Syria, Gassing and the Holocaust
British Prime Minister David Cameron recently addressed the Holocaust Educational Trust’s 25th anniversary function in London…and said that “Anti-Semitism is not just an assault on the Jewish people – it is an assault on humanity”
Ambassadors, ladies and gentlemen, Chief Rabbi, a very warm welcome to you in your new role. And Freda, thank you for that very, very kind introduction. It seems as you’ve just pointed out that maybe I didn’t meet an inspiring 90 year old back in January, but I certainly have today. So Shanah Tovah, and a happy 90th birthday for last week.
You mentioned Prime Minister’s Questions, and it was so good to be able to say something useful and meaningful in that extraordinary half hour. It is easily the most miserable half hour of my week. It has one and only one redeeming feature that I’ve thought of over the last 7 years, and that was when I was in New York with Mayor Bloomberg and we walked down the street and everyone came up to the mayor and praised him for his work. “Mike you’re doing a fantastic job”, “Mike I love what you’re doing with the business community”, “Mike it’s so great New York is so safe.” And I was beginning to think, “Nobody, absolutely nobody has the first clue who I am,” until, eventually, someone stopped, looked at me and said, “Hey, Cameron, Prime Minister’s Questions. We love your show.”
Now Freda, I still vividly remember that conversation we had in Downing Street, and what you said to me about not standing by, but fighting the evils of prejudice, discrimination and intolerance, in Britain and around the world. It’s what the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) is all about, and it’s why I’m here tonight.
It is a huge honour to be part of this special dinner and to be able to pay tribute to HET’s extraordinary achievements over the last 25 years.
From the vision of Greville Janner and Merlyn Rees who set out in search of justice and education to the War Crimes Act of 1991; the inclusion of Holocaust education in the history Curriculum; the recognition for British people who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust; the creation of Holocaust Memorial Day; the training of over 1,000 teachers every year; the chance for 70,000 young people every year to hear a Holocaust survivor speak; and the 21,000 school children and teachers who have been able to make the journey to Auschwitz because of the Holocaust Educational Trust – these are just some of remarkable achievements of the last 25 years.
And I pay tribute to Stephen Rubin, Paul Phillips, David Hunt and of course Karen Pollock and the whole team for the extraordinary work you do and the impact you have made. I’m delighted too that one of the Vice Chairmen of my party, Richard Harrington, is also on your board.
But there is one group of HET supporters without whom much of this would never have been possible. And they are the survivors who selflessly and tirelessly travel the length and breadth of the country week in, week out, to give their testimony. Men and women who are prepared to relive the most harrowing moments of humanity every day to preserve the memory of what happened and teach others. People who have come to this country and rebuilt their lives, started businesses, in one case even become a British Olympic weightlifting champion. And yet have spent hour upon hour reliving the one thing that many people in their position would do anything just to try and somehow forget.
People here tonight like Harry, who couldn’t understand why his mother pushed him out of her house and off to the factory, when she was actually saving his life. Josef, who I met earlier, who witnessed the execution of his mother, 4 sisters, his nephew and his niece. And Zigi who says he just “wants people to learn you must never hate”
Tonight we have 28 Holocaust survivors with us. And I’d like to ask them to stand up so that we can all show our appreciation for their courage and their extraordinary work in supporting the Holocaust Educational Trust.
Keeping the memory alive
As we’ve heard, tonight’s dinner isn’t just about marking the achievements of the last 25 years. It’s also about meeting the challenges of the next 25 and beyond.
I remember first learning about the Holocaust at school by watching “The World at War” narrated by Laurence Olivier. But most vividly of all, some years later, I remember my sharp intake of breath and the stomach-churning feeling of meeting a survivor and seeing for the first time the serial number on his arm.
For my generation this may be history – but it’s recent enough to feel very real. I want my children, my grandchildren and their children to learn about the Holocaust too. But for them I know it will increasingly feel more distant and remote. The images they will see are black and white. They won’t always have survivors around them telling their stories first hand. And worse there will be some people – as there are today – who despicably try to challenge the truth of what happened.
So first, we need to work harder than ever to preserve the memory of the Holocaust from generation to generation. And second, we need to continue to learn and apply the lessons of the Holocaust to our society at home and abroad.
Let me take these in turn.
Preserving the memory
First, preserving the memory of the Holocaust.
It is sickening to have to say this, but today – even in the face of survivors going through the pain and suffering of retelling their stories – there are some who try to deny that it ever happened.
There are some who try make excuses for it, who try to draw completely inappropriate parallels with other political causes, or who try to suggest it somehow wasn’t quite as bad as others have said. And there are some who, probably with much better intentions, fall into the trap of using loose and lazy language, bandying around the term Holocaust when talking about other things.
As a society, we need to stand up to all of this wherever and whenever we see it. Anti-Semitism is not just an assault on the Jewish people – it is an assault on humanity. And we must fight it together. We need to be clear with our children and clear in our schools: there are no excuses. No parallels. No softening of the blow to human conscience of the truly horrific nature of what happened.
And while there are many atrocities today, even in some of the darkest corners of the world, there is nothing equivalent to the Holocaust. The dehumanisation. The scale. The industrial nature of what was done. Those haunting images of the trains arriving. The methodological recording of what happened.
The Holocaust stands apart as a unique moment. It is the darkest hour of human history. And we must ensure that it is always remembered in that way.
But to do so, we must become ever more imaginative in how we keep that memory alive. HET are leading the way – and it’s vital that we support them this evening.
Last summer, many young people will have learnt about the Holocaust for the first time when they saw their England football heroes with HET at the gates of Auschwitz. The new Ambassador’s programme is helping thousands of young people who have visited Auschwitz with the Trust – to go on sharing their knowledge with their peers and their wider community throughout their lives.
The Lessons from Auschwitz programme, which creates those ambassadors, enables 2 students from every school and college in the country to visit Auschwitz. And I’m pleased to say that the government will support this further with an additional £300,000 every year.
I also intend to do my part, as Prime Minister, by visiting Auschwitz myself next year.
But this evening I want to ask a question. As we approach the 70th anniversary of the British liberation of Bergen-Belsen in April 2015, what more should Britain do to commemorate and educate people about the Holocaust for generations to come?
Should we do more to record the memories and the testimony of the survivors?
Can we learn anything from the memorials and commemorations in other countries – like in America or Germany? Earlier this year on a visit to Berlin, I sat in the shadow of the museum with my family and first tried to explain to my children the enormity of what happened in the Holocaust.
In Britain we have the memorial in Hyde Park, the Holocaust Centre in Nottingham, the Wiener Library and the exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. And, of course, we have the great work that HET is doing helping to educate future generations.
But at a time when Anti-Semitism is returning in some parts of mainland Europe, it is more important than ever that – as a whole country – we do everything possible to make sure that the memory of the Holocaust is preserved from generation to generation.
So today I am asking the Chair of the Jewish Leadership Council, Mick Davis, to assemble a multi-faith, cross-party national commission representing our whole society and to investigate whether further measures should be taken to ensure Britain has a permanent and fitting memorial and educational resource for generations to come.
I will chair the first meeting of this new Commission later this year. I want it to include senior figures from across the Jewish community and to work with the Board of Deputies and the Holocaust Educational Trust as key delivery partners. And I will ask the Commission to report back to me ahead of the 70th anniversary in 2015.
Learning the lessons of the Holocaust
Let me turn to the lessons of the Holocaust.
One of the reasons why the act of remembering matters is not just to preserve the facts but to remind us that we must never let anything like it ever happen again. The horror of the Holocaust is unique but the lessons we learn from it are absolutely applicable right across our society at home and abroad.
In particular, the lesson of not standing by. The Holocaust did not begin with mass murder. It began with words, with segregation, segmentation, restriction of employment rights and seizure of property. It began with pure discrimination.
And when we see this– against anyone, any group and in any form we should stand up to it. That means banning preachers of hate from coming to our country, proscribing organisations that incite terrorism and stopping extremist groups from getting an audience on our university campuses. It means universities themselves ensuring a clear line between free speech which is a fundamental right, and intimidation, which is fundamentally wrong. And it means a bit less of the hands-off tolerance that makes us too cautious, or frankly even fearful as a society, to stand up to those who hold unacceptable views or pursue unacceptable practices.
That same vigilance of not just standing by when our values are violated is just as important when it comes to our foreign policy. It’s an extraordinary human emotion but somehow when genocide is taking place the shame of not acting sometimes doesn’t quite register properly until afterwards. When we look back at Srebrenica and Rwanda, we wonder now why we didn’t do more at the time. When something truly terrible happens, it’s as if we put up a defence mechanism and try and rationalise why we are powerless to act.
The same could so easily be true of Syria. You know the story of this Summer. But let me tell you how it felt. When I was sitting in Cornwall on my holiday I watched the videos of those children being gassed to death by President Assad’s regime. I saw children’s bodies stored in ice. Young men and women gasping for air and suffering the most agonising deaths—all inflicted by weapons that have been outlawed for nearly a century. Chemical weapons that have been confirmed today by UN inspectors.
And let’s not forget, chemical weapons that also pose a massive potential threat to Israel. So there I was facing this reality. The evidence before our eyes. The flagrant breach of an international taboo against the use of chemical weapons. The refugee crisis of our time – in which nearly 500 will flee during this dinner tonight. And a man-made humanitarian catastrophe where 6.8 million in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance but convoys simply can’t get to them safely.
What was my instinct? It wasn’t to say let’s think of the best way to secure advantage for my political party. It was to say what is the best way for my country to stand up. Because Britain is not the sort of country that wants to stand by.
Of course in a complex civil war there are no easy answers. We cannot forget the complex regional factors that touch on Israel’s core interests, as they do British interests too. And let me assure you that the safety of Israel will always be a fundamental concern for me.
But I felt we had to take a stand. Let’s not pretend that Syria would now be promising to give up its chemical weapons if we had just stood by and said nothing. And I’m proud too that Britain is leading an international effort at the United Nations to secure unfettered humanitarian access inside Syria and to make up the financial shortfall for humanitarian aid by the time the United Nations General Assembly meeting takes place next week in New York.
With me as Prime Minister, Britain will never stand by. We will not stand by when people talk with genocidal intent about the Jewish people – as the Iranian regime has done. We will not stand by as the Iranians continue their path to nuclear weapons.
And we will back Israel’s right to defend itself, when rockets from terrorists in Lebanon or Gaza fire into Israeli homes.
But so too we will speak frankly to both sides in supporting renewed efforts for peace. As I said to President Abbas last week, Britain will do its bit in standing up to those who make it more difficult. So yes, we will condemn illegal settlement activity but so too will we condemn incitement to terrorism and all provocations that threaten the path of peace.
Last Saturday, on Yom Kippur, the victims of the holocaust were remembered in Synagogues throughout the land, during the Yizkor service.
But that remembrance is not just about the past, it’s about the future too.
As Emeritus Chief Rabbi Sacks writes in his Yom Kippur prayer book:
Judaism gave two majestic ideas their greatest religious expression: memory and hope. Memory is our living connection to those who came before us. Hope is what we hand on to the generations yet to come……for when Jews remember, they do so for the future, the place where, if we are faithful to it, the past never dies.
I believe that remembering for the future is vital for us all. When I visited Yad Vashem in 2006 I wrote that “We owe it to those who died – and those who survived – to build a world in which this can never happen again.”
That is my pledge. That is why Britain will remember. That is why Britain will never stand by. And that is why I stand here as Prime Minister and say to the survivors here tonight: the past will never die and your courage will never be forgotten.