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This week has been one marked by many for recall of Holocaust Memorial Day. Acts of collective remembrance do play powerful roles in a nation’s psyche. Remembering historical events faces the challenge of stirring a continuous relevance, as memories fade with each passing generation and perceptions – however slowly – change. Yet Holocaust Memorial Day retains its powerful message – for most, at least. There have been warning signs for some time that a dreaded antisemitism has returned in Europe. In France soldiers stand guard outside synagogues and Jewish schools, anticipating attacks. Across the continent, from Germany to Greece, both Islamic extremists and the political ‘far-right’ strike fear into Jewish hearts. Now British political life has been infected, the Labour Party engulfed by allegations of anti-semitism. Jeremy Corbyn, a potential Prime Minister, is the focus of this disturbing development.
Though Labour has been dogged by such allegations since Corbyn became leader in September 2015, in the past year the situation has erupted into crisis for the party. On the day of a big protest by Jewish groups outside Parliament last March, Corbyn was accused in an open letter from the Board of Deputies of British Jews of being ‘ideologically fixed within a far left worldview that is instinctively hostile to mainstream Jewish communities’.
Such hostility has helped create a culture within a segment of British political life wherein anti-semitic abuse is common and accepted. Those accused of propagating this range from members of the political elite – Corbyn and those about him – to lesser politicians in Labour councils and local associations. Among high-profile figures is the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who has stated more than once that Hitler had been a Zionist’ before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews’. As events unfolded, the head of Labour’s internal disputes panel, Christine Shawcroft, was forced to resign – when it was discovered she had blocked suspension of a local candidate who had posted material on social media which appeared to sympathise with Holocaust denial.
Mainstream British Jewish groups have been vociferous in denouncing such folly. Wary of Corbyn’s political background, grave concerns were expressed from the moment it seemed possible that he might become Labour leader. The Jewish Chronicle published seven questions for Corbyn, which explored apparent links with extreme anti-semitic individuals and organisations. Clarification was sought over his infamous reference to terrorist organisations Hamas and Hezbollah as ‘friends’ No answers were forthcoming, and the newspaper concluded that Corbyn is an ‘enemy of Britain’s Jewish community’.
Corbyn might claim he abhors anti-semitism and ‘all other forms of racism’, but for many the damage has been done. How else could taking tea in Parliament with Sheikh Raed Salah, reviver of the – supposedly ‘medieval’ – ‘blood libel’, be taken? Corbyn has by word and deed helped create an environment in sectors on the British Left in which it seems acceptable to use anti-Jewish tropes. The Labour Party is riven with internecine strife, and recent polls suggest the British public think the party has a serious problem. As a result, and even in the midst of hoo-ha over Brexit, Holocaust Memorial Day spells out as powerful message as it has done since World War II.
All too easily, history can be distorted, and instances of humanity that stand out in that history may be somehow relegated and diminished by ideology.