This is the place for our Holocaust memorial

There are many reasons to go ahead with the proposed plans for a Holocaust Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens - not least, says Daniel Finkelstein, because if we sacrifice the location, will we ultimately be sacrificing the memorial too?

January 24, 2019 16:09

Jews don’t agree with each about anything. On a Jewish evening out there are three people, four cars and five opinions. But despite that, I expect the contention made by Anthony Julius and covered on the front page of last week’s JC will have commanded widespread assent.

Mr Julius, a distinguished scholar of antisemitism, warns of the rise of a “street smart” far right alongside the surge of left antisemitism. It is, he says, a “perfect storm”.

A part of this — both symptom and cause— is Holocaust denial. It is impossible to be a user of social media without appreciating the scale of the drive to deny the genocide against the Jews. Users share lies about the numbers who died and about the gas chambers.

It is in this environment that the British government has decided to support the creation of a more prominent Holocaust memorial, as urged upon it by the commission established by David Cameron, an exercise I was part of.

But not everyone is happy with the design and location of the proposed memorial, it being subject to the rule about Jews that I outlined in my first sentence. It has attracted opposition from leading Jewish figures such as Baroness Deech and Lord Wasserman.

Since these people are among my favourites, I will always listen to what they say with respect and reflect upon it. But my starting point, is that they have this one wrong. Let me put the case.

First, the argument for a prominent Holocaust memorial remains very strong. It isn’t so much that it directly combats antisemitism, but it acts as a reminder of what happens when societies abandon liberal democracy. And it asserts that Britain accepts the truth of the Holocaust. Both of these are valuable and help to combat the attitudes from which antisemitism grows.

Second, while there may be other prominent places, there are few as good as Victoria Tower Gardens. It makes an entirely different sort of statement to, for instance, the Imperial War Museum. Being right by Parliament means the memorial is a political monument not merely an historical curiosity.

Because the garden already has the Buxton slavery monument and the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, it will become a garden of conscience. A statement of the value of liberty and pluralism. Not merely a history lesson but a living thing.

Third, it is inevitable that if it is a living thing then it will stick out. If it doesn’t stick out it won’t be prominent, and if it does stick out not everyone will like it. That being said, the particular memorial design was selected precisely because it showed respect for the park. I think it is a design triumph. It is both striking and visible while simultaneously discrete and not overwhelming. It is amazing what the designers have achieved.

What about the objection that a much loved local amenity is being surrendered? Well, I work right next to this park much of the time and, I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it. The idea that Victoria Tower Gardens is replete with families from Smith Square enjoying a picnic is just nonsense. This is an underused space that will now become a civic amenity.

This — and I think one does have to understand this and sympathise — is, of course, what local residents worry about most. Lots of coach parties. Obviously care has to be taken about traffic and parking. But I don’t think it is the best objection in the world that such a memorial would be too popular and have too many school visits.

There is never a perfect place to build anything and there is always a good argument against creating anything of any kind. One can always say it is too out of the way or not out of the way enough. One can always say that it isn’t worth the money. One can always say nobody will visit or too many people will visit.

Which brings me to the last point. Once a project like this gains traction it either happens or it doesn’t. If we don’t get this memorial here we are quite likely to get no memorial anywhere. And that would be a great great shame.


Daniel Finkelstein is Associate Editor of The Times


January 24, 2019 16:09

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