Tanya Gold

The Westminster Holocaust memorial is cosmetic, performative propaganda

It's an inhuman toast rack that will not prevent the next genocide, or even the next racism

August 18, 2022 11:46

I used to think the quality of alienation in Holocaust sculpture was accidental. Now I think it is deliberate. The new design is alienating, an inhuman toast rack by the river. It is too vast and inhuman to evoke once-living souls; it could be about any people from any place, and this is soothing. You can convince yourself it has nothing to do with you, and believe too that it will not come again. But it will.

Advocates of the Westminster Holocaust Memorial say that support from the Jewish community and survivors is overwhelming, which is not true. Many survivors are unhappy about it. They believe, as I do, that this memorial will not help the Anglo-Jewish community in any material way. It will not stop antisemitism, it will not illuminate the amazing and peculiar history of the Jewish people and it will not prevent any future genocide.

I think the Anglo-Jewish community is being used by a government determined to have this memorial against all opposition, that we are being trained to be a tame minority grateful for a memorial which is a piece of propaganda and concealment.

Why us? Is it because the British state had little culpability in the Holocaust — it merely turned away refugees, from Britain and Palestine — and it is easy to honour those you did not harm as much as others did? Is it fresh new gilding for the British tale of wartime glory? There is no great national memorial to the victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the Westminster memorial will over-shadow the statue to the abolitionist Buxton that already stands in Victoria Embankment Gardens. Nor is there a great national memorial to the victims of Empire, which is essential for Britain to understand itself, and resolve the contradictions that threaten to destroy it.

But, if anything, the government seeks to repress even speech on the truths of Empire as, elsewhere, it criminalises asylum seekers, plans to send them to Rwanda, a tyranny, has turned away Ukrainian refugees, and indulges the far-right with its rhetoric on immigration. Jewish values are Conservative values, said Liz Truss last week, as if pre-emptively gathering Anglo-Jews in her defence. Are they really? Are Jews such a simple thing?

In memorial, specificity and honesty are essential. I would, for instance, take a specific memorial to the Jewish victims of Edward I, exiled in 1290, but that is not offered. I would take a specific memorial for the victims of the pogrom in the reign of Richard I, whose statue stands in parliament even now – though the toast rack of incomparable metaphor would dwarf it, to be fair — but that is not offered either. I would take an apology for the gospels followed by the Church of England, which remain the founding documents of Jew hatred. But that is definitely not offered.

Instead, we have a generic and convenient memorial, with some detail in the education centre on how Britain failed the Jews. It will honour victims of many genocides, denied the separateness of their identity and predicament, and, with that, true knowledge of their suffering. It will bring truth no nearer, where it can teach us something; it will take it further away, to the land where people wish to place the Shoah, for comfort: myth.

To understand people is to value them, and a deep knowledge of Jewish people — of the detail and expanse of our history — rather than a focus on those who are mute, compliant and dead, is what is needed. I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau last year. If you didn’t know what a Jew was when you went in, you certainly wouldn’t know when you came out. It does not memorialise Jewish life. It memorialises Jewish death with such froideur they cease to belong to us, for who can own a paradigm?

To know people is to love them. We should spend this £100 million on a national museum of the Jews, or teaching Jewish history in schools from Abraham to the State of Israel (the only memorial that has ever meant anything to me is Yad Vashem). Beyond that, I want only a Jew who is not afraid and any Jew who lives in a country where investigations into other racisms are stymied, and criticism of the state’s treatment of other minorities is discouraged, is not safe, and no Holocaust memorial, however powerfully sited, will make him so.

This memorial represents a fleeting alliance between elements of the British state and elements of the Anglo-Jewish community, meeting to build a memorial that will not prevent the next genocide, or even the next racism. It is cosmetic and performative. It is a truism that a memorial is not for those remembered, but those remembering.  I’m not even sure we can call this remembering. It feels more like a conscious, and cynical, forgetting.

August 18, 2022 11:46

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