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The plans for a national Holocaust memorial need a rethink

The building’s design has been criticised and tangled in controversy – issues that such a project can well do without.

By Rowan Williams

In April the American Jewish novelist and essayist Dara Horn published a long article in the Atlantic entitled: “Is Holocaust education making anti-Semitism worse?” She has a track record of provocative titles: two years ago, her book People Love Dead Jews appeared, a moving and courageous work, saying things that are almost unsayable about how the Holocaust is memorialised not only by confused and guilty Gentiles but by some Jews, searching for ways of making their terrible 20th-century history visible to the wider culture.

Her article highlights the sentimentality of focusing on “edifying” stories of individuals (Anne Frank), the blandness of assimilating the Shoah to other instances of bigotry or racial prejudice (“I can’t be an anti-Semite because I’m opposed to all forms of racism”), the erasure of Jewish particularity (“These people who were killed were just like you and me”), the “morality play” that assures me I could never behave like this, and many more tropes that fail to address the heart of the problem.

And the problem is real. In the UK and US, anti-Semitic incidents are increasing, and we have seen a resurgence of the crudest of stereotypes. Martin Rowson of the Guardian was called out for a cartoon of Richard Sharp, the former chair of the BBC, which appeared to recycle caricatures of Jewish plutocrats. To his credit, Rowson has written at length about his shocked recognition of how easily he had ignored the toxicity of stereotypes more deeply ingrained than anyone would like to believe.

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But the issue was flagged in even more worrying terms by a 2016 University College London survey suggesting that a significant number of secondary-school students attributed the Holocaust to German resentment of Jewish wealth. And in 2020 a US survey found that more than one in ten young people – many of whom will have been through the motions of “Holocaust Education” – thought that the Jews were partially responsible for the Shoah.

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In this light, David Cameron’s decision in 2014 to begin consultations about a national Holocaust memorial for the UK looks prescient. But as the plans for the National Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in London’s Victoria Tower Gardens become increasingly tangled in controversy, it is a good time to ask whether the vision was ever seriously thought through. Certainly the initial discussions, held around the country, did not present anything like the complexity of the questions that have since emerged. One prominent Jewish academic in Manchester who was involved in the consultation meeting there, Irene Lancaster, has said bluntly, “We were lied to.” As the plans have evolved, the focus seems to many to have swung away from the Holocaust to a generic message about genocide, and a self-congratulatory stress on British parliamentary democracy as a bulwark against totalitarian atrocities.

The building’s scale and design have attracted strong criticism. Based on a design originally proposed for a quite different site in Ottawa, the plans will involve the reordering of a rare expanse of green space in a cramped area of London, much valued by the residents of nearby estates and children from local schools. Experts have noted the complications created for flood defences along the riverbank, the challenge of large numbers of visiting coach parties, and security issues affecting the parliamentary estate. Legal protections against excessive building in the Royal Parks have been upheld in court.

To cap it all, the architect, David Adjaye, is the subject of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, which he denies, and has been asked to withdraw from several projects. If these prove true, perception of the memorial is likely to be compromised by this association in the future – something that such a project can well do without.

In spite of all this, the government has pressed on, supported by other political parties. Legislation is on its way through parliament to enable the legal decision about the park’s status to be overruled. Local opposition has been stigmatised as simple Nimbyism, broader critiques as anti-Semitic prejudice or indifference to the scale of the atrocity. This is somewhat bizarre, given that the most forceful critics have been Jewish figures of seniority and authority, including Holocaust survivors and their families. Meanwhile, the project’s cost spirals rapidly; many fear it will become another HS2 – constantly deferred but still consuming resources.

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It is not too late to think again. The Jewish Museum in Camden Town has been forced by financial pressures to close, and prominent Jewish voices (including Ruth Deech, Simon Schama and Maureen Lipman) have argued that this offers an ideal opportunity for a coordinated response to the crisis at the museum and the proposed memorial. A new start might entail a drastic national rethinking of Holocaust education, a substantial increase in its resourcing, and a new learning centre in which Jewish identity is displayed in its full historical and contemporary reality, so that the frightening incomprehension of those young people who do not understand the targeting of Jews could be addressed.

The Holocaust was made possible by the shameful legacy of centuries of European Christian myth-making – not some generic intolerance or prejudice against strangers (Jews have been part of Europe for over two millennia). If this truth is obscured, we shall continue being troubled to no positive purpose by Holocaust education that – as Dana Horn mordantly puts it – presents Jews as having nothing to do but die.

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This article appears in the 23 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Britain’s Exclusive Sect