Thursday, 29 January 2015

Auschwitz revisited

In the week we have been commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz I have been trying to understand why I am so weary and wary of the Holocaust. Despite the undoubted emotional pull of the survivors' testimonies, is there any lasting meaning be found in the ashes at Auschwitz? Should it even be looked for?

I didn't always feel this way.

We recently moved house and a few weeks ago my older son and I were unpacking boxes of books and finding new homes for them. I noticed just how much reading I had done on the subject of the Holocaust, mostly more than twenty years ago.

I had straight histories like 'The War Against the Jews' by Lucy Dawidowicz and 'Holocaust' by Martin Gilbert. I'd read 'Last Waltz in Vienna' by George Clare, Elie Wiesel's 'Night', 'Europa, Europa' by Solomon Perel and Primo Levi's 'If This is a Man', and 'The Drowned and the Saved'. There were Art Spiegelman's graphic novels 'Maus', where Nazis and Jews become cats and mice. Ghetto accounts such as 'A Cup of Tears' by Abraham Lewin and Marek Edelman's 'The Ghetto Fights'. I remembered being completely absorbed by Theo Richmond's detailed account of the destruction of one tiny shtetl village 'Konin'. I had the complete transcript of Claude Lanzmann's epic documentary Shoah. Hannah Arendt's account of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in the 1950s. And of course, Anne Frank's diary, the fully annotated critical edition.

My reading had been a search for meaning - historical, political and theological. I had been trying to make sense of something I knew was shaping my adult Jewish identity.

Last weekend I visited my 88 year old father and asked him to recall for me the visit he made to Auschwitz in the late 1960s while on a business trip to Poland. Perhaps his account could restore my faith in the possibility of finding a purpose in the week's commemorations beyond honouring the memory of the dead.

My father's visit to the death camp took place in a very different world from today. For the first two decades after the war the mood had been for moving on, for forgetting not remembering. The Holocaust was very far from being the defining event of the Second World War it has now become.

While he was on his trip, my father and three work colleagues found themselves with time on their hands when a public holiday was announced to coincide with a Soviet Russian State visit. Their local client, the factory manager of a smelt works in Katowice, suggested they visited Auschwitz, which he explained now ran as a museum.

Although my father was familiar with the name Auschwitz, he told me his knowledge of the how the Nazi's had implemented their killing was vague and sketchy at the time of his visit to Poland. Two of his colleagues had served in the army during the war but their understanding was even less than my father's. So the four British businessmen hired a driver and set off for the day with little or no expectation of what they were about to see.

They reached Auschwitz less than an hour after leaving Katowice and found the camp/museum almost deserted despite the public holiday. In fact, my father and his colleagues seemed to be the only visitors there and were rewarded with a personal tour by one of the senior officials.

They were taken to long wooden huts sectioned off into large glass fronted display cases. Inside the first display were bails of material that my father could not identify. "What is this?" He asked. "Human hair" came the reply, "shaved from the heads of those about to be exterminated." Nothing went to waste, it was explained, "The hair could be weaved into cloth and used for insulation". Next came a display of walking sticks and crutches neatly stacked in huge piles. Then shoes, all sizes, suitcases still with name and home address labels attached, spectacles and false teeth. Apparently, it all had revenue potential for the Third Reich.

After three hours of the tour my father was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the attitude of their guide. "He was more interested in the Nazis' attention to detail, administrative diligence and mechanical ingenuity than in the morality of what had taken place there." Finally, they were taken to see the furnaces that burned day and night, fueled by human corpses.

But what had been new and revelatory to my father nearly fifty years ago has become burdensome and problematic to me. When I look at all the books on my shelves relating to just 12 years out of three thousand years of Jewish history, I have no desire to revisit them or even flick through the pages.

As a student I had thought there were lessons to be learnt and meaning to be divined from what had happened. But now it feels as if the event has been used, abused and politicised, and, from a moral perspective, largely ignored.

As time has passed I have become increasingly pessimistic about our ability to take something meaningful and positive from the horror that is now summed up by the single word 'Auschwitz'.

Some, especially the remaining survivors, see denial and forgetfulness of the Holocaust as the biggest concern we should have. But I think these are the least of our Holocaust problems.

Holocaust denial will remain a fringe issue. The documentation is secure in its veracity and overwhelming in its volume. If anything, today's school children are in danger of thinking that Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin went to war against Hitler because of what was happening to the Jews.

And we have become very good at remembering. We do it with great care and respect and afford enormous dignity to the survivors and their testimonies. This week's marking of the Russian army's liberation of Auschwitz proved this once again. So, we remember with no difficulty. It's acting on the remembrance that defeats us.

Since the end of the Second World War we have had Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. All of which suggest that despite the creation of so much international law on human rights and genocide, humankind has not progressed an iota as a result of Auschwitz.

I can now see that my own long-term reaction to the Holocaust has led me not to focus on anti-Semitism and Jewish security (although neither can be ignored) but on the values and teaching that I see as central to Judaism. Justice, Compassion, Humility, individual and collective Responsibility. These are not new lessons but very old ones. As a Jew, I choose to apply these to our relationship with the Palestinian people because this is the issue on which we must judge ourselves. In the 21st century this is 'the Jewish question'.

While a growing number of Jews both in Israel and around the world share this perspective, it is still a minority opinion.

When it comes to the Palestinian people, the Holocaust has hardened our hearts and closed our minds. The scale of our own suffering has made us blind to their suffering - which we see as all of their own making.

Perhaps this was inevitable. Why should a people abused and broken become saints? The opposite result is more often the outcome. I am asking for too much. Expecting something that no group is capable of.

And so I have become both weary and wary of trying to take meaning or lessons from the Holocaust. Yes we must continue to teach it as an appalling stain on humanity. And an exercise in empathy is never wasted. But we must not expect it to unlock the human heart.

Maybe all we have are the stories of bureaucratised murder, random survival, and unexpected acts of kindness that Primo Levi called 'Moments of Reprieve'.

My father and his colleagues had planned to eat a meal together that night back at the hotel in Katowice. But after the visit nobody was hungry.

On the return journey my father asked their driver if he had known about the camp during the war. "Oh, yes", he replied. "We knew something was happening. We could smell it." My father asked him whether anyone at the time felt they could do anything about it? The driver replied "Yes, we would wind up the windows tight, so we couldn't smell the stink".

See also: A Letter to Anne Frank

Saturday, 17 January 2015


I am a British Jew. I am not planning on, or even vaguely considering, leaving Britain. I believe Jews in Britain have never had it so good. I believe Britain has been a success story for the Jews - and still is. I believe that Israel needs in Britain a strong, self-confident and independently minded Jewish community.

In line with the current trend for expressing solidarity through French Twitter hashtags, I say to my readers: #JeSuisUnJuifBritannique.

So, why do I feel the need to make this public declaration?

Well, according to polling data published this week by the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA), race hatred against Jews in Britain is rife.

If you’re a British Jew it’s time to be afraid. Or is it?

Here’s the case for pessimism.

In a representative poll of 3,411 British adults, almost half (45%) believed that at least one of the following statements were true.

• Jews think they are better than other people.

• In business, Jews are not as honest as most people.

• I would be unhappy if a family member married a Jew.

• Jews have too much power in the media.

• Jews chase money more than other British people.

• Jews' loyalty to Israel makes them less loyal to Britain than other British people.

• Jews talk about the Holocaust too much in order to get sympathy.

1 in 4 people (26%) believed at least two of the statements to be true and 17% believe at least three statements. According to the findings, men are more likely to hold anti-Semitic views than women.

In tandem with the poll of the British general public, CAA also carried out a survey of British Jews. The findings are even more depressing, if you take them at face value.

The results suggest that a quarter of British Jews have considered leaving the country since 2012 and 45% are worried that Jews may not have a future in Britain. Furthermore, the survey of 2,230 British Jews (equivalent to 1% of the Jewish population) found that 56% felt that anti-Semitism in Britain has some echoes of the 1930s, and that belief rose to 64% of Jewish people in the north of England.

So it looks like a serious situation for Britain and its Jewish citizens.

The sample of the general public was statistically reliable and the fieldwork was carried out by YouGov, a highly respected polling agency in Britain.

However, the survey of the British Jewish community was self-selecting and done ‘in-house’ by the CAA using social media sites and promotion via the main synagogue denominations. The survey was ‘live’ between 23 December 2014 and 11 January 2015 which means it covered the time during which the terrorist murders at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher supermarket took place in Paris. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that this would have influenced the responses and the sense of fear and foreboding by Jews on this side of the Channel tunnel.

So what’s going on? And is life in Britain for Jews really as perilous as the CAA wants people to believe?

If you look at the detail of the findings it starts to look a lot less scary than the spun headline that presents half the country as rabid anti-Semitics.

For example, the survey reports that only 10% agreed with the statement: “I would be unhappy if a family member married a Jew”. Which, I assume, means that 90% of the population wouldn’t have much of a problem with a Jewish brother-law. So how deeply felt can this anti-Semitism really be? As for the first statement on the list: “Jews think they are better than other people” well I’m pretty sure that Yorkshiremen think they are better than Lancastrians and the Scots would certainly say they were superior to the English. But Britain no longer gets torn apart by such thinking.

From personal experience, having reached the age of 49 and lived about half that time in London and half in the north of England, the findings don’t ring true.

Perhaps I’ve just been fortunate, but for me Britain has lived up to its reputation for tolerance and a ‘live and let live’ approach to neighbourliness.

Overwhelmingly, I have found my non Jewish friends and work colleagues either indifferent to or respectful and interested in my Judaism and Jewish identity. Over the years my children's schools and youth groups have welcomed my annual explanations of Passover and Hanukkah as have the Church groups I've spoken to. Any anti-Semitism I have encountered has been mild and clearly founded on ignorance rather than some kind of hatred innately hard-wired into the European DNA.

And I’d go further.

I believe that Jews in Britain have been living through a Golden Age of acceptance and accomplishment, more impressive than even the medieval Spain of Maimonides or the Vienna of Sigmund Freud.

The British Jews surveyed appear to have a very poor sense of historical perspective about the country in which we live.

Go back a few centuries and it was a different story. But when have Jews in Britain been more secure and successful than over the last 70 years?

It’s true though that something is happening. Things are changing.

Physical attacks on Jews on the streets of London and elsewhere in Britain are on the increase. Synagogues are being daubed with graffiti. Jewish cemeteries are being vandalised. We have not suffered the terrorist murders of Jews in France in recent years but it’s still serious.

But if we fail to understand the context for the change or pretend we are just seeing a continuation of traditional hatred of the Jew as alien outsider, then we are being foolish in the extreme.

This week’s Jewish Chronicle is packed full of reaction to the terror attack at the Paris Kosher supermarket in which Philippe Braham, Yoann Cohen, Yoav Hattab and Francois-Michel Saada were murdered.

However, the paper chooses in its main editorial to deny the obvious facts. The headline for this week’s leader comment is: “It wasn’t about Israel. It was about Jews, as Jews”. The JC insists that these four men were killed: “simply for doing their Kosher shopping”. The editorial concludes with this: “Until we grasp the true nature of the threat we face, we have no chance of repelling it.”

But failing to grasp the true nature of the threat is exactly what the JC, and most establishment voices in the British Jewish community are currently doing. Pointing the finger only at fanatical Muslims is too easy and deliberately attempts to obscure that responsibility may rest elsewhere too.

Don’t get me wrong. Islamist terrorism is real. It is an ugly strain of Islam with growing support among young Muslims in the West. In the short term it needs vigilance and good intelligence to defeat its most dangerous manifestations. In the longer term there are issues of disaffection with mainstream Islamic teaching and with liberal democratic values that have to be tackled. Easier said than done, I know. But putting more police outside Jewish schools and synagogues will only get us so far.

What’s clearly nonsense is to claim that Israel’s behavior plays no part in the political and cultural dynamic that is provoking growing racism against Jews. When things kick off in Israel and the Occupied Territories anti-Semitic attacks spike in Western Europe. When peace is being talked about, with real plausibility, anti-Semitism in Europe dies down.

And before I go any further let me be clear that I am not falling into the mindset of blaming the victims or apologising for the killers. Nothing done by the State of Israel justifies the murder of Jews in Paris or London or anywhere. But attempting to describe what’s going on as just another manifestation of ‘the age old hatred against the Jews’ just doesn’t help. Even the Campaign Against Antisemitism’s report acknowledges the connection: “Antisemitism is usually most visible in Great Britain during crises involving Israel but the sentiment behind it does not simply disappear when the crises end.” That’s true but the reason the sentiment does not end is because the root cause of the sentiment remains unresolved. And increasingly the general public understand who has power and who does not in this particular conflict.

Thirty years ago most people still saw Israel as an admirable project of healing and renewal for a people broken by the Holocaust. Now that view is questioned and challenged. A state that was once seen as the underdog of the Middle East is now the regional superpower and the local bully. The big losers are recognised as the Palestinians who have become the new archetype for a dispossessed and downtrodden people. And as for the Jewish Israelis, David has become Goliath.

Watching the nightly news from Gaza last summer it wasn’t difficult for viewers in Britain to reach the conclusion that the on-going dispute between Israel and the Palestinians must be the most asymmetrical conflict of all time. And if Western leaders choose to adopt double standards on human rights and territorial occupations, is it any wonder that respect for liberal democracies becomes undermined.

Despite all that is changing for British Jews I still believe that we live in an exceptionally tolerant and understanding country. Even when our Jewish establishment leadership choose to defend the indefensible (as they did last summer over Gaza) and Israeli Prime Ministers present themselves as spokesmen for Jews worldwide, the British people can recognise the difference between Israeli actions and British Jews. In fact I was amazed that 80% of the CAA survey of the general public rejected the statement: “Jews' loyalty to Israel makes them less loyal to Britain than other British people”.

I don’t accept that Jewish life in Britain is becoming untenable – it’s nowhere near it. And I don’t seem to be the only Jew in Britain that thinks this. This week the Jewish Chronicle also conducted its own poll of Jewish views post Paris, this time using a more scientifically selected sample than the CAA’s. In the JC poll nine out of ten – 88% – said that they have not considered quitting Britain since last week’s atrocities. If I’m worried about anything it’s that some people are choosing to overstate anti-Semitism in Britain as a way to deflect criticism of Israel.

So to return to my opening statement of identity, I am a British Jews and I believe the Jews of Britain have learnt a great deal about what it takes to create a society that respects and protects all of its citizens. It may not be perfect but we know what multi-culturalism and religious pluralism should look like within the big tent of a liberal democracy.

Israel, in marked contrast, is struggling to work out how to be both Jewish and Democratic. In fact it’s not sure if it even wants to be both things anymore. The very principles that have allowed diaspora Jewry to thrive in Western democracies are being rejected by the State that was created to normalise and make life safe as a Jew.

So #JeSuisTolerance #JeSuisRespect #JeSuisPluralism and #JeSuisUnJuifBritannique.