The saga of the Holocaust memorial and “learning centre” planned for a small Westminster park has turned into a perplexingly prolonged and deeply divisive battle.
In April, the High Court court ruled that the memorial planned for Victoria Tower Gardens next to parliament couldn’t go ahead because a law from 1900 imposed “an enduring obligation” to retain the land for “use as a public garden” integral to the park.
Last week, the Appeal Court refused the government permission to appeal. This produced fury among the project’s supporters, an urgent question in the Commons and a defiant declaration by Lord Pickles, co-chair of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation (UKHMF), that the law would now be changed to force the plan through.
Quite why ministers are so fixated upon building a memorial in this particular spot is a mystery. The government was so determined that it overrode the planning authority, Westminster council, which opposed the project.
Ministers set up a planning inquiry that recommended the memorial go ahead. The decision to do so was then taken by a junior minister, whose notional independence from his Secretary of State was disingenuously used to distance the government from the decision so that it could appear independent.
The project has divided the Jewish community. It’s been pushed by community leaders close to the Tory party as well as the UKHMF and the Chief Rabbi.
But there’s also been significant opposition within the community. Baroness Deech, Lord Carlile and Lord Grade were among a number of Jewish luminaries who objected to its “location and design”.
Shamefully, objectors have been subjected to abuse from certain community leaders who have branded opponents as antisemites.
Now there’s been a further intemperate attack by Sir Lloyd Dorfman, a UKHMF trustee. Calling the objections “spurious” and “nonsense”, he claimed opponents were “trying to spoil an opportunity for survivors who live in this country to be there at the opening, next to the Houses of Parliament. The fact that the naysayers are led by Jews, Jewish peers in particular, is appalling.”
What was truly appalling was Dorfman’s spiteful, and what I believe to be utterly groundless, claim about the objectors’ motives, and his implication, from my interpretation of his words, that any Jew opposing the project was a traitor to the Jewish people.
The objectors have in fact raised important issues. Not only would the structure’s 23 tall, bronze fins spoil this small green oasis, but in addition Lord Carlile, the government’s former counter-terrorism reviewer, said siting the memorial there would constitute a security threat.
Even more importantly, objectors noted that the project would equate Holocaust victims with “the victims of subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur”. In other words, it would relativise, and thus diminish, the extermination of the Jews.
Baroness Deech said further that Holocaust memorials were increasingly used to promote “a self-congratulatory and sometimes self-exculpatory image of the country that erects them”.
Like other memorials, this one would fail to record how, during the Holocaust, the British government blocked the entry into Palestine of desperate European Jews in flagrant repudiation of the British Mandate to settle Jews there, thus facilitating their extermination.
Deech said: “The more the national Holocaust Remembrance Day events are packed out, the more the calls for sanctions on Israel that would result in her destruction, and the more the Holocaust is turned against the Jews.”
Deech thus articulated a vital insight into the deep limitations of Holocaust memorialising. For Dorfman to imply that Carlile and Deech were not only talking “nonsense” but that this was particularly reprehensible because they were Jews, was as obtuse as it was pernicious.
Dorfman said the Westminster park would be “the most prestigious location for any Holocaust memorial and learning centre anywhere in the world”.
But it would actually be the most prestigious location for a structure that would diminish the uniqueness of the extermination of the Jews and whitewash Britain’s own role in it.
Lord Pickles told the Commons he had “no doubt that the two candidates for prime minister will also be sympathetic” to changing the law to force the project through.
Why drag Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss into this? Why try to change the law when such a memorial could be appropriately sited in the grounds of the Imperial War Museum, whose Holocaust exhibition has drawn widespread praise? Why persist with a project that so divides the Jewish community?
Memorialising the Holocaust is an act of piety. This plan represents an act of grandstanding, with more than a whiff of narcissism, cronyism and venality.
It’s hard not to conclude that, behind the vacuous and hypocritical pieties of the project’s supporters and their attacks on its opponents, the real reason Jewish leaders are so anxious for this public statement next to parliament is their desperation to convince themselves that Britain is now an entirely safe place for Jews.
Well, it isn’t. Community leaders should make a rather better fist of educating the nation about the Jewish people and defending British Jews against their enemies, instead of constructing this self-aggrandising monument to myopia.
Melanie Phillips is a Times columnist