Holocaust Day Flap Prompts Pro-Jewish Sympathy in U.K.

By Allison Hoffman

Published September 30, 2005, issue of September 30, 2005.
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LONDON — Nearly three months after homegrown local terrorists set off a deadly series of bus and subway bombings, some Jewish community leaders say the resulting outcry against domestic Muslim radicalism is creating greater public understanding for Jewish concerns.

The shift in public opinion emerged suddenly and starkly this month, after initial government attempts to reach out to British Muslims produced a recommendation to cancel the government’s annual Holocaust Memorial Day. The recommendation emerged from a task force of Muslim community leaders convened to address Islamic extremism in the wake of the July bombings, in which 56 people were killed and more than 700 were injured. The suggestion has prompted an angry backlash and a wave of sympathy for Jewish concerns.

According a September 11 report in the Sunday Times, the task force — which included Tariq Ramadan, the controversial Islamic scholar, and Yusuf Islam, the singer formerly known as Cat Stevens — urged the government to replace the Holocaust commemoration with a broad-based Genocide Day. Members of the task force argued that specifically commemorating Jewish victims of the Holocaust fueled a sense of exclusion among British Muslims, the Times reported.

In the media uproar that followed the report, Muslim leaders were quoted saying that the “genocide” of the Palestinians deserved no less recognition than the extermination of Jews in Europe. The secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, who has long opposed the government-sponsored Holocaust commemoration, wrote in the daily Guardian that a holiday explicitly recognizing crimes against people in Bosnia, Chechnya and Darfur would “help dispel the frankly racist notion that some people are to be regarded as more equal than others.”

A handful of press commentators endorsed the Muslim complaint, suggesting that changing the Holocaust memorial to a general commemoration of genocide might be a painless way for government leaders to assuage Muslim anger. Most, however, responded with anger and derision.

“There is now a real feeling of siege among the Jews of Britain,” wrote Melanie Phillips, a prominent conservative Jewish columnist, in a widely quoted blog entry. And, she wrote, “amazingly, this seems to have increased in intensity since the July bombings in London. At present, to be a Jew in Britain feels like being under relentless ideological bombardment in a script written by Kafka.”

Government officials were quick to line up behind the Jewish community. The secretary of state for the Home Office, Charles Clarke, responded with a public letter of reassurance to the chair of the trust that oversees the Holocaust commemoration, Stephen Smith. Clarke affirmed that the Blair government remained “totally committed” to maintaining the annual observance of the Holocaust commemoration.

“There’s been an improvement since July,” said longtime Labour parliamentarian Lord Greville Janner, a former president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and a key backer of the Holocaust commemoration. “And it is quite clearly established now that the Holocaust Memorial Day will remain — hopefully forever — a day which primarily commemorates the murder of six million Jews, but also of travellers, intellectuals and many others.” Traveller is a British term for Roma, or Gypsies.

Holocaust Memorial Day originally grew out of proposals generated at the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust, convened in January 2000 in response to the growing European debate over Holocaust education and commemoration that arose from the process of settling Holocaust-era restitution and related questions. British Prime Minister Tony Blair instituted the memorial day in 2001, setting the observance on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Responsibility for organizing the memorial events was transferred this fall from the government to an independent Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, sponsored by the queen and funded by a half-million pound, or $885,000, grant from the Home Office.

“Of all the things that there are to be discussed about the Muslim community in Britain and their relationship with the rest of society, I think the fact that Holocaust Memorial Day emerged as the most controversial issue is astounding,” said Smith, the Holocaust trust chair, who also heads a separate trust devoted to education about genocides in Rwanda and Darfur. “But this is an opportunity rather than a threat, because those who don’t want to be involved in working together and thinking about shared values are going to be shown for what they are.”

Since the July bombings, the Blair government’s rhetoric has shifted dramatically away from its long-standing policy of multiculturalism, which was widely blamed for allowing Islamist extremism to flourish in the name of tolerance. Instead, the government now promotes a form of universalism, with an emphasis on integrating the Muslim community into the fabric of British life and culture. Last week, the task force on extremism made its final recommendations to Clarke’s office. They included proposals for new governing bodies and national forums against extremism, but made no mention of Holocaust Memorial Day.

“The facts are that since the bombings in London, there has been massive pressure on the Muslim community in Britain,” said David Cesarani, a professor of modern Jewish history at the University of London and a former adviser to the British Home Office on Holocaust Memorial Day. “It seems to me that the British government is cracking down on militant extremism, and they are extremely sensitive to any threats to the Jewish community.”

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