Holocaust Memorial Day is a stark reminder of the need to stand up for the truth in public life, writes national vice-chair of the Jewish Labour movement Mike Katz
Seventy-two years ago today, Auschwitz-Brikenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp, was liberated. Since 2000, 27 January has served as Holocaust Memorial Day, the annual commemoration of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
A defining event in human history, the legacy of the Holocaust continues to shape the modern world, for both good and evil. I was privileged to attend the mayor and London assembly’s event at City Hall earlier in the week, where we heard the poignant stories of two survivors, Mala Tribich and Sokphal Din. Mala movingly told of her childhood spent in the ghetto and two death camps. Sokhpal calmly conveyed the absolute horrors of Cambodia’s killing fields.
Since coming here, Mala and Sokphal have led rich lives which are excellent ripostes to the question – the theme of this year’s commemoration – ‘How can life go on?’ With such indomitable spirit, to survive such tragedy, suffering and cruelty, how can life not go on? To serve as a living repudiation of the hate which fuelled the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge. To bear witness to those who did not survive, to ensure that their genocides are not forgotten. And, of course, to carry forward the truth about these scars on our recent history.
So it is fitting that, as we commemorate HMD, we face two contrasting reminders of the importance of truth in public life.
Denial has its release in British cinemas today. It recounts the story of historian Deborah Lipstadt’s legal battle against David Irving, who accused her of libel when she declared him a Holocaust denier. The burden lay with Lipstadt, her publisher and their legal teams to prove the historical truth that the Holocaust happened.
The trial – which served to completely discredit Irving – happened twenty years ago. By that time, Irving was well-established on the denial circuit. In 1991 he told a reporter from the Jewish Chronicle that ‘the Jews are very foolish not to abandon the gas chamber theory while they still have time’.
The world of serious academic Holocaust denial is no more acceptable now than it was then. But nonetheless it has thrived in some places, enabled by the internet, accompanied by a worrying rise in antisemitism, along with many other forms of hate speech.
As antisemitism flourishes on social media, it uses the language of the Holocaust to spread its hate. When #Hitlerwasright trends on Twitter, it may serve to casualise and denigrate genocide rather than deny it – but the truth is still a casualty, the horror of the final solution is just as debased.
Juxtapose this with the latest neologism to come from our populist politics. Just this week, Kellyanne Conway, a long-standing Trump aide defended the White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s incorrect statements about attendance at the inauguration as merely ‘alternative facts’.
Whether fake news, post-truth, or alternative facts, progressives need to guard against this slide into a world where intuition and opinion can be substituted for evidence and truth. Lipstadt used academic rigour to prove the truth and discredit Irving. However tempting, we cannot allow ourselves to slip into the comfort of populist rhetoric, however easy, but call out lies for what they are – lies.
Disputes over numbers on the side of a bus, or on the National Mall in Washington, are a long, long way from Holocaust denial or antisemitic trolling. This is not to elide the two.
But at the heart of the truth of testimony we hear on HMD and the commemoration of those awful events is a respect for the undeniable truth of them. Only by understanding that they could, and did, happen, can we seek to ensure that they are never repeated – and truly stamp out antisemitism, racism, homophobia and hate of all kinds.
Mike Katz is national vice-chair of the Jewish Labour movement and a former list candidate for the London assembly. He tweets at @mikekatz
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