Why do we build Holocaust memorials?
The answer is the same as for any form of Holocaust remembrance: “Never Again”. To force every subsequent generation to confront humanity’s most shameful act and acknowledge man’s unique capacity for inhumanity to man in the hope that the Nazi’s war of Jewish extermination is never repeated. There are over 300 memorials worldwide, from Albania to Uzbekistan. God died in Auschwitz. We should never be allowed to wholly move on.
But why do we need to build Holocaust memorials – we, as in Rishi Sunak’s Britain in early 2024? England has been no stranger to antisemitism. But we did not commit the Holocaust, and our war effort helped bring it to a close. We should be ashamed that we did not take more Jewish refugees before and during the wars. The crimes of the Nazis should appall any civilized human being. But we have never had to seek readmission to the human race.
Yet the need for remembrance and of fighting the cancer of antisemitism seems more pertinent now than at any other point in my lifetime. October 7th was the deadliest day for Judaism since the Holocaust. Since then, recorded antisemitic attacks against Jews in Britain have been at record levels. “Death to all Jews” has rung out on British streets. In Germany itself, the bitch that bore that bastard is back in heat.
This brings me to the proposed Holocaust memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens – the small park next to Parliament beloved by dogwalkers and picnicking think-tankers. A new national monument was proposed in 2015 following a commission into Holocaust remembrance that argued for a “striking and prominent” memorial in central London alongside a “world-class learning centre”. The location was confirmed a year later.
The proposals have generated considerable controversy, not as to the broader principle of a Holocaust memorial, but as to its design, location, and legality. The projected design – adapted from an unsuccessful submission for Ottawa’s Holocaust memorial – has been compared to a toast rack by Holocaust survivors. It comprises 23 bronze fins with 22 gaps representing the countries where the Nazis laid waste to Jewish communities.
Aside from aesthetic concerns, situating the memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens raises practical issues. Building underground in an area with serious drainage problems and a history of flooding in heavy rains, coupled with a projected million visitors a year, is a recipe for chaos. A project this size threatens the World Heritage Site designation of the Palace and Abbey of Westminster.
Most importantly for locals, the memorial’s addition would fundamentally alter the park’s character. Westminster residents have complained it would turn a beloved patch of green into a “sombre, security-patrolled civic space”. The Government claims it will only take up 7.5 per cent of the park; other estimates place it at 27 per cent. The memorial would overhang a café, a children’s playground, and an existing memorial to slavery’s abolition.
The Government has argued that the moral necessity of remembering Nazi atrocities outweighs the lost space. What is the irritation of a few dog-walkers against modern Europe’s original sin? However, the project has run into repeated legal difficulties. First Westminster Council declared the project would not be approved. Then a law was discovered – the London County Council Act 1900 – declaring the land must be used as a public park.
Accordingly, last November’s King’s Speech saw His Majesty announce a Holocaust Memorial Bill to update the legislation and remove the barriers to the project’s completion. Keir Starmer has given the project his full backing in his ongoing efforts to distance Labour from its moral disgrace under his predecessor. The memorial’s construction looks inevitable, floodplain be damned.
Complaints about cost – £75 million of public money towards construction, supplemented by £25 million from charitable donations, and an indefinite amount for future running costs – seem trifling against the broader canvass of the fantasy figures we label government spending. But we can still ask: what will this memorial achieve? Value-for-money is an irrelevance. We can only ask: will it help stop the rising tide of British antisemitism?
London already has several prominent Holocaust memorials. The pre-existing national one in Hyde Park, for instance, in place for over 40 years. There is a (recently refurbished) Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, the Kindertransport sculpture at Liverpool Street Station, and the Wiener Library for the Study in Holocaust and Genocide at Russell Square. What will the Victoria Tower Gardens memorial offer that these do not?
Size and situation, to its supporters. Not only will it be on a larger scale than its predecessors, but, in the words of the Chief Rabbi, it would be “in the shadow of the seat of our country’s democracy” to act as an “eternal reminder to our political leaders that the fight against hatred” is a fundamental aspect of their duties.
Despite Jews comprising only half a per cent of the UK’s population, they are the victims of a quarter of all hate crimes. The Met has reported that antisemitic hate crimes increased by 1350 per cent in London since October 7th. At least three Jewish schools because of the risk of violence. More than a quarter of British Jews have recently recorded facing antisemitic abuse.
Especially horrifying to discover is the fact anti-Jewish prejudice is most likely to be found among young people. Campaign Against Antisemitism research found they are more likely to believe a variety of antisemitic tropes about Jews and Israel, including doubts about the trustworthiness of Jewish people and exploiting the Holocaust for political gain. Over half of young people believe Israel treats Palestine as the Nazis did the Jews. Criticism of Israel doesn’t always entail antisemitism, especially as many Jews oppose the Netanyahu government. But the two often correlate.
One can argue these figures suggest the continuing need for education – and for building more memorials. But they also suggest a prior failure. If previous memorials haven’t stopped antisemitism from incubating, why would another? Young people are more vulnerable to radicalization. They are more exposed to the nuttier edges of campus politics, and the degraded thinking of the online fringe. But Britain’s growing antisemitism problem comes not only from extremists of the right or left, but from demographic change.
Whilst the vast majority of British Muslims are not antisemitic, research suggests they are more likely to hold antisemitic views than the rest of the population. A Henry Jackson Society report found that 44 per cent of UK Muslims back some form of a Jewish conspiracy theory. Repeated surveys have suggested these views are most common amongst younger and less well-integrated Muslims. 48 per cent of Britain’s Muslims are under 24 years old.
The memorial’s intentions are noble, but it cannot reverse the steady growth of a minority more predisposed to antisemitism than the rest of Britain’s population. Hence why Holocaust survivors have been amongst those suggesting the new memorial might become a focus point for antisemitic attacks and a security risk for visitors – especially with regular pro-Palestine marches through Westminster. It would become a symbol, not of learning, but of the persistence of hatred.
I would be appalled to sound as if I advocating surrender in the face of bigotry. I loathe antisemitism with every fibre of my being. But the sad truth is that another national Holocaust memorial, however prominent, will not by itself reverse growing antisemitism in Britain. By all means give every child a free copy of Once, and every adult one of The Drowned and the Saved. But don’t pretend that it will make British Jews feel any safer.