Archbishop says Holocaust memorial is about recovering our humanity

By staff writers
28 Jan 2009

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has called for people to "rediscover the depths of real humanity" in a YouTube video discussion to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

However, the Muslim Council of Britain, which says it still supports the Day, having previously boycotted it, did not participate this year because it says that it could not have done so without protesting Israeli action in Gaza, but did not want to disrespect the victims of Nazi genocide - a stance which others have said reflects "poor judgement".

Holocaust Memorial Day is commemorated throughout the United Kingdom and a number of other European countries. It takes place on 27 January, with events running from the weekend throughout the week.

The main focus is the Nazi Holocaust, but other twentieth century genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia and elsewhere are also remembered - with the 2009 theme being 'Stop the Hate'.

In the video (http://tinyurl.com/b3b9oa) Dr Williams meets with Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, and Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield, head of the Movement for Reform Judaism, to reflect on their recent visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

The religious leaders met at Lambeth Palace with students from around the country who had accompanied them on the trip, which was arranged through the Holocaust Educational Trust and included representatives from all the faith communities of the UK.

Dr Williams says that "one of the most deeply shocking things about the Holocaust ... when you see Auschwitz-Birkenau, is that so many people thought this was natural. The call is to rediscover the depths of real humanity as held in the hand of God, with all the dignity, all the capacity that goes with that."

Sacks says that "the fact that we can come together - people of all faiths - to experience [an] environment where one faith was persecuted - isn't that a measure of how far we have come for the good?

He continues: "[The Holocaust] was a crime that was meant to be concealed and denied, as if the perpetrators realized that Holocaust remembrance would defeat what they were trying to do. That in itself tells me that we are right to remember and to encourage everyone to remember.

"When we are able to come together, as we did on this wonderful and moving occasion - we have won a certain victory, and we must keep winning because the danger never goes. The Holocaust has the power, if we can face it without fear, to teach us that we must not be silent in the face of oppression ... individually and collectively we can act to prevent future tragedies."

Bayfield describes the visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau as "one of the most moving" experiences of his life. "We have somehow to ... redeem the meaningless suffering by turning that experience of inhumanity and evil into one of humanity and good."

Meanwhile, the Muslim Council of Britain has responded to media reports that it boycotted the Holocaust memorial day event in Coventry on Sunday 25 January.

The network of Muslim organisations said: "MCB remains committed to its decision to participate in the Holocaust Memorial Day."

But it added: “This year when the Central Working Committee met for its quarterly meeting on 17 January 2009... was no one in that meeting who was prepared to attend the HMD this year without making a visible protest about the genocide in Gaza.

"Following discussion it was agreed that the MCB does not wish to minimise the tragedy of holocaust or demean or disturb its annual memorial... and it was therefore decided to abstain from the Holocaust Memorial Day this year. The MCB believes that the memorial for the victims of the Nazi Holocaust is to ensure that we make the cry 'Never Again' real for all people."

An HMD participant told Ekklesia: "I too am appalled at what has been happening in Gaza, at the blockade and bombardment, but to call it 'genocide' is wrong. Likewise, the Jewish and other victims of a systematic Nazi death machine that tried to annihilate an entire race cannot be held responsible for the policies of the modern Israeli state. I am very saddened by the MCB's stance, which I think is deeply mistaken."

Commentator Julia Pettengill says that "if the term 'genocide' is to retain its potency and moral purpose, it must be reserved for cases in which populations are purposely targeted for annihilation."

Shahid Malik MP, a Muslim and the government's Justice Minister, said: "This week many thousands around the country did not commemorate the Holocaust in order to "silence criticism of Israel", as suggested by the MCB - nor did their commemoration in any way equate to support for the Israeli offensive in Gaza."

Until 2007, the MCB, which represents 500 Muslim organisations in Britain, boycotted Holocaust Memorial Day because it said it did not take account of other genocides.

The annual day now commemorates victims of Nazi persecution and those murdered in subsequent genocide such as Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. It has taken place in the UK since 2001 and falls on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp in World War 2.

An exhibition on Albanian Muslims who sheltered Jews during World War II opened in the mixed Jewish-Arab town of Ramle on Tuesday to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. For the first time, in an attempt to reach out to Muslims, Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust memorial, has hosted a standing exhibition in Hebrew and Arabic.

Holding the event in Ramle, a working-class town where thousands of Arabs live alongside Jews, underscored the organizers' goal of improving relations.

Yad Vashem's chair, Avner Shalev, said the exhibition does not involve itself in the modern-day Middle East conflict, but added that he hoped the exhibition would inspire and provoke discussion.

"There is nothing in common with that [historical] period and this bitter conflict that goes on and on ... but if both sides recognize their right to exist, side by side, we'll find a way. This kind of exhibition sheds light, it gives hope of the humanity of human beings," Shalev declared.

Yad Vashem has also honoured 63 Muslim Albanians for sheltering Jews during World War Two. They are among 22,000 people that the museum recognizes as "Righteous Among the Nations" — non-Jews who defied their communities and governments to save Jews from death at the hands of Nazis. The exhibition will run for three months in Ramle.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.