Far from an act of piety
London's planned Holocaust memorial smells of narcissism, cronyism and venality
Campaigners against the proposed Holocaust memorial and “learning centre”, which is to be built in Victoria Tower Gardens next to the Houses of Parliament, have launched an appeal in the High Court which starts next week.
Some may be wondering at this 11th-hour challenge. Isn’t building this centre a done deal? Why are people making all this fuss? Surely such a memorial is a good thing?
To which the answers are: maybe; for very good reason; and no, it is not.
Let’s take these in reverse order.
The site is wholly inappropriate. It’s a much loved, small, green oasis. The proposed centre, with its 23 tall, bronze fins, would be an eyesore. As a tourist attraction, it would be submerged by people and traffic.
Being so close to the Thames, its subterranean levels would be at serious risk of flooding. And as Lord Carlile, the government’s former reviewer of terrorism legislation, told the planning inquiry, its location would turn it into a terrorist target.
So why did this deeply unsuitable site suddenly become the only site? Westminster City Council told the inquiry that it was presented to the Prime Minister as a fait accompli.
“No alternatives were offered,” it said, “nor professional advice sought as to the acceptability in planning terms” of the site. “There has been no public consultation on this less than transparent process”. Why not?
The centre’s supporters say it’s important that it is adjacent to parliament. The housing minister agreed with the planning inspector that such a location would have “a powerful associative effect in itself”. Some claim this will demonstrate the importance of the Holocaust to those who rule Britain.
But in a country whose culture is suffused with antisemitism, what’s urgently needed is not yet more Holocaust memorialising but education about the Jewish people. What should be important to those who run Britain are not dead Jews but live ones.
On BBC TV’s Newsnight in July, Baroness Altmann said proximity to parliament was key because “the Holocaust is about democracy and what happens when democracy goes wrong and fails to protect minorities in its country. Jews, gays, Roma… this was an assault on minorities in a democratic country”.
But Nazi Germany wasn’t a democracy; it was a totalitarian fascist dictatorship. As Baroness Deech said in reply: “This is about thousands of years of antisemitism, of religious hatred. And it’s not the same as the hatred directed towards other minorities; it’s another issue altogether. And the project doesn’t address that”.
This is the deepest objection of all: that the project will actually undermine the uniqueness of the Holocaust as the intended genocide of the Jewish people by equating their fate with the horrific but different persecution of others.
As the backers told the inquiry, “the learning centre will also remember the other victims of Nazi persecution, including Roma, gay and disabled people, and the victims of subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur”. In other words, it will relativise the extermination of the Jews.
Even more dubious is how this decision was arrived at. Westminster Council opposed the project. But the proposal was taken out of its hands by the Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, who called it in for ministerial decision after meeting key backers of the project who then formally asked him to do so. Jenrick recused himself and assigned the decision itself to a junior housing minister.
Baroness Deech observed that all this appeared to be “a breach of the guidance on planning propriety, and less than impartial behaviour by the department”.
So why was this centre so important to the Government? The project seems to have involved a small handful of prominent members of the Jewish community with close links to the Conservative party. These are now acting as the government’s praetorian guard over the proposal, with some accusing objectors — even including Jews — of disreputable attitudes.
And there are are numerous objectors. In August, more than 100 signed a protest letter. The eminent historian Sir Richard Evans wrote in a magisterial New Statesman critique that the centre was “problematic” and needed a “fundamental rethink”.
The suggestion that these objectors are driven by impure motives is disgusting, divisive and will not be forgotten or forgiven.
We don’t know, of course, how the High Court is going to rule. But one thing has now changed: Michael Gove has become the Communities Secretary.
Gove is a deep friend of the Jewish people. He of all people doesn’t have to prove himself though vacuous anti-antisemitism virtue-signalling. He is perhaps the one politician with the intellectual heft and confidence to cut through the hokum and stand for what is right. But this issue is surely a low priority for him. And it takes dedicated courage to rock the Holocaust memorialising boat.
Why are the Jewish objectors so dreadfully upset about this centre? It’s not just because of all the practical, security or even pedagogic issues.
It’s because memorialising the Holocaust is a sacred task, an act of piety. This looks instead like grandstanding, with more than a whiff of narcissism, cronyism and venality. If so, that’s a desecration.
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