On Holocaust Memorial Day, saying 'never again' is not enough – we must be constantly vigilant against the far right

This year’s theme is ‘the power of words’ – their capacity to have an impact, for good or for bad. It is grimly appropriate in 2018

Rachel Shabi
Saturday 27 January 2018 11:26 GMT
Holocaust Memorial Day: three unsung heroes who helped Europe's Jews escape the Nazis

On Holocaust Memorial Day, the focus is on remembrance and on learning the lessons, so as to never repeat this historical atrocity. We commemorate the six million Jewish people systematically murdered during the Holocaust, as well as those killed in genocides around the world since.

This year’s theme is “the power of words” – their capacity to have an impact, for good or for bad. It is grimly appropriate at a time when there has been an ominous spike in incidents of antisemitism, as well as a mainstreaming of this pernicious racism via the White House, and a rise of the far right across Europe. There appears to be a reluctance, or inability, to absorb the devastating severity of what is happening.

There were many low points in the last year: we saw President Donald Trump fail to mention Jewish people in his statement for Holocaust Memorial Day – his team later iterating that this was not a mistake. The White House insisted it was being inclusive in its statement since “everyone’s suffering in the Holocaust … is something that we consider to be extraordinarily sad”. Later that year, when neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us!”, Trump refused to condemn them, instead putting blame on “both sides”.

Nazi shouts "Hey n****" and fires gunshot at counter-protester in Charlottesville

With the President reluctant to disown his white nationalist base, the boundaries of common decency and public discourse are blurred. We see the rivets popping off the reinforced ring of consensus around these subjects as the far right tries to tug our national conversation onto their turf. Their efforts have an impact, normalising and animating hate. In the first three months of 2017, the number of antisemitic incidents in the US was 86 per cent higher than the previous year. In the UK, antisemitic incidents last year hit record levels.

The British left has historically been in the front line of the fight against fascism, yet complacency has crept into the conversation, in the erroneous belief that the left-wingers are somehow above antisemitism, and any accusations of antisemitism are about stifling criticism of Israel’s policies.

Meanwhile, we’re also dealing with a relentless cesspit of antisemitism online, as Twitter verifies Nazis and social media companies struggle to formulate coherent, effective policies to combat hate.

It is chilling that so many Holocaust survivors are alarmed by the erosion of our debate on issues such as antisemitism and racism.

Speaking about online hate speech last week, Holocaust survivor Manfred Goldberg told LBC news: “Once you permit these people a free run, sooner or later the message of hate they preach will take root. It must not be permitted.”

Harry Bibring, a 92-year-old Kindertransport survivor, says: “As far as the 21st century goes, we seem to not only have not learnt the lesson but are on track to copy it.” Freda Wineman, a 94-year-old Auschwitz survivor, says: “We have to be aware there are some right-wing movements that have to be stopped and eliminated. We must not let them get to the top because they are evil … In several countries it has been happening and it is very worrying indeed.”

The Holocaust is such a terrible atrocity, a horror so beyond comprehension, that we cannot conceive ourselves capable of causing anything that resembles it. We locate this uniquely terrible crime firmly in the past. We think societies would stop, reverse and repair long before plunging to such appalling depths.

Yet at the same time we close our doors to refugees fleeing wars and persecution, turn a blind eye to migrant deportations and routinely demonise the world’s Muslim population. We think we’re doing OK, but we’re not. We think “never again” is a statement of fact, but in reality it is a constant mission of vigilance, itself paramount to preventing any repetition, of any genocide, on any scale.

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