Holocaust analogies help no one

Holocaust comparisons create confusion and inaction when dealing with potential crimes against human

Last week, the European Union's Justice Commissioner, Vivane Reding, waded into the debate surrounding France's deportation of 8,000 of its Roma population.

Reding was rightly appalled by the situation and threatened France with legal action. She also said: "This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War."

At this point, the debate exploded. Although she had not explicitly mentioned it, the Holocaust suddenly became the yardstick by which to measure the horror of the Roma deportations.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's defenders then launched into action. "A plane ticket back to the European Union country of origin is not the same thing as death trains and the gas chambers," said France's Europe minister, Pierre Lellouche.

A state defended its campaign of violent deportation against an ethnic minority by arguing that the victims were not being murdered at the other end. What moral fortitude from the self-declared home of human rights!

The Auschwitz analogy

Rather than a debate on the few rights and numerous wrongs of deporting Roma, the controversy degenerated into a diplomatic mudslinging match, based on how the deportation of the Roma compares to what Jean Seaton calls the "model atrocity", namely the Holocaust committed against European Jews during the Second World War.

Amid the hyperbole, a simple fact is often missed: the Roma were victims of the Holocaust, too. O Baro Porrajmos, or "the great devouring", is the name given to the campaign waged by the Nazis to rid Europe of its "ethnically impure" gypsy population.

One the few commentators to pick up on this -- relatively bravely, judging by the anti-gypsy comments of his audience -- was Daniel Hannan, who quotes at length from Robertson Davies's The Rebel Angels:

The Jews, so cruelly used by the National Socialists in Germany, so bullied, tortured and tormented, starved and done to death in every way from the most sophisticated to the most brutal, have the small comfort of knowing that the civilised world feels for them; they have themselves declared that the world will never be allowed to forget their sufferings. But the Jews, for all their pride of ancestry, are a modern people in command of all the modern world holds, and so they know how to make their voices heard. The gypsies have no such arts, and the gypsies too were victims of the Nazi madness.

Somewhere between 500,000 and one million gypsies were deported and executed throughout the Second World War. In this light, Reding's comparison does not seem so rash: if Sarkozy had launched a campaign of deportation against Jewish immigrants, comparisons with the Holocaust would certainly not be deemed unsuitable.

The Roma and Sinti, alas, are the forgotten victims of the Holocaust. Quantitatively, their suffering pales in comparison to that of the Jews. As Günter Lewy and Elie Wiesl both point out, "not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims". To ignore their plight, however, is not just a dereliction of history but an insult to the current suffering of the Roma.

Bosnia's Belsen

Sadly, this is not the first time that Europe has squabbled over Holocaust analogies while preventable crimes are committed. In 1992, the Bosnian Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing ripped its way through northern Bosnia. That summer concentration camps were discovered by ITV and the Guardian's Ed Vulliamy in Omarska and Trnoplje.

A photo of the skeletal Fikret Alic behind barbed wire evoked the iconic images of the Holocaust and created hysteria in the world's media. That Bosnia's concentration camps were a unique horror was ignored. Rather than reporting on the abominations and crimes they found, the world's media focussed instead on whether or not Bosnian Serb concentration camps measured up to those of Nazi Germany.

As Vulliamy later wrote: "I was obliged to spend more time emphasising that Omarska was not Belsen or Auschwitz than detailing the abomination of what we had found."

For the media and politicians, however, concentration camps were Auschwitz or they were nothing. The Telegraph complained that the camps lacked the "scientific efficiency" of Nazi death camps. Camps revolved around "starvation, beatings, torture, and daily killings", according to the Guardian, but did not match the horrors found in Auschwitz or Belsen.

The "Belsen or bust" mentality that gripped European leaders and the media gave weight to the arguments of anti-interventionists and Bosnian Serb apologists. Bosnia was not another Holocaust, and was thus unworthy of intervention. The result of this failure to intervene was a bloody four-year civil war and genocide at Srebrenica.

Similar mistakes are being made again today. The deportation of Roma is by no means a second Holocaust, nor is the deportation of Roma likely to end with the execution of 8,000 men and boys as happened in Bosnia. The memory of the Holocaust, however, is being used as a shield to defend crimes against an ethnic minority; indeed, an ethnic minority targeted during the Holocaust!

Holocaust analogies help no one. Reding's statement -- though more justified than it initially appears -- simply gave ammunition to the defenders of what is at best an authoritarian attempt by Nicolas Sarkozy to sew up votes for the coming election and, at worst, a morally indefensible violation of human rights.

If the media and politicians stopped using the Holocaust as an index of evil, individual crimes could be analysed in their own context, rather than against an unreachable benchmark of evil.

Duncan Robinson also blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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