The Holocaust memorial laundry project
The Chief Rabbi has made an ill-judged and unseemly intervention
Why does the British Chief Rabbi, Efraim Mirvis, appear to be treating a former Archbishop of Canterbury with disrespect?
Why is Rabbi Mirvis also choosing to reopen a controversy that is currently awaiting a ruling in the Court of Appeal? And why is he using the Labour party to do so?
The controversy is over the Holocaust memorial proposed for construction near the Houses of Parliament. As I wrote here the location, Victoria Tower Gardens, is a small green oasis in which the planned memorial and “learning centre”, with its 23 tall, bronze fins, would be an eyesore. As a tourist attraction, it would be submerged by people and traffic. 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.
A more profound objection is that the project would undermine the uniqueness of the Holocaust as the intended genocide of the Jewish people by equating their fate with other atrocities, thus relativising and diminishing the attempted extermination of the Jews.
The planning authority, Westminster council, opposed the project. But the government rode roughshod over all objections. It set in train a planning inquiry which resulted in a recommendation that the memorial go ahead, which was then given the green light by a government minister.
A High Court ruling in April quashed that ministerial decision. The judgment turned on the remarkable discovery by a member of the public of a legal obstacle to the memorial which the government had ignored. So significant was this legal obstacle that the judge refused to grant ministers permission to appeal.
The government — whose baffling determination to proceed with this memorial is equalled only by the determination of the Anglo-Jewish establishment, including the Chief Rabbi, to erect it in this location and no other — is seeking permission to appeal from the Court of Appeal.
A number of prominent Jews and others have voiced their profound concerns over the siting of this memorial, on the grounds outlined above and more. This has taken courage, since these objectors have been subjected to disgraceful accusations by Jewish community bigwigs that they are “antisemitic”.
This is not only deeply offensive to all but also ludicrous, since the objectors include Holocaust survivors and Jews who have given years of service to the Jewish community. No-one disputes the absolute moral priority of effectively memorialising the Holocaust and educating people about it. The objection is to this particular project in this particular place.
One such objector is the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. On May 5, he wrote to the Chief Rabbi setting out some of the objectors’ main concerns and asking if he would be open to a face-to-face discussion.
This is how Dr Williams has summarised the main points in his letter.
First, is the physical location a realistic one? There is a perfectly reasonable question about preserving an amenity in a badly overcrowded urban space, but there are also problems about an underground learning centre in close proximity to the river and so vulnerable to flooding, as well as the security-related pressures around the Palace of Westminster. We also have to register the sad but undeniable fact that Holocaust memorials elsewhere have been targets for violence and vandalism.
The design is freely admitted not to have been created with this particular space in mind; and the goalposts seem to have moved in the last six years as the idea of a learning centre has become a more prominent part of the project. Many would say that if this had been from the outset a clear element in the plan, it would have been obvious that the very constricted Victoria Tower Gardens site was unsuitable.
Second, is the rapidly increasing public expenditure being discussed the best use of resources at a time when construction costs are rising dramatically and there is mounting public anxiety about the economy? Of course the memorialising of the Shoah should not be constrained by penny-pinching, but it is important to make sure that expenditure is maximally effective. A major injection of funding into Holocaust education nationally, overhauling what is done in schools, would be a credible way forward.
And as has several times been pointed out, physical alternatives, especially the repurposed premises in the Imperial War Museum, could satisfy the pressure for radically improving the visibility of Holocaust commemoration in London (significant out-of-London sites have also been identified).
Third, is the purpose of the proposal entirely clear? Quite a lot has been said and written in the last year or so by advocates of the scheme about how the location of the memorial says something about the commitment of the British Parliament to democratic values. Concerns have been expressed about the risk of this becoming a piece of British self-congratulation rather than something focused on the very specific history of the Shoah. What needs to be in clear focus, surely, is not some episode of British history but the past — and present and future — of the Jewish people.
To this thoughtful letter, which raises many important points, Rabbi Mirvis has so far chosen not to reply at all. Instead, he had a meeting this week with the Labour party leader, Sir Keir Starmer, which both men chose to publicise on Twitter.
Rabbi Mirvis tweeted:
Since the fate of the proposed Holocaust memorial depends upon the ruling of the Appeal Court, it was unseemly for the Chief Rabbi suddenly to big up support for the project. His remark could be seen as an attempt to sway the Appeal Court judges by implying that there was unanimous support for the memorial. Ignoring completely the fact that the High Court had found it unlawful, the Chief Rabbi seemed to be trying to put down the objectors — whose request to meet him has gone unanswered — and dismiss their case as of no consequence or merit at all.
Worse still, he chose to use the Labour party to do this — at a meeting which enabled both Starmer and the Chief Rabbi to use the other for their own dubious purposes. After their meeting, Starmer tweeted:
What happened here is as clear as it is distasteful. Rabbi Mirvis sought to use “cross-party agreement” on the memorial to take the ground from under the objectors’ feet. And Starmer wanted to use this meeting with the Chief Rabbi to declare that Labour was now free of the rabid antisemitism that had disfigured the party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and the far-left.
For Starmer, the memorial therefore plays an important role. According to Labour MPs, there’s now a three-line whip on them to fall into line behind the Victoria Tower Gardens proposal. Clearly, Starmer views a united front in supporting it as a handy way of proving that the Labour party is now a safe space for Jews.
Except it is not a safe space for Jews at all — far from it. True, Starmer has gone to great lengths to rid the party of its most egregious antisemites. But the notion that the party is now free from this taint is very far from the truth. For the deranged venom against Israel, which is itself antisemitic at its very core and in so many instances gives rise to the expression of unambiguous Jew-hatred, is endemic in the Labour party and throughout wider “progressive” circles.
If Starmer really were to rid his party of antisemitism, he would have no party left. As it is, in his attempts to deal with his party’s antisemites he resembles Sisyphus trying to push his boulder uphill.
This week’s Jewish Chronicle reports that a Wolverhampton Labour councillor, Ansar Hussain, has been suspended by the party for sharing antisemitic claims and conspiracy theories about Israel. These included a comparison of Israeli Jews with the Nazis, the baseless accusation that Israel was trying to destroy the Al Aqsa mosque, and an accusation on Press TV that Israel was “complicit in India-Pakistan conflict”.
Labour MPs and councillors continue to spread Palestinian lies demonising Israel. Last week, in a demonstration marking the “Nakba” — the term used in the Muslim world for the “catastrophe” of the creation of the State of Israel — Labour MP Zarah Sultana said in a speech outside Downing Street that Israel “is an apartheid state and we should not be afraid to say it”.
At last year’s Labour party conference, delegates passed a resolution condemning Israel for “the ongoing Nakba in Palestine, Israel’s militarised violence attacking the Al Aqsa mosque, the forced displacements from Sheikh Jarrah and the deadly assault on Gaza”.
When the party invited members last year to undergo training about antisemitism, this provoked hundreds of comments peppered with antisemitism, conspiracy theories and foul language. The Jewish Chronicle reported:
Labour Against Antisemitism warned that the messages exposed the scale of the challenge Keir Starmer still faced, warning that his “zero tolerance” pledge was beginning to look like a “box ticking exercise”…
Other members directed their anger at the JLM [Jewish Labour movement], which one member called a “shower of s**t” and another branded a “far right cabal which supports an apartheid state”…A commenter who said his membership was up for renewal this month asserted it “simply cannot be denied” that Israel is an “apartheid state”…
The texts also revealed the extent to which members still deny or downplay antisemitism within the party. One member called the training a “Zionist propaganda stunt”. Another wrote that it was a matter of “official parliamentary records than antisemitism in the Labour Party is far less than in the country as a whole”…
“Are we expected to approve settler colonialism and occupation as part of the deal to earn Zionist approval? Not going to happen”.
The Chief Rabbi and the rest of the Jewish leadership are falling over themselves to declare that the Labour party is once again an acceptable repository of the British Jewish vote. In their desperation to prove to themselves that there is no serious problem for Jews in Britain, these leaders have told themselves that siting the Holocaust memorial next to Parliament would send a message that the British state supports the Jewish people. This assumption speaks volumes for their troubling proclivity to stick their heads deep into the sand.
For in endorsing this flawed memorial to Jewish victimhood in the Shoah, the Jewish leadership is thereby sanitising deeply troubling attitudes by the British state to Jewish victims today.
Not only did Britain’s betrayal of its Mandate undertaking in the last century to settle Jews throughout Palestine, and its consequent appeasement of murderous Arabs determined to destroy the reborn Jewish homeland, create the century-old Arab and Muslim war of annihilation against Israel that continues to this day. The British state even now undermines Israel by insisting on a tendentious and misleading interpretation of the Geneva Conventions to maintain that Israel is in “illegal occupation” of “Palestinian” land.
Through this falsehood, the British state helps incite murderous hatred of Israel which foments hatred of Jews. Yet the Jewish leadership never campaigns against this lethal untruth. Nor does it ever draw attention to the prevalent antisemitism in the Muslim world which has done so much to promote antisemitism in the Labour party. Instead it demonises as “extremists” those who do call out these things.
What the Chief Rabbi should have told Starmer is this: that there can be no question of rapprochement with the Labour party unless and until the party as a whole stops demonising Israel and promoting a Palestinian cause which writes Jews out of their own national story; and until it stops supporting Palestinians who, day in, day out, write the Jews out of their own history and from whom pours an unstoppable torrent of rabid antisemitism complete with Nazi tropes.
Rabbi Mirvis said none of this. Instead, he has helped launder the Labour party. He has sucked up to a movement that remains consumed by a deranged hatred of Israel based upon thinly concealed antisemitism — while he himself has cold-shouldered those objecting to a project that risks doing more harm to the Jewish people than good.
It is beyond dismaying that Jewish leaders in Britain should be set upon a project which will so dishonour the Shoah and launder Britain’s shameful bigotry. Their support for the Victoria Tower Gardens memorial reveals a Jewish leadership that has lost its way.
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