Wednesday, 8 April, 2015

Should the world treat genocide denial with silent contempt or vehemently speak up and fight against it? What forms should the fight take?

Holocaust Memorial Day Trust Chief Executive Olivia Marks-Woldman delivered a speech yesterday (7 April) at an event to mark the 21st anniversary of the start of the Genocide in Rwanda on how we should respond to instances of genocide denial. This is its transcript.

My heart tells me to speak up and fight, vehemently and passionately. Genocide denial and trivialisation are not only offensive and distressing but also dangerous. I passionately want to speak up for those who have been murdered and have been silenced, and speak alongside survivors. We want to join our speaker earlier today, Liliane Umbubyeyi, in her fight against the affront to her existence as a survivor of the Genocide in Rwanda.

However, this is a complex question, and I commend you for choosing it for this afternoon’s discussions. 

To speak up vehemently gives publicity to these views – it ensures they reach a wider audience than they otherwise may have done. It keeps the debate going for longer. What is more, it engages in a debate on the terms of the deniers. It gives credence to their views and legitimises their opinions.

The Holocaust academic and historian Deborah Lipstadt – who was sued for libel by the Holocaust denier David Irving  has said:

'Refusal to debate the deniers thwarts their desire to enter the conversation as a legitimate point of view.'

So does our head tell us to treat denial with silent contempt?

This is equally troubling. To do so does nothing to protect the memory of those murdered. Nor does it support the survivors. It allows illegitimate ideas to flourish - people who were previously unaware may be susceptible to deniers.

And as has been referenced already this afternoon, genocide deniers have an agenda – and this must be challenged.

Those who deny the Holocaust seek to promote antisemitic views, and/or seek to undermine the legitimacy of Israel. Those who trivialise the Genocide in Rwanda seek to minimise the numbers and undermine the experience of what happened. Deniers are often led by people who are sophisticated in their arguments and in their presentation to look legitimate and academic.

The answer is to fight in other forms.  I suggest four ways forward:

1)    Commemoration

My organisation, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, was established by the UK Government to promote and support Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD). The Holocaust is at its heart and centre – but we know that despite the horrors of the Holocaust, genocide has happened again and again. Holocaust Memorial Day also marks the genocides that took place in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. This year, over 3,600 activities took place across the UK – in Stornoway, Lowestoft, Derby, Cardiff, Belfast, Plymouth – in every corner of the country. In communities with no connections to the Jewish community, or the Rwandan community, people of all backgrounds sought to keep the memory alive.

Commemoration is embedded in communities with no connection to the individuals, the history or the communities affected but who appreciate that an assault on one community is an assault on us all. They recognise that the Holocaust ‘shook the foundations of civilisation’ and that genocide is a threat to common values of civilised society.

Stephen Fry participated in a project we ran that paired artists with survivors. He gave this reason for taking part:

'The grotesque and growing spectre of Holocaust denial makes it more and more urgent for the young, now so many generations separated from the Shoah, to listen to those who went through it and to understand the meaning of it.'

2)    Education

Not only in schools, but for adults too. Not only in formal environments, but also informally. We must learn as much as we can and repeat the learning. 

3)    Remember for a reason

HMD’s vision is to learn from the past in order to create a safer, better future. We must think how we use what we learn  how we treat those around us, how we demonstrate our values.

4)    Testimony and life stories

And has already been mentioned, a core way to confront deniers is to have testimonies at the heart of our commemorations and of our education. Testimonies of people who were murdered, of people who escaped, who survived, who witnessed, who saved.

One of the well-known Holocaust survivors, Rabbi Hugo Gryn, first spoke about his experiences of the Holocaust in 1978 – as a reaction to Holocaust denial.

Many survivors talk of other reasons for speaking up about their experiences – wanting to pass them on to a new generation, wanting to educate about the dangers of intolerance. But some, like Hugo, speak powerfully in reaction to deniers.

So in answer to the question: should we speak up vehemently against genocide deniers, or treat them with silent contempt? I respond that there are different ways to fight. Ways that are positive, and constructive: to commemorate, to educate, to remember for a purpose and, at the heart of all, are the life stories of those most affected.