BY GAVIN CHAMBERS
On the 27th of January, I hosted an online event for Holocaust Memorial Day. The day itself is marked for remembrance not only of the Shoah, the attempted destruction of the Jews by Nazi Germany, but also for genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Former Yugoslavia and Darfur. The main point of concentration, however, was the Shoah. We had a rabbi give a talk and a prayer, and read out poems, such as The Butterfly by Pavel Friedmann, who died at Auschwitz. As much as it is important to mark other genocides, and the hatreds that engender them, the destruction of Europe’s Jews in the Holocaust should be remembered for the way in which it shows that centuries of oppression of Jews could so easily turn into mass murder on an unimaginable scale, using the mechanical apparatus of the modern State to murder as many individuals as possible. The worldwide population of Jews has still not reached pre-1945 levels to this day.
I’ve since reflected on the way in which Jews have been persecuted in history and the way in which that pattern of persecution can so easily continue if ignored. For antisemitism is a common theme throughout history. In England, the Jews were expelled by Edward I in 1290, an edict only overturned eventually during the interregnum by Oliver Cromwell. In Spain, the Jews were expelled in 1492 by Isabella I and Ferdinand II through the Alhambra Decree. Pogroms were common throughout Europe, particularly in France and Spain in the Middle Ages, as well as in Germany. They intensified in the Russian empire in the Pale of Settlement to the extent that many Jews were forced to flee, the mass going to the UK or the US, others to emigrate to what is now Israel. Even when there wasn’t violence, Jews lived restricted lives. The word Ghetto comes originally from the Venetian Ghetto, where Jews were forced to live in the Middle Ages. The Jews were permitted in the Russian empire only so far as they settled in the Pale of Settlement, with few exceptions; they had restrictions on movement placed on them, restrictions on property ownership, and restrictions on which trades they could practice.
As Christian Europe persecuted Jews, so too did they face persecution in the Muslim world. Jews were dhimmis in the Muslim lands, second-class citizens who would pay jizya, a specific poll tax to demonstrate their subordination to Islam and Muslims. Jews had restrictions on the religious sites that they could build, when they could ride animals and which animals they could ride, and the clothing that they could wear. Indeed, the yellow badge which identified Jews that would later be used in Europe originated in the Muslim world. Their oaths in court were not trusted. They were not permitted to use self-defence when attacked by Muslims. Bernard Lewis in his book The Jews of Islam quotes from conditions placed on Jews in 19th Century Iran:
The treatment of Jews in Iran was particularly harsh, with expulsion, forced conversion and pogroms as a common feature. Pogroms have also occurred in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Muslim Spain. Jews were also heavily Ghettoised in the 19th Century in many Muslim lands.
One can see, therefore, that the Nazi genocide followed a common pattern of treatment of the Jews through history. It did not arise from nowhere.
After the 19th Century, Britain, whilst imperfect, has been markedly less hostile to the Jews. Britain was one of the countries where Jews fled from the Russian empire in the 19th Century, and where some Jews came in the 1930s to flee Nazis persecution. Although Jews have faced hostility, they have also prospered. The first Member of Parliament was Baron Lionel Nathan de Rothschild. Benjamin Disraeli was the first Prime Minister from a Jewish background. Herbert Samuel led the Liberal Party.
It is a bitter regret, then, that Britain has become more hostile to Jews in recent years. It was reported that the Community Security Trust had called 2021 the ‘worst year on record’ for antisemitic incidents in the UK. The government has expressed an intention to address the ongoing antisemitism problem in University campuses, where incidents have been becoming more common. In 2021, a convoy of cars drove through St John’s Wood, a Jewish neighbourhood, waving Palestine flags, and shouting from a megaphone ‘F*** the Jews, rape their daughters’. A few days ago, a teenager attacked two Jewish men as they left their shop in Haringey. It was reported on the 30th of January that a group of youths terrorised Jewish families on Gladesmore Road in Tottenham. These are just a few incidents amongst many.
The age-old prejudice has led to this situation. The modern State of Israel has become a focal point for modern antisemitism. Jews in Britain are targeted and blamed for the policies of the country. There was a spike in 2021 after Israel fought back against Hamas rockets fired towards civilians in Israel. It is also noteworthy that both the political far right and left seem to buy into Protocols of the Elders of Zion type conspiracies against the Jews, believing them to be a malign force in globalism. Where there is increased extremism, it appears, the Jews are often the targets of ire.
One should not forget, then, the ever constant need to be vigilant of antisemitism in whatever form it takes. We remember the Holocaust so that we do not fall into the same dehumanising tropes that can so easily lead down that path again. At a time when survivors are diminishing, we should keep the memory alive.
Gavin Chambers, Regional Deputy Chairman SWE Conservatives, is on Twitter here.