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27 January 2019

Labour’s actions must match its words on Holocaust Memorial Day

The hatred that set the Holocaust in motion is not dead and gone. 

By Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah

Every year at this time Parliament debates International Holocaust Memorial day. I have never previously taken part in the debate – it is usually on a Thursday when I am on my way back up North – but this year, given the rise of antisemitism and the concerns expressed about antisemitism in the labour party both nationally and by constituents, I thought it was even more important than usual to take part.

As I said in the debate, in Newcastle we will mark HMD this year as last year – by honouring the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides, celebrating and listening to survivors and remembering the acts of kindness, such as our City’s welcome for Jewish children from Germany.

We remember that much of the anti-semitic hatred that preceded the Holocaust was directed against poor Jewish immigrants from Russia, Poland and the other countries of eastern Europe.   And this hatred was present in not just Germany, but in France and here in the United Kingdom.

And we must remember that at the core of so much of the hatred which laid the ground for the Holocaust was the idea that Jews were alien, and they could never be truly German, or truly French or truly English. We must commit to fighting that invidious and corrupting lie wherever it raises its head.

At this point my colleague Alex Sobel MP rose to tell the house that these were exactly the accusations levelled against him after he spoke in last year’s debate. People said that he was a fifth columnist, not fit to sit in the British Parliament, not properly British.

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Alex’s testimony was deeply moving, and troubling.  The hatred that set the Holocaust in motion is not dead and gone. Equally, my Jewish constituents have made it clear to me that for our Jewish communities, the terror of the Holocaust does not fade. Incidents that may seem marginal and inconsequential to some, are experienced from the point of view of survivors, their children and grandchildren, as harbingers of horrors too awful to think about. Fear echoes down the generations while many of us go about our business feeling safe and secure.

We must at a minimum take responsibility for our nation’s ancient inheritance of hatred and for the reality of its repeated reappearance in modern times. That means eternal vigilance against the habits of mind that led to the Holocaust.

Recent scholarship has revealed the degree to which the first anti-semitic legislation the Nazi Party passed was modelled on the racist laws of the American South and of British colonies like South Africa. Remembrance must mean eternal vigilance against the politics of hatred  and dehumanisation and the understanding that the politics of hatred will not make its first appearance as mass murder—but as a climate of religious or racial intolerance and political expediency.

Nowhere is that understanding more important than in discussions of the Middle East. Those of us who support the cause of Palestinian rights must recognize that time and time again we have seen anti-Semitic ideas surface in debates over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There must be zero tolerance for anti-Semitism in these debates even as there must be space in these debates for an honest appraisal of the actual issues and behaviours of those involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And there must be zero tolerance within the Labour party too.  I have been saddened to hear from Jewish constituents that they no longer feel welcome in our Party. I have written to and met with both our leader and our General Secretary discuss this as well as representatives of Jewish groups in Newcastle and nationally.

I have been assured that the party is developing policies and allocating appropriate resources which will provide demonstrable evidence that we are committed to rooting out antisemitism. Antisemitism cases will be heard more quickly and the back log cleared.  Bullying of any kind is unacceptable and those who do so in the name of the Labour party using antisemitic tropes must be called out and subject to appropriate sanction.

But there also needs to be appropriate educational resources in place to help Members understand the history of antisemitism and antisemitic tropes, and ensure they can express a wide range of views – particularly on Palestine and Israel –  without implying either directly or indirectly any antisemetic views and there is a strong commitment to ensure this is developed and delivered in the near future.

In the party, in Newcastle and in this country the Holocaust must be remembered both in words and actions.