I lay bare my pessimism for all to see, I need to engage in some further analysis of the membership of Cameron’s Commission and its two “expert groups” (“education” and “commemoration”).
In announcing these memberships, Cameron had the effrontery to claim that not only was the Commission “cross-party” but that it represented “our whole society.” Now it’s true that the Commission includes Education Secretary Michael Gove, Labour Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls and former Lib-Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes. But the idea that it represents “our whole society” is utterly false.
The only cleric on the commission is Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. No other Anglo-Jewish religious grouping has been accorded any representation at all.
Although the commission includes two zillionaire machers from the JLC (Davis and Noé) it includes no one at all from the Board of Deputies. It’s true that numbered within the “expert groups” are former Deputies president Henry Grunwald and Holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott, who is a deputy. But, not to put too fine a point on it, the commission membership seems to reflect not so much the wealth of expertise that Anglo-Jewry has to offer on Holocaust education as a roll-call of establishment names co-opted primarily for public-relations purposes.
“This cross-party, national commission,” Cameron trumpeted, “will investigate what more needs to be done to ensure Britain has a permanent and fitting memorial and the educational resources needed for generations to come.”
I cannot for the life of me understand why the UK needs “a permanent and fitting memorial” to the Holocaust, for which it bore only a very limited and largely indirect responsibility. It might be argued that it could have taken in more refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, in which case a fitting memorial might be a monument listing those who were specifically denied entry into this country (and even, in some cases, forcibly evicted once they had reached British shores), and who perished as a result.
But can you see the Holocaust Commission recommending the erection of such an edifice? No? Well, neither can I. In any case, there are already some very fine Holocaust-related memorials, for instance Frank Meisler’s poignant Kindertransport sculpture at London’s Liverpool Street station, and the memorial in Highbridge, Somerset, to British secret agent Frank Foley, through whose efforts more than 10,000 Jews were able to escape from Nazi Germany.
We might perhaps erect a plaque denouncing the superhuman efforts of the banker Otto Schiff, who, as head of the German Jewish Aid Committee, saw to it that as few Jews as possible were given refuge in Great Britain, and that these few were chosen with a view to their readiness to assimilate easily into British society. But can you see the Holocaust Commission recommending the erection of such an edifice? No? Well, neither can I.
I’m all in favour of Holocaust education. But, unless I’m much mistaken, the Holocaust is already part of the national curriculum. It hardly needs a Downing Street commission to press home the point, does it?