Meeting date: Wednesday, January 10, 2018
Meeting of the Parliament 10 January 2018
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Chief Constable (Leave of Absence), Glasgow 2018 European Championships, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Holocaust Memorial Day 2018
- Portfolio Question Time
- Chief Constable (Leave of Absence)
- Glasgow 2018 European Championships
- Business Motions
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Holocaust Memorial Day 2018
Holocaust Memorial Day 2018
The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-09828, in the name of Adam Tomkins, on Holocaust memorial day 2018. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament recognises that 27 January 2018 marks Holocaust Memorial Day; believes that the day serves as an opportunity for learning institutions, faith groups and communities across Scotland, including in Glasgow, to remember the six million men, women and children murdered by the Nazi regime in occupied Europe; notes that the theme of the 2018 memorial day is the Power of Words; understands that this theme aims to look at how words can make a difference, both for good and evil; values the Holocaust Education Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz project, which gives two post-16 students from every school and college in Scotland the opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau; celebrates the Holocaust survivors who subsequently made Scotland their home; thanks them for their contribution to Scotland as a nation, and acknowledges the view that anti-Semitism in all its forms should be challenged without fear or favour.17:04
The Holocaust was a new order of criminality, the like of which the world had never previously witnessed. In the very heart of Europe, it was Government policy to eradicate the Jewish people—to wipe them from the face of the earth.
The policy failed, but not before 6 million men, women and children were murdered by the Nazis. That is more than the entire population of Scotland. That did not happen a long, long way away; it happened here in Europe. It did not happen a long time ago; it happened within living memory.
The Holocaust is an exceptionally difficult thing to talk about, and that is precisely why we must. As this evening’s motion notes, the theme of this year’s Holocaust memorial day is the power of words—the power of words to do both ill and good. We all know that the children’s nursery rhyme
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”
is untrue. Words can wound. They can damage relationships, destroy reputations and darken any conversation, but words can also enlighten, inform, educate and inspire.
That is just as well, because here in this chamber words are all we have. Words are our tools. We use them to make law, to question ministers, to engage in debate. The very word “parliament” comes from the old French “parler”—to speak. Without words, there would be nothing to say, and we would all be out of a job.
The power to speak—the freedom to use words—was just one of the many attributes of human life stripped from those sent to the death camps. Those who were sent there lost their possessions, their loved ones, their family members, their clothes, their shoes, even their hair. They were deformed by starvation. They were enslaved in hard labour. They were tattooed with a number. They lost their names, their identities. They were stripped naked in the snow and ice with nothing but their own arms to warm them, alone in huge numbers. This was mass, systematic, organised murder on an unprecedented scale. At Auschwitz in August 1944, 24,000 people were murdered in a single day, and those people were not prisoners of war. The war had nothing to do with it. They were just people that a Government wanted to annihilate because that Government hated Jews.
That that happened and how it was allowed to happen are stories that we must tell and keep telling. Somehow we must find the words. The Nazis used words to mask the truth. They spoke of the “final solution” instead of extermination, of “transfer” instead of deportation, and of “special treatment” instead of death in the gas chambers. We must use words not to mask the truth but to reveal it.
A key way in which that has been done is the collection and curation of eye-witness accounts—of Holocaust testimony. It started even during the war itself. Anne Frank, aged 14, was inspired to rewrite her world-famous diary after her family listened to an illegal radio broadcast imploring Dutch citizens to record their experiences of Nazi occupation. Scotland’s own Holocaust archives are held in Glasgow’s beautiful Garnethill synagogue. Many hundreds of Jewish people made a new life in Scotland after the war. They made, and continue to make, an immense contribution to Scottish society in business, in our public services, in science and medicine, and in our cultural life.
One of the most disturbing truths revealed by those who have sought to find the words to write about the Holocaust is that, even though it was a crime on a monstrous scale, it was perpetrated not by monsters but by ordinary, even banal, men and women, who were organising train travel across Europe not as if they were mobilising a million murders but as if they were simply taking goods to market. It was Hannah Arendt who coined the controversial term “the banality of evil” in her report on Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. Eichmann was a Nazi lieutenant-colonel in the SS who had played a major role in organising the Holocaust. He was hanged for war crimes in 1962.
At his trial, Eichmann’s defence was that he was simply obeying orders, that he was a fully law-abiding citizen doing his job. He was motivated, he said, not by a hatred for the Jewish people but by duty. It was his duty to do his job. It seemed immaterial to him that his job entailed the management of genocide. It was just a job. Eichmann was far from alone in collapsing morality into legality—in living his life such that, as long as he obeyed the law, he could, by definition, be doing no harm. However, the cold, calculating callousness of that is both breathtaking and horrific.
The world reacted. At the beginning of my remarks, I said that the Holocaust was a new order of criminality. The world’s reaction was no less than to create a new international order. One of its centrepieces was, and still is, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose 70th anniversary we will celebrate this year. That declaration is just words. They are not law—not in any conventional sense—and there is no court to enforce them. There is no judicial sanction in the event that its words are not honoured. It is a declaration: it is just words. However, they are words that make impossible not merely Eichmann’s technical defence in his trial in Jerusalem but his very world view.
Among the opening words of the declaration are:
“the ... dignity and ... inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.
The foundation of justice is not law, as Eichmann thought; the foundation of justice is the inherent dignity of every member of the human family, and it is beyond the reach of mere law to change, alter or affect that foundation, because the rights that flow from it are inalienable.
Those are beautiful words. If we cleave to them, hold them in our hearts and act true to them in everything that we do, I will be able to look my Jewish children in the eye and all of us will be able to look our and each other’s children in the eye and say to them not merely in hope but in certainty, “Never again.”
This debate will not be contentious, but it is an important one. By ensuring that the Holocaust is never forgotten, we can ensure that it is never repeated.
I thank all members of the Scottish Parliament who have supported my motion, and I look forward to hearing the thoughts of members from across the chamber as we remember together and reflect on the unique horror of the Holocaust. [Applause.]
I am not permitted to clap, but that was a very moving and excellent speech.17:12
I warmly congratulate Adam Tomkins on securing the time to bring this important debate to the chamber and on his excellent speech.
It is a privilege to contribute in some small way to the continued remembrance of those who perished at the hands of the Nazis in ghettos, mass shootings, and concentration and extermination camps. The timing of this year’s debate is particularly apt. Having said goodbye to 2017, which saw a prominent resurgence of far-right extremism, most starkly demonstrated by the Charlottesville rallies in August, 2018 presents an opportunity for everyone across society to take ownership of their actions and, indeed, their words, as this year’s theme suggests. As we well know, of course, left-wing and religious extremism also have a strong history of anti-Semitism. European history clearly shows that.
The power of our words is boundless, and we can choose to use that power to do something positive, such as sharing the life stories of those who were murdered or, indeed, those who resisted, witnessed and survived genocide. We can use our words to remember, challenge and evoke change.
One shining example of someone who used the power of words was Dr Alfred Wiener, who was born in Germany in 1885. He was an expert in oriental languages and Jewish religious thought, and he became one of the top officials in the Centralverein, which was an organisation that aimed to combat anti-Semitism following world war one. Dr Wiener’s mission was to warn Jews and non-Jews alike of the dangers of Nazism. In 1933, he established the Jewish Central Information Office in Amsterdam. His collection of Nazi and anti-Nazi books and documentary material quickly grew to 8,000 books and leaflets before it was moved to London in 1940 and renamed the Wiener library.
Dr Wiener’s wife and three daughters survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which was responsible for the deaths of approximately 70,000 people, including Margot and Anne Frank. Sadly, although the Wiener daughters escaped safely to America, his wife eventually succumbed to malnutrition and exhaustion, which claimed many innocent lives not just during the war but in the years afterwards. By Dr Wiener’s death in 1964, his library was well established as a record for scholars, researchers, the media and the public. Today, the Wiener library continues to be home to the words that serve as a living memorial of the evil that took hold across much of Europe. Those words are a constant call on us all to ensure that such atrocities are never repeated.
What about now? What about the language that we use with each other and the words that we share, spread and endorse in our day-to-day lives and use on our social media profiles? Over the past year, Jewish Human Rights Watch and the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities have highlighted growing levels of hate speech, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial across Facebook and Twitter here in Scotland, right now. Those platforms are used by a small minority to share fabricated global Jewish conspiracy theories and classic anti-Semitic tropes, which cumulatively represent an attack on Jewish faith and culture within our society.
Last September, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research found that more than a quarter of people living in the United Kingdom held anti-Semitic attitudes, with 30 per cent of the 5,466 people studied agreeing with the statements
“Jews think they are better than other people”
“Jews exploit holocaust victimhood for their own purposes.”
We are now more careful than ever about the language that we use to refer to our peers, and many of us would be quick to challenge a friend if they were to share homophobic, racist, sexist or Islamophobic slurs online, so why do we let anti-Semitism slip under the radar? In 2018, I hope that we can all make more effort to monitor the language that is used to discredit and to disparage the Jewish faith and Jewish people.
Holocaust memorial day is not just an opportunity to remember and mourn what has passed but a time when we should seek to learn lessons and to prevent discrimination, racism and hatred from taking hold once more.
Dr Wiener recognised the power of words when he opened his library in 1933, and we are recognising that here in the chamber today. We have never had anti-Semitic legislation in Scotland, but that does not mean that we are exempt from playing our part in the global fight to end religious prejudice and persecution. Denial of the Holocaust is often a seed from which harmful and insidious attitudes grow. Holocaust memorial day is not only an appropriate occasion to commemorate the horrors of our past but an opportunity to discuss the action that we can take to prevent atrocities in the future.17:17
In each of the 10 years that I have been a member of this Parliament, it has been my privilege to contribute to the Holocaust memorial day debate. I have heard many excellent speeches—none more so than the opening contribution from my colleague, Adam Tomkins, which was profound.
I represent Eastwood—I previously represented the West of Scotland—and three quarters of Scotland’s surviving Jewish population live in that community. Throughout my life, those people have been my friends, my neighbours and my colleagues.
In 2017, I was the member who moved the motion on the Holocaust memorial day debate. I talked about the nefarious tapestry of death that the various camps created across the continent of Europe during world war two, which appeared independent of one another and not through a planned process. It was only after the war that many people came to understand how comprehensive that network was, and the different traditions that had led to the camps’ establishment.
Holocaust memorial day takes place at the end of January, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. We should remember that Auschwitz survives for us to visit today—and for the Holocaust Education Trust to send parties of schoolchildren to see—only because the German Reich’s collapse was so comprehensive and its speed so quick that it was unable to destroy the evidence of Auschwitz’s existence as it so efficiently managed to destroy the evidence of many other camps.
The Deputy First Minister will have business elsewhere tonight: I am aware that he visited Auschwitz before Christmas for the first time. Anyone who has been there cannot have failed to have been profoundly moved—it is particularly true at this time of year when it is so bitterly cold—by the realisation of the reality that Auschwitz represented, and its closeness to the main roads through the immediate neighbourhood and the town that sits alongside it. That realisation confounds any expectation or hope that one might have that the camp existed in isolation—somewhere away from a population centre and away from people who must have understood what was going on.
I remember that when I was on a private visit to Auschwitz, the guide whom we had contracted to show us around was deeply ashamed of his family because, when he had questioned his grandparents about the existence of Auschwitz on their doorstep, they could not convincingly argue that they had not known what was going on, or that they had not, in their own silent and gruesome way, realised their own complicity in all that.
This year’s theme is the power of words, and Adam Tomkins talked about some of the profound voices in history that allowed the Holocaust to happen. I would like to talk about the very simple voices of some of my constituents. At last year’s Edinburgh festival, which was the 70th anniversary of the event, its establishment by a Scottish Jew, Rudolf Bing, was commemorated, and many of my constituents came through to Edinburgh for the unveiling of a plaque.
I thought that I had met many, if not all, of the neighbours and friends in my constituency who are survivors of the Holocaust, but I sat next to a lady who suddenly talked to me about her experience. I asked her whether she often came to the festival, and she said that she had come to it every year with her family every time she could. She said that she was able to come that year only because a special bus had brought her through—she would not otherwise have been fit and able enough to come.
She told me that she had escaped from Germany. Her father had thought that things were getting very difficult, so the family moved to Poland to escape the Third Reich. He then became increasingly concerned that matters might deteriorate further and he left the family to go to London. It took him more than a year and three applications to the Home Office—some things never change—before it agreed that his family could join him. She told me that they left on the day on which Germany invaded Poland on the outbreak of war, and that he had tried to persuade the rest of his family to apply to come to Britain, but they had said that he was exaggerating and that there was no need. She and her immediate family made the journey across Europe in a sealed train. Only they survived—the whole of the rest of the family was obliterated.
I have said in debates on assisted suicide that we have a right to life, but not a duty to live. A great many of my Jewish constituents take completely the opposite view—they believe that because they survived, they have a duty to live. They determined to make a full contribution to the life of Scotland in the years following the Holocaust, and to live life to the full. They are modest and quiet in their recollections, but the memory of the Holocaust hangs like a cloud over everything that they do. In the spring, on the anniversary of Yom HaShoah, those families will list on screens in the constituency all the family members who were lost.
A favourite memory of mine from the past year is of the time when Ross Greer came along to Yom HaShoah and sat beside the sweetest lady, who tells people that she is a Holocaust survivor in the same way that she might say that she used to dance with Scottish Ballet. She always says it with an enormous smile on her face, to the extent that people have to think, “What did she just say to me?” I do not know what she would have thought of Ross Greer’s broader views on Israel, but they had the most fabulous conversation about what Yom HaShoah exists to commemorate. It is those lighter voices of the survivors who determined that they would live life to the full—the constituents of mine who have done exactly that—that I want to celebrate and remember today.17:22
I welcome the opportunity to make a brief contribution to what I think is an extremely important debate. I congratulate Adam Tomkins not only on securing it, but on the power of the speech that he made. We recognise that there is significant cross-party support on the issue, and I hope that that means that we will do more than simply agree with one another. We must recognise the power of that cross-party support and make sure that it counts in the commitment that we show on the issue.
I congratulate everyone who is involved in the work that is done for Holocaust memorial day. Although it might take place on one day, it does not come about through the work of people on just one day: a massive amount of work goes into making it successful. That work rightly forces us to confront the truth and reality of the Holocaust. I congratulate the Holocaust Educational Trust for ensuring that successive generations of young people learn about what happened in the Holocaust.
It is important to mark the Holocaust itself and what it meant for individuals, families and communities, and to understand fully what anti-Semitism led to in Europe at the time. We cannot overstate the power of the testimony and courage of the survivors who have relived the horrors of their experience so that we all might learn.
As a young woman, I had the privilege of knowing a woman called Susan Singerman, who came from Hungary and was active in our local Labour Party. Like all young people, I had a lack of proper respect for older people. I knew that she had been in Auschwitz, but she never spoke about it until her old age. In talking, with great dignity, about the horrors that the Holocaust had brought for her and her family, she left to following generations the legacy of being able to understand properly what it meant at an individual level. She was known as the duchess of Auschwitz, because throughout her time there she carried herself with dignity and refused to be broken.
Such testimony is important, because genocide in all its forms can overwhelm us. It can feel as if it is beyond us, because it reveals people’s capacity to step away from their own humanity and to engage in systematic cruelty, violence, torture and murder, often of people who live in the same communities as them. Sometimes, when we think of genocide, we feel that it is beyond our comprehension and beyond being tackled. However, comprehend it and tackle it we must. Genocide can happen here—it can happen anywhere.
It is significant that this year’s theme for Holocaust memorial day is the power of words. Genocide does not start with monsters or begin with the outrageous, and it does not appear as a fully formed assault on others. Instead, it creeps towards us step by step. The Jewish communities across Europe did not suddenly wake up and discover that they were under attack. What happened began with cruel words, with grievances, with their being separated, with talk about “the other” and about differences, and with people being described in the cruellest terms. Genocide is a long journey: it is a journey that we, in our modern society, have the power to break.
I am privileged to be a member of Remembering Srebrenica Scotland—I declare an interest as a board member of that organisation. In 2016, I was invited to visit Bosnia, and later that year I went on holiday to Krakow and visited Auschwitz. I will never get over what I learned on both visits not only about the capacity to be cruel—and to be systematic in that cruelty and in turning against others—but about the power of humanity to overcome that cruelty. The survivors of the Holocaust join survivors of what happened in Bosnia to demand justice for people who have experienced genocide.
There are important parallels just now across our communities. To be opportunistic, I will tell members about the event that we are hosting next week in Parliament with Jasmin Mujanovic, who is an intellectual and academic who understands Bosnia but who has also been working on the parallels that are now developing in our society. What happened in Bosnia when we said that we did not understand it? What happened in the Holocaust when we thought that it was all too complicated for us? He talks about the way in which democratic institutions are being degraded, even as we speak, and the importance of confronting that.
We need to be vigilant, and we must recognise the significance of the Holocaust for the Jewish people and the need for us all to confront the issue. In our own debates, however, we too often take to ourselves all that is virtue and attribute to everyone else all that is without virtue. We owe it to those who speak out for a fairer and equal society in which no one is demeaned or demonised to think in the debates that we have every day about the things that bring us together instead of the things that divide us. Of course, there is division and debate, but in marking the occasion today, we should recognise the power of words to heal as well as to divide.
I congratulate all those who are involved in ensuring that the memory of the Holocaust is not forgotten.17:28
I, too, thank Adam Tomkins for bringing this debate to the chamber and for mentioning in his opening speech this year’s theme of the power of words. Each year, as we debate Holocaust memorial day, we no doubt all struggle to find the right words—words that are up to the challenge of describing events for which the early 1940s will no doubt be remembered in European and global history long after we have gone. I am thinking of terms such as “atrocity”, “genocide”, “crime against humanity” and “Holocaust”—are any of them up to it?
I agree with Adam Tomkins that this is likely to be a consensual debate. He says that by never forgetting we can ensure that we never repeat such atrocities, but I think that we need to go further. Remembering is important and necessary, but it is not sufficient. Words are powerful, but sadly the human story since the 1940s includes our collective failure to use that power to prevent other atrocities, other genocides and other crimes against humanity.
The words that we use to remember the past matter, but if we want to prevent such things from happening again we need to talk about the words that we use to define the present and to shape the future. On that front, we are allowing the forces of hatred to regroup. When those forces act, it is the power that their words have gained in a culture that can make the difference between individual acts of hate crime and the wave of violence that can carry a whole society with it.
As Johann Lamont referred to, for years before the industrial-scale mass murder of the Nazi regime, both word and image were used to dehumanise Jewish people, queer people, intellectuals, disabled people, the left and any other target that the regime had in mind. That is what created the conditions in which a whole society could permit atrocity. In just the same way, for many years, the British empire used the same kind of dehumanising words and ideas about racial, religious and national groups in order to make atrocities possible. Those included the prototypes of concentration camps and forced-labour camps, which the empire used to massacre tens of thousands, decades before the second world war, and its later acts of mass murder, such as those against the Kikuyu people in the 1950s, to give just one example.
Today, we can see that same attempt to use the power of words to dehumanise groups of people who are the chosen targets of today’s far right—whether that is though anti-Semitism or any other form of hatred or prejudice. That happens not just on the Facebook pages and Twitter profiles of far-right activists, but in the pages of so many national newspapers and on the broadcast airwaves, too. Muslims, immigrants, refugees and trans people are often the groups at the sharpest end of such abuse of the power of words today.
We should see through the thin veneer of free speech concern that is used to cover the indignation of those who today howl outrage that a train company will not be distributing a daily dose of racism to its passengers or who rail against a students union for its choice not to invite racist or transphobic speakers, while they simultaneously denounce MPs or judges as traitors and enemies of the people, or demand that universities hand over lists of academics who have the nerve to speak the truth about the impact of leaving the European Union.
We should hold in contempt those who promote vicious and hateful rhetoric about disabled people, working-class people, women or any other groups under the absurd cover of being a contrarian in an attempt to portray their efforts to dehumanise others as some kind of public service.
With far-right parties being in the ascendancy in many European countries, an apologist for white supremacy holding the office of US President and a global culture so threatened both by self-serving far-right media owners and by modern state propagandists seeking to undermine democracy and human rights, the task of facing down the misuse of the power of words is immense. It begins with a commitment to assert—again and again, relentlessly—the equal human worth of people regardless of ability or disability, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, social class, religious belief or the lack of it, immigration status or any of the other arbitrary characteristics that forces of hatred will latch on to.
Every one of us, in whatever positions of influence politicians and political parties might hold, must commit to assert the values of human solidarity—and to do more than assert them, but also live by them in the laws that we pass, the policies that we promote and the candidates that we select as our potential colleagues, and not only in the words that we use.17:24
I thank Adam Tomkins MSP for organising this debate, which is of extreme importance, on national Holocaust memorial day, which takes place later this month.
The memorial day serves as another poignant reminder of the horrific actions and human rights violations that took place during the second world war. The reality of the Holocaust is inescapable. Between 1933 and 1945, when the Nazis were in power, 6 million Jewish people were slaughtered at the hands of hatred and intolerance. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis displaced countless families into Jewish ghettos and separated loved ones in concentration and extermination camps throughout eastern Europe. As we know, entering those camps was a death sentence. Their inhabitants were welcomed with inhumane living conditions and with poisonous gas and fire. If they were not murdered on arrival, those in the concentration camps were worked day and night. Starvation and exhaustion permeated the camps and fear infiltrated Europe.
There are countless individual stories of those who suffered during the Holocaust. Each story tells a tale of hardship and loss and details the personal horrors experienced throughout world war two. One such story always come to mind when I think of the Holocaust and has already been mentioned several times in the debate: it is the well-known story of Anne Frank. My mother-in-law was Dutch and was in Eindhoven in Holland during the war. When we went to visit family in Eindhoven, she encouraged my wife and me to visit Amsterdam and go to Anne Frank’s house. Many know of Anne Frank because of the publication of the personal diary that she kept during the German occupation of the Netherlands.
When she was 12, Anne and her family were forced into hiding and spent their days living in small rooms whose entrance was concealed by a bookcase. Between 1942 and 1944, the Franks were trapped and unable to see the world beyond the confines of the bookcase, and they lived in fear of capture and certain death. Unfortunately, after two years of hiding, Anne and her family were discovered and shipped off to concentration camps. Anne and her sister were transferred to Bergen-Belsen, where Anne soon died of typhus. She was 15. Like 6 million others, her religion cost her life.
Today, it is important for us to remember stories such as Anne’s. She was a young woman who had her childhood and then her life stripped away from her by hate. It is necessary that we continue discussing what happened during world war two to remind us all of the importance of equality. No person should ever be discriminated against because of their religion. Such discrimination is an insult to the memory of all the 6 million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust.
As we know, and as Adam Tomkins has stated, the theme of Holocaust memorial day 2018 is the power of words. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust states on its website:
“Words can make a difference—both for good and evil.”
As parliamentarians, it is imperative that we use our platforms to spew words of fairness, freedom and equality. Everyone should be free to express themselves through whatever religion they choose and no one should feel as though their religion makes them less than equal. My mother-in-law was Catholic and my father-in-law was a Lithuanian Catholic. I am Church of Scotland and I have taught my children and my grandchildren to judge an individual not for what they are but for who they are. Religion, race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation do not define the quality of a person; their actions and words do. It is time for everyone in this Parliament to start preaching equality for everyone, regardless of their religion, creed or ethnicity.
Again, I thank Adam Tomkins for bringing this debate to the chamber. I hope that, in continuing to remember our mistakes, we can ensure a more positive and tolerant future for all.17:39
I start by thanking my colleague Adam Tomkins for bringing forward this important debate. It is right that the Parliament recognises Holocaust memorial day, for it is one of the most significant days of remembrance of modern European history.
I would like to reflect on that word “history”. History is something that we associate with the past. In my day, it was taught in two forms. The first was ancient history, including that of the Jews, the history of the Romans, the history of the Egyptians and, to an extent, even Robert the Bruce. Then we had modern history, and I was taught about Malcolm X, apartheid, JFK and the cold war. The second world war, however, fell somewhere in between, in the gap. These days, we learn more about world war two on the Discovery Channel or in Hollywood movies.
We teach our children about the second world war and the ensuing Holocaust as history; as a distant period in the past. Let us not forget that the events took place less than 80 years ago. There remain among us those who drew breath in 1940, whose boots laid prints on the battlefields of Europe and who still bear the scars and memories of the horrors of that war.
Last night, I watched a television programme about the Yemen. The horrific images of bloodied children and air strikes on hospitals and homes were difficult for the eyes to see. I thought for a second what it would be like if those images were in black and white, as we so often see the second world war portrayed. Perhaps I would then have been protected from the horrors of a modern-day war in colour. However, what would the Holocaust look like in full, high-definition 4K colour, being played out on our mobile phones and on social media, if it were happening today?
My point is that the genocide of 6 million Jews took place within living memory and barely a stone’s throw away from where we are, but it still somehow feels like something so distant from the modern day. Holocaust memorial day addresses that very issue. It stands as a stark reminder of what happens when society lets hatred and division grow like a cancerous political ideology. It was something that seemed almost acceptable to the common man in its early incarnation, but which grew as fascist hatred and racial and ethnic dominance. It grew into an ugly and hateful act of crime against humanity—all of humanity: gay people, disabled people, Jewish people, Romany people, Slavs, Poles, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, Freemasons, communists and even speakers of Esperanto.
To get a sense of the horror, as my colleague Jackson Carlaw said, people can go and visit Auschwitz, or go to Berlin and walk across from the Brandenburg gate to the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. It is important that we understand the magnitude of what happened as the result of that culture of fear. Alternatively, people can go, as I did last year, to visit Yad Vashem in Israel. There is neither time this evening nor even words in my head to describe that experience. My hairs stood on end, my legs wobbled and my emotions were overcome as I saw the images and movies of what happened—the voices of the victims, the names of the lost, the artefacts of the robbed, the faces of the dead, the pain of the survivors and the illusions of the propaganda.
Let us ask ourselves why debates such as Mr Tomkins’s debate are still important today. Should we not be looking forward to a positive, bright future and not looking retrospectively to the dark days and deeds of the past? The truth is that we are still faced with the blight of anti-Semitism in the UK today. In July, we learned that anti-Semitic hate offences in Scotland had reached their worst levels on record, and across the UK official police figures marked the third consecutive year in which anti-Semitic Incidents were on the rise.
It would easy for me to stand here and say, “Isn’t this terrible? We must do more. They must do more.” However, as politicians and, by default, as members of political parties, we too have a duty to address anti-Semitism, just as we call out anti-Islamic rhetoric and anti-Christian, anti-Hindu or any other forms of religious or racial hatred. Free speech is one the wonders and marvels of our modern democratic society, but in my view Holocaust denial should never be up for debate.
The Holocaust will soon no longer be part of primary history or living memory. There will soon be no survivors to tell their stories. As such, it is more important than ever that we educate our children about what happened and, more important, why. The scourge of anti-Semitism is ever dangerous, ever real and ever so apparent. We should never forget that so many died to protect the freedom that we have to protest, demonstrate and disagree in political discourse, but modern-day anti-Semitism should not hide behind thinly veiled campaigns. It cannot and should not jump on the bandwagons of commercial sabotage or the boycott of cultural events or come under the guise of political freedom fighting.
I conclude by making a plea to us as politicians and to society in general. Never forget how easily and quickly the Holocaust was allowed to happen. May the voices of the past guide the words of today and shape the actions of tomorrow.17:45
I, like others, thank Adam Tomkins for creating the opportunity to have this evening’s debate—I have previously participated in similar ones.
It is as well to remember that the Holocaust was not a single event but the aggregation of millions of decisions to execute millions of people who had committed no crime.
The world’s legal systems have worked over the decades since 1945 to deliver justice for the missing millions, their families and friends, but that on its own cannot be enough. We cannot undo the injustice done by the Nazis. We cannot restore life and liberty to those from whom such basic rights were removed by the Nazis. We simply cannot reset the world that the Nazis destroyed.
However, we can remember those whom we lost to the Holocaust. I have the tiniest of personal connections with the events. The last sentences passed at the Nuremberg trials were passed on 30 September and 1 October 1946, and those who were found guilty were due to be hanged on 16 October, which was my first full day on this planet. Indeed, Hermann Göring beat the hangman by committing suicide on 15 October, the very day that I emerged from my mother’s womb.
We have to use the example of the Holocaust to remind our contemporaries of the injustices that came from it and to educate new generations about the dangers of demagoguery designed to characterise ethnic or religious difference as somehow less worthy. The theme of Holocaust memorial day 2018, which is the power of words, is a fine choice, because it was words that created the Holocaust—when Adolf Hitler sat in prison writing “Mein Kampf”, he wrote the words that would lead to the Holocaust. We can, to some extent, prevent a repetition with our words and the words of others.
Words can lead to action, which can be good or bad. Adam Tomkins reminded us that our business as politicians depends on words, and the meanings that we ascribe to them and the use to which we put them are important. Our most important words might be those that we deploy when we defend those with views with which we disagree and when we defend their right to be different from us. Democracy depends on diversity, and so does society’s future.
Those who lost their lives in the Holocaust were not an undifferentiated group. Each was an individual of worth. Each had individual views and potential. Each could disagree with his or her neighbour, as we do with each other in this place.
My personal visits to Auschwitz thus far have been vicarious. The good work of the Holocaust Educational Trust features regularly in the media. The trust was founded in 1988, and its good work in taking school students to the site is highly valued by those who participate in its programme. The most important visit that I have made to Auschwitz was via the television series, “The Ascent of Man”, which was written and presented by Jacob Bronowski and broadcast in 1973, a year before he died.
Bronowski was born in 1908 into a Jewish family at Lódz, a couple of hundred kilometres north of Auschwitz. Forty-five years on, the profound effect of seeing him at Auschwitz, walking slowly towards the camera, pausing, leaning down to scoop mud into his hand from a puddle, then looking at the mud and saying in a quiet voice, “This is my family,” remains with me and will never leave me. Personal experience speaks directly in a way that our debate today—worthy and necessary as it is—simply cannot match. That is why each generation must relearn the lessons of Nazi bigotry. That is why visits can communicate and embed by experience the message of history in students who are supported by the trust. That is vital, if we believe that this should never, ever happen again—and we do.17:50
Like other members, I thank Adam Tomkins for lodging his motion and for highlighting with some feeling the significance of Holocaust memorial day, which has allowed us to have an important and dignified debate.
International Holocaust memorial day provides an important moment for us all to remember and reflect upon the terrible events of the Holocaust and the 11 million people who were murdered in it, including 6 million Jews. It is important that we remember that, above all else, the Holocaust was a criminal enterprise. Those lives were lost as the result of the systematic denial of the most basic human rights and freedoms to particular groups in society. We must remember the unspeakable persecution by the Nazis of the Jewish community and their concerted and systematic effort to destroy every last Jew in Europe.
We must also remember the persecution and killing of gay people, disabled people and anyone else who was labelled as different or a threat. All of that was underpinned by a profoundly racist ideology that still has the capacity to shock and horrify when we read about it today.
We cannot forget that the horrors of the Holocaust were not the end point of what Burns called “man’s inhumanity to man”. Since then, human rights have been denied and atrocities have taken place in many places such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Cambodia and the Darfur region in Sudan. Although all that has repulsed people around the world and action has been taken, brutal racism and intolerance continue to flourish in too many places to this day.
We must all, therefore, take action to tackle hatred and intolerance as well as promote the positive vision of the society that we all aspire to be.
That is why, every year, we in Scotland have funded a major event to commemorate international Holocaust memorial day. The First Minister will open this year’s event at Glasgow Caledonian University later this month. The Scottish Government works in partnership with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, along with our intermediary partner, Interfaith Scotland, to deliver Scotland’s national Holocaust memorial day event each year. This year, a variety of events are taking place across Scotland, and I hope that members will take the opportunity to participate in them if they can.
It is also why we continue to support the lessons from Auschwitz project, which is an incredibly powerful way for young people to gain some insight into the horrors of the Holocaust and, just as importantly, to learn about why it happened.
I had the honour of accompanying those young people on their visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2012. I compared notes with different people who were on that trip, and we all had different things lodged forever in our minds. For some people it was the piles of shoes and suitcases, the stolen house keys or—almost unspeakably—the piles of human hair. For other people it was walking around that massive site and beginning to realise the sheer scale in numbers of the crime that we were discussing. For many people it was the shocking fact that Auschwitz is in the middle of a town, in plain sight of a whole community.
I am extremely proud that, since 2009, we have enabled more than 3,200 young people from Scotland to visit Auschwitz to find out about what happened there and to share their experiences with friends, classmates and others. That visit to Auschwitz brings home the reality of what happened far more vividly and effectively than any amount of speaking can achieve. I commend the Holocaust Educational Trust on its work to raise awareness and understanding in schools and among the wider public of the Holocaust and its importance today.
Our acts of remembrance forbid us from forgetting. They warn us all never to allow such atrocities to take place again. An active way of ensuring that the seeds of such atrocities are not sown in our lifetimes is to promote equality, tackle discrimination and foster good relations between and within communities. Interfaith dialogue is a vital way to lower the tensions that might exist between communities, to eliminate fear and distrust and to increase understanding and mutual respect, helping to create one Scotland of many cultures in which diversity is recognised as a strength.
The steps that we take for a better tomorrow require commitment today. That is why the Scottish Government supports efforts such as the work of Remembering Srebrenica, and it is why we are committed to doing all that we can to prevent and eradicate hate crime and prejudice and to build community cohesion and promote inclusion.
One area that I particularly want to—and must—emphasise is the approach that I hope that we all take to tackling anti-Semitism. We appreciate the significant contribution that our Jewish communities make to this country, and the Scottish Government continues to support the important work of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities. We know, from our regular engagement with community leaders, that Jewish people continue to experience anti-Semitism and discrimination. That is unacceptable. It is why, last year, the Scottish Government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism. We are working with key partners to consider how that can support practical steps to tackle anti-Semitism in all its forms. More broadly, we will continue to implement our action plan “Tackling Prejudice and Building Connected Communities”.
As other members have mentioned, the theme of this year’s Holocaust memorial day is the power of words, which is apt. In today’s world, many people are concerned that, with the rise of populism across Europe and America, a permissive environment is being created in which the forces of racism and intolerance believe that they can promote their cause with greater vigour. In that context, it is the words of our leaders that will have the greatest impact.
Whether they are delivered through a speech or a tweet, the words of our leaders are seen by millions as setting the context for everything that happens in our society. That is why words that seek to cast immigrants as “other”, that seek to spread anti-Semitism, that label Muslims as terrorists or that seek to attack people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or disability, or because they are asylum seekers, are so harmful. Above all, we must use our words—as I hope we have done in the debate—to continue to robustly challenge such intolerance.
The Holocaust is the outstanding, chilling example of what human beings are capable of doing when fundamental human rights are disparaged and bigotry and intolerance are given free rein. It seems that, today, the message that we send out on Holocaust memorial day is more important than ever. I know that everyone in the chamber will want to ensure that we remain vigilant in standing up to hate and in promoting a Scotland and a world in which everyone is accorded the fundamental human dignity to which they have a right.
That concludes the debate. I thank and commend all those who have spoken in it.Meeting closed at 17:59.