It can happen again: the danger of rising anti-Semitism

Business Secretary Sajid Javid talks to the Holocaust Educational Trust annual dinner about the dangers of letting intolerance go unchecked.

The Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP

“It happened, therefore it can happen again.”

Primo Levi’s words capture with an almost beautiful simplicity the central lesson of the Shoah…

…so much so that they are carved into the subterranean walls of Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Yet today, more than 70 years since the liberation of the death camps, both the Holocaust and Levi’s warning are slipping to the fringes of living memory.

Now more than ever we cannot allow that to happen.

Because in 2015 history is beginning to repeat itself.

Across Europe, anti-Semitism is on the rise.

It’s easy to dismiss.

To see ‘liars’ painted across an advert for a Holocaust Memorial event, and say it’s just petty vandalism.

Or to hear Dutch football fans chanting “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas” and say it’s just a few bad apples.

Or to see a Rabbi being chased through Gateshead by a gang and say it’s an isolated incident.

To do so ignores the grim reality.

In the past 3 years Jewish schools, shops, museums and places of worship have been attacked by gunmen in Toulouse…

… in Paris… … in Brussels… … and in Copenhagen.

In civilised Western Europe, in the 21st century, Jews are once again being murdered simply for being Jews.

But mass murder is not the beginning of the process.

It never is.

The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Treblinka.

Indiscriminate killing is simply where hatred, left unchecked, reaches its tragic conclusion.

The Holocaust began with nothing more than words.

Then came the insults, boycotts, discrimination.

The noxious weed of anti-Semitism crept insidiously into everyday life…

… degrading, denouncing and dehumanising its victims…

…until the stage was set for violence, oppression and finally murder on a scale unprecedented before or since.

That steady escalation meant that the 6 million individuals who died were not the only victims of the Holocaust.

Countless more were forced from their homes…

…abandoning everything they owned…

often leaving family members behind as they desperately sought a friendly harbour in desperately unfriendly times.

Many found that harbour in Britain.

For that we have to thank people like Sir Nicholas Winton.

In 1939, as darkness descended across Europe, he organised the rescue of 669 Czech children as part of the Kindertransport.

Today, there are literally thousands of people – the children and their descendants – who can say they owe their lives to him.

Sir Nicholas died earlier this year at the age of 106.

But his daughter Barbara is here this evening, along with 2 of the children he brought to the UK.

Barbara, I know your father was a reluctant hero.

But a hero he truly was.

He deserves our eternal gratitude.

Anyone who fled murderous extremism 75 years ago will find the refugee crisis we face today depressingly familiar.

Despite what some say, ISIL are not the Nazis.

What we’re seeing in Syria is not genocide or a Holocaust.

But when we see armed police herd refugees onto a train, telling them they’re heading for a new life when in fact they’re on their way to a detention camp…

When we see the shutters come down and the ‘we’re full’ signs go up…

It’s a chilling reminder of what happens when we forget the recent past.

Of the lack of empathy, education and awareness of history that allows such scenes to unfold in modern Europe.

Of how easily and quickly we forget what went before.

A migrant leaves their home in search of a better one.

A refugee has no home to go to.

And it is incumbent upon those of us who are more fortunate to offer such men, women and children the safe haven they desperately need and they truly deserve.

If we look the other way, if we say it’s nothing to do with us, if we say a refugee’s not welcome here because of his or her religion…

Well, then we are no better than those who tried to bar the door against Jewish refugees two generations ago…

… and we have failed to learn the lesson that Levi so clearly set out.

That it happened, and therefore it can happen again.

That is why, this afternoon, the Prime Minister set out our immediate steps to tackle the current crisis.

But we also need to tackle the root of the problem, the often violent extremism that is on the rise around the world.

And I’m not just talking about the butchers of ISIL or Al Qaeda, thousands of miles away in foreign lands.

There’s plenty of intolerance much closer to home, intolerance that is disproportionately directed at the Jewish community.

Some is explicit.

The hate preachers, the extremist mosques, the far-Right groups.

Some is more oblique.

A search on Google produces more than half a million hits for ‘Holocaust Hoax’.

Thousands more pages will tell you that a greedy Otto Frank forged his daughter’s diary in a cunning scheme to make money.

Then there are the ‘dinner party anti-Semites’.

Respectable, middle-class people who would recoil in horror if you accused them of racism…

…but are quite happy to repeat modern takes on age-old myths and slanders about Jews.

Who can’t condemn the murder of Jewish children in France without a caveat criticising the Israeli government.

Who demand that a Jewish American artist sign a declaration of support for Palestine if he wants to perform at a festival in Spain.

I can’t remember the last time I spoke to a Jewish friend or colleague who hasn’t, at some point, found themselves sitting awkwardly at a dinner party…

… while a fellow guest railed against the international ‘Kosher Conspiracy’.

Together, these attitudes create a climate in which anti-Semitism is seen as ‘less bad’ than other forms of discrimination.

And in that climate, the most violent extremism can take root and it can thrive.

It happened, therefore it can happen again.

But there is hope in the darkness.

Those ideas can be challenged.

Those minds can be changed.

The climate of intolerance can be turned on its head.

And for 27 years that is exactly what the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) has been doing.

In schools, in the media, in the streets, HET helps us not just to remember the past but, just as importantly, to learn from it.

I’ve long been a supporter of your work…

…and in 2011 I got a new appreciation for what you do when I accompanied a group of students from Bromsgrove on a Lessons from Auschwitz visit.

I’d read about the Shoah.

But nothing could prepare me for what I saw when I visited that bleak, forbidding place in person.

Nothing will erase from my mind the sight of battered suitcases still bearing nametags.

Of thousands upon thousands of shoes stolen from the feet of murdered men, women and tiny children.

Everyone who joined me on that visit took something different from it, but none of us will ever forget what we learned there.

And nor will we stop sharing it with the world.

Lessons from Auschwitz is a powerful and necessary programme.

It was rightly supported by the Labour government, and by the Coalition government.

And I’m proud to say that it will continue to be supported by the Conservative government.

There are too many good people involved with the Holocaust Educational Trust to pay tribute to you all.

But I do want to thank Poju Zabludowicz for hosting this dinner.

Because of Poju’s generosity, every penny raised tonight will go direct to the trust’s vital educational work.

So there are no excuses, give generously!

But most of all, let me salute the trust’s team of Holocaust survivors, more than 40 of whom are with us today.

You witnessed humanity at its very worst.

But you represent it at its very best.

By standing up and sharing your experiences, you honour the memory of generations past and make the world safer for generations to come.

By showing us where hatred leads, you can stop it in its tracks.

So on behalf of everyone here tonight and everyone who has benefited from your selfless work, thank you.

That applause was richly deserved.

But it doesn’t quite seem adequate.

After everything you’ve been through, a politician standing here once a year and saying ‘good work, keep it up’; it really isn’t enough.

That’s why the Prime Minister set up the Holocaust Commission 18 months ago.

And let me just thank the Chief Rabbi, who I know is here tonight, for his work on that Commission.

And another member was Sir Peter Bazalgette who is now the man tasked with chairing the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation.

The work of the Foundation to establish a National Memorial and Learning Centre will be vital…

… in ensuring we always remember the people and communities that were lost to us.

So huge thanks to Baz for all his work on the project so far.

But what really excites me about this work is the way it will support us to do even more to educate people across the country.

Because buildings and memorials are not enough – we also need to change the way people think and act.

Ella Lingens-Rainer was an Austrian doctor, a Gentile, who courageously worked to save Jews while she herself was detained in Auschwitz.

And, after the war, when Ella was asked why she had risked so much to protect complete strangers, her explanation was very simple.

“The people who ordered and implemented these horrible deeds were not so many,” she said.

“But infinitely many others let it happen, because they lacked the courage to prevent them.

“They withdrew with a sigh claiming that ‘there is nothing we can do’, even in those cases when something could be done.”

Seventy years later, we cannot afford to withdraw with a sigh.

We cannot lack the courage to stand up, together, and say that we will not tolerate intolerance.

So tonight I call on every decent Briton, whether you’re of any faith or none, to join us all in the fight against extremism and anti-Semitism.

And I call on everyone here today to support the Holocaust Educational Trust, and to give the memory of the Holocaust a place within your walls.

Because it happened.

And it falls to us to see that it never happens again.

Published 7 September 2015