On Wednesday across the globe people of many nations and ethnicities commemorated international Holocaust Memorial Day. This is not a Jewish event. This is one which was mandated by the United Nations and supported by the majority of Western governments. It indeed is no longer limited to the six million Jews and countless more millions who died as a result of the evil of Nazi Germany, but to victims all across the globe, ranging from the Armenian Genocide to those in recent memory who lost their lives in the Rwandan Genocide.
The University and Guild of Students chose to mark this occasion with a large meeting in the Guild attended by a wide variety of students from diverse backgrounds and inviting two speakers, survivors of the Holocaust and Rwandan genocide.
Unfortunately this was not the only place on campus the Holocaust was being discussed this day. The Birmingham Friends of Palestine Society, and their guest Mike Prysner, sought to not only draw parallels between the nature of Gaza as a concentration camp, but indeed to suggest that the Jewish state of Israel is indeed filling the role of the Nazis. This is certainly not a new assertion, much like the many nations across the world where the ‘Elders of Zion’ is seen as being a key text, this hateful statement has reached a level of mainstream consciousness unthinkable in generations gone by.
We are increasingly seeing a separatist part of university. They are extremists, their choice of speakers and rhetoric marks them clearly out as such. Over my time at University many of us have witnessed firsthand the hateful, homophobic, racist and deranged supporters and spokespeople of Hamas and Hezbollah given raucous applause by my fellow students. On this occasion on Wednesday, Prysner himself was quoted by and attendee as saying:
“I think that history will not just remember these people as fools but really in the context of other atrocities we’ve seen in particular that the Nazis waged during the Holocaust. I think you really can draw an equals sign between what was done there in Germany and what is done to the people in Gaza”
I do not wish to dwell on this dark occasion, marring it further. But instead I would like to go back to an event two years ago where I first hand experienced this new hate and ignorance spreading across our University.
It was this same time of year in 2009 that in response to escalated conflict in Israel and the disputed territories, many students of all manner of backgrounds took to the main quad carrying both Israeli and Palestinian flags, campaigning for not only a two state solution in the Levantine Middle East, but indeed for the sanctity of race relations on our own campus. This was an unprecedented example of solidarity and it sought the chance to establish a new consensus. We stood singing songs such as ‘Salaam (Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu)’, a Hebrew and Arabic collaboration which has become a symbol of what can be achieved by collaboration rather than conflict.
However above us on the small terrace surrounding the Arts Building stood a far greater number. Carrying imitation blood drenched placards, and symbols of their chosen ideologies. The screeching cry of chants reverberated around the quad and off the red bricks of Campus. They loudly proclaimed their desire for the liberation of ‘Palestine’ and for the destruction of Israel. Their favourite chant ‘Palestine shall be free, from the river to the sea’ demanding a territory larger any Palestinian Authority negotiator has ever called for and eliminating Israel, clearly setting them above the mainstream.
On this side stood in collaboration, a collection of people disinterested in mainstream politics and rhetoric. They may be described in many ways, but seeking to avoid emotive language, I shall refer to them merely as extremists. They were members of Socialist movements who believe in the destruction of our world, Anarchists who set themselves apart from society, and a large number of Islamist students, radicalised away from their original faith and towards a politicised movement constantly at war with the civilisation of the West.
It is the nature of University of Birmingham politics that there needs to be at least two sides to every single discussion or conflict. The Guild or one of its hegemonic institutions, such as the debating society, mediate between and declare a victor who no one truly supports. However in this case there was a pluralistic movement pushing not only for the widely supported effort needed to end the Middle Eastern conflict, but indeed looking for solidarity on this campus. They were quashed on this day by the rhetoric of hatred.
To discuss the Holocaust and the contemporary situation in Israel is indeed to open a modern day Pandora’s Box. So many ignorant people on both sides of the conflict seek this emotional heritage to draw fast conclusions without merit. I will say only this, the millions who died did so as a result of blind extremist hatred, this was not merely the action of an elite, but indeed came from the general population, only by remembering this event and keeping it in popular consciousness can one truly hope to prevent its repeat.