Holocaust hullabaloo: British MP intimidated
Or, how to make enemies of people who aren’t
The head of the Holocaust Educational Trust, Karen Pollock, has once again succeeded in wringing an apology from a British MP for remarks about what happened to Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe and what is happening now to Palestinians in Israeli-occupied Gaza and the West Bank.
During the same parliamentary debate in which Sir Gerald Kaufman gave Israel a severe rollicking, Yasmin Qureshi, MP for Bolton South East, told the House of Commons – the lower chamber of the British parliament – that the suffering in Gaza was intolerable. Let readers judge whether there’s anything to apologise for in what she said:
The situation has been going on for nine years. Everyone, from all parties — this is not a party political issue — and every one of our foreign secretaries have said, “Yes, we think this is wrong, and we all believe in the two-state solution. Yes, we are friends of Israel, and we have told Israel that it should not be doing this.” But guess what? Nothing has happened…
What has struck me in all this is that the state of Israel was founded because of what happened to the millions and millions of Jews who suffered genocide. Their properties, homes and land — everything — were taken away, and they were deprived of rights. Of course, many millions perished. It is quite strange that some of the people who are running the state of Israel seem to be quite complacent and happy to allow the same to happen in Gaza.
The issue is not just about Gaza; let us think about the West Bank and Jerusalem as well. Many Palestinians are being turfed out of their homes in Jerusalem. The Israelis are the occupying power in the West Bank, where they have got rid of Palestinian homes and replaced them with hundreds of thousands of settlements, recognized by the United Nations as illegal… The policy pursued by the state of Israel is not helping to lead to a two-state solution. All it is doing is making Palestinians even more depressed and anxious. They think, “What hope is there for us?”, and they rightly ask, “What is the international community doing about this?” Let us face it: if what is happening to Gaza, done by Israel, were happening to any other nation, the whole world would be up in arms, and rightly so.”
Fair comment? Not according to Ms Pollock. The MP was immediately accused of making “offensive and inappropriate comparisons” about the Middle East, as reported in the Guardian . “We expect our politicians to speak responsibly and sensitively about the past and about events today,” said Pollock. “These lazy and deliberate distortions have no place in British politics. Whilst current events in the Middle East understandably stir emotions, it is astonishing to think that anyone could visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, learn about the industrial nature of the Nazis’ murderous regime, even walk through a gas chamber – and then make these offensive and inappropriate comparisons.”
Readers will point out that some events in occupied Palestine not only “stir emotions”, as Ms Pollock downplays it, they are plain war crimes.
In the Jewish Chronicle, Labour Friends of Israel director Jennifer Gerber strongly condemned the comparisons between the holocaust and the situation in Gaza. “In her remarks, she [Qureshi] directly links Israeli policies towards the Palestinian people to the Nazis’ efforts to exterminate world Jewry. This is both deeply offensive to the memory of the holocaust and its millions of victims, but also wilfully ignorant of the actual situation in Gaza. We would ask Ms Qureshi to apologise for her remarks, and to cease using such upsetting and offensive comparisons.”
Ms Qureshi replied that she had not intended to draw a direct parallel and felt “personally hurt” that anyone could think so – especially as she had visited one of the most notorious death camps. “The debate was about the plight of the Palestinian people and in no way did I mean to equate events in Gaza with the holocaust. I apologise for any offence caused.” She does not seem to have withdrawn the remark, however.
Ordinary people won’t be told what to think or say
A year ago Liberal Democrat MP David Ward was in hot water for his “use of language” in condemning the Jewish state’s atrocities against the Palestinians while the horrors of their own suffering at the hands of the Nazis were still fresh in their memory. He wrote on his website a few days before Holocaust Memorial Day:
Having visited Auschwitz twice – once with my family and once with local schools – I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new state of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza.
The sky promptly fell on him. Karen Pollock and Jon Benjamin, the chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, launched a vicious attack with Pollock claiming that Ward “deliberately abused the memory of the holocaust” and his remarks were “sickening” and had no place in British politics.
Benjamin said he was outraged and shocked by Ward’s “offensive” comments. He complained: “For an MP to have made such comments on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day is even more distasteful…”
They demanded the party withdraw the whip. Such was the pressure that wobbly Liberal Democrat bosses appointed a team to lay down language rules, determine whether Ward was “salvageable” and then re-educate him.
After that, in Brighton, the Sussex Friends of Israel turned on MP Caroline Lucas. During a pro-Israel lobby day in parliament Lucas accused Israel of “blocking humanitarian aid” and “humiliating” the people of Gaza. Simon Cobbs, a founding member of the Sussex Friends of Israel, told the Algemeiner: “The problem we have with Caroline Lucas is that she’s taken a side over and above her own constituency needs.”
Ms Lucas’s remarks were perfectly valid and there was no way Cobbs could deny it. He should have put his point to the 80 per cent of Conservative MPs and MEPs who have signed up with Friends of Israel, an organization that flies the Israeli flag in the British parliament and promotes Israel’s interests. Such activities are not only “above the needs” but very probably detrimental to the interests of their constituencies.
Then Colchester MP Sir Bob Russell, speaking during a debate on the national schools curriculum, put a question to Education Secretary Michael Gove about world history lessons, saying: “On the assumption that the 20th century will include the holocaust, will he give me an assurance that the life of Palestinians since 1948 will be given equal attention?”
The idea that Israel’s murderous oppression of the Palestinians should be given the same prominence in British schools as the shoah did not go down well. “These remarks are a shocking piece of holocaust denigration,” said the Jewish Leadership Council’s chief executive, Jeremy Newmark. “There is simply no comparison between the two situations. It is worrying that so soon after the David Ward affair another MP thinks it is acceptable to play fast and loose with the language of the holocaust in this context.”
Governments may bow to Jewish/Israeli exceptionalism and politicians may be bullied into submission, but civil society won’t stand for it.
Prickly Ms Pollock also pounced on Russell: “To try to equate the events of the holocaust – the systematized mass murder of 6 million Jews – with the conflict in the Middle East is simply inaccurate as well as inappropriate.”
First of all, it isn’t a “conflict”. It’s a brutal occupation and blockade in which millions of innocent civilians have been dispossessed at gunpoint and put to flight, or collectively punished for decades by a military force armed to the teeth with high-tech weaponry. As for the atrocities carried out in Nazi-occupied Europe and Israeli-occupied Palestine, there is no equivalence in terms of scale. But some similarities are inescapable to those who go and see for themselves. The crucial message of the holocaust, that such cruelty must never be allowed to happen again, seems lost already.
Governments may bow to Jewish/Israeli exceptionalism and politicians may be bullied into submission, but civil society won’t stand for it. Ordinary people don’t like to be told what to think or say. They won’t allow honest debate to be shut down. They hold Israel to the same standards expected of all nations. And because Israel won’t respect international law, human rights and other norms, and because its leaders are never held to account for their monstrous crimes, civil society has taken matters into its own hands and turned to measures like boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).
True, growing numbers of Jews bravely speak out and condemn Israel. But more need to do so, because no-one does a better job of abusing the memory of holocaust victims than the Zionist regime itself, which drove into exile some 700,000 Palestinians in 1947/48 and has had its boot on the necks of those remaining for the 65 years ever since. The advice of Yehoshafat Harkabi, a former Israeli military intelligence chief, is surely ringing in enough ears: “Israelis must be aware that the price of their misconduct is paid not only by them but also Jews throughout the world.”
Ms Pollock, as a “guardian” of the holocaust enterprise, has a job to do in promoting the message and defending the memory against detractors. But why make enemies of those who are not? Instead, she might consider taking an educational trip into the occupied Palestinian territories. The holocaust teacher would benefit from becoming a Nakba student for a few days and learning about the Israelis’ evil matrix of control, their theft of Palestinian resources, their strangulation of the Palestinian economy, their frequent air-strikes, the midnight raids of their snatch-squads, the decimation of Gaza’s fishing industry, their imprisonment of children, the obstacles they place in the way of university students and sportsmen and women, their blocking of food, medical and building supplies, the all-round misery and destruction they inflict on everyone, and much, much more.
Only then would she be in a position to advise MPs on comparisons and how appropriate or inappropriate they are.