An aerial view of central London showing the Victoria Tower at the Palace of Westminster (left) and the Victoria Tower Gardens. Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images.
On the banks of the Thames in London lies a small, manicured park known as Victoria Tower Gardens. The only green space in the vicinity of Parliament and Downing Street, the park is (or was, pre-coronavirus) a hub for officegoers at lunchtime and a playground for local children. It is dotted, seemingly at random, with, in the words of the Royal Parks website, “memorials celebrating freedom.” These include a dull, bronze statue of the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, a more emotive sculpture by Auguste Rodin commemorating the Siege of Calais in the Hundred-Years War between Britain and France, and the abstract Buxton Memorial, a gaudy water fountain named after the British parliamentarian Thomas Fowell Buxton that celebrates the British role in ending slavery rather than the end of slavery itself. These memorials are dwarfed by the towering Palace of Westminster, home to Parliament, and in my experience are largely ignored by the political and civil-service staffers that frequent the park for respite during the average workday. I must admit that, despite having walked past and through Victoria Tower Gardens dozens of times, I never really gave the memorials much thought myself, until recently.
Victoria Tower Gardens is not so ignored today. Here in this park, at this hearth of British freedoms, the government has proposed to build a new Holocaust memorial. The $140 million project, the brainchild of the former prime minister David Cameron, would involve both a Holocaust monument and learning center, the idea being to connect Britain’s democracy to the events of the Holocaust. It would seem to be an innocuous goal, hard to oppose. This is not the case.
In fact it is hard to understate just how much of a big deal the memorial has become, both in light of its enormous cost, the time and political clout that the government has invested in it, and the fervent opposition arising from interest groups ranging from the local governing council to major British heritage organizations to Jewish politicians and Holocaust survivors themselves.
As British Jews attempt to get out from under the shadow cast by the former Labor leader and renowned enemy of the Jewish community Jeremy Corbyn, they are being thrust once again into a major political controversy. Plenty stands to go wrong. Will any of it go right?
In America there are Holocaust memorials and museums in at least 31 states. Things are different in Britain. In London there is but one widely panned, badly signposted, and rarely visited memorial in the much larger green space of Hyde Park (another structure commemorating the specificities of the Kindertransport, in which Britain rescued 10,000 Jewish children, exists at Liverpool Street station). The verdict on Britain’s response to the Holocaust, and what commemorating this history looks like, is much less settled than in America, and for reasons hard to understand fully from the outside.
In February of 2020, Westminster Council, the local authority for the site of Victoria Tower Gardens, voted unanimously to oppose the planned Holocaust memorial—an opposition that the government is overriding, thanks to a controversial and much-litigated power known as “calling in.” The council grounded its rejection of the government’s plans in concern about the memorial’s impact on the park and the surrounding area. Other key English heritage-preservation bodies—Historic England, the International Council on Monuments and Sites and the London Gardens Trust—rejected it too, and for similar reasons. The memorial would attract too many visitors. It would bloat the main but nonetheless relatively narrow street leading to Parliament. It would have a “detrimental impact” on the park as one of the few green spaces on the Thames river embankment—multiple trees would be chopped, and the juxtaposition of the memorial’s design with the flatness of the park would be unsightly. It would also “impact” the existing memorials and Parliament itself, presumably by overshadowing them, and marring the traditional aesthetic they brought to the area.
Is this true? Maybe. The memorial’s design, by the architects Sir David Adjaye and Ron Arad—the latter is Israeli—was chosen in a high-profile international competition. The design is of 23 bronze blades jutting out of the ground, and the learning center itself will be housed deep underground due to the park’s limited space. As far as Holocaust memorials go, the plans have been compared to Berlin and Boston’s abstract structures. To me, the angular shape and dull color, in contrast to Victoria Tower Garden’s grass, is reminiscent of Maya Lin’s famous Vietnam War memorial in Washington and the way it cuts into the surrounding earth. Indeed, the London memorial’s design has been almost as divisive as the Vietnam memorial was when it first appeared in the early 1980s; the journalist Melanie Phillips, in one of her typically pugnacious columns, likened it to a “toast rack.”
But the Vietnam memorial is universally beloved now, and one might expect the same to happen with this. All in all, these seem strange arguments, borne of a willingness to prioritize aesthetic concerns over ethical ones, and perhaps—it’s hard to avoid the thought—concealing some agenda against the Jews (and against placing their history in a prominent position.) The government’s representative for the memorial, a minister by the name of Robert Jenrick, happens to be married to a Jewish woman. The anti-Semitic abuse and death threats he received for his role in allegedly breaching planning propriety made national headlines.
Still, it’s not quite so cut and dried as discomfort with Jews. Phillips is Jewish, after all, and many other prominent Jewish figures I admire, as well as British Holocaust scholars I trust, turn out to be against the memorial too. Some are against the prioritizing of the Holocaust over contemporary Jewish life. Baroness Deech, a cross-bench (independent) member of the House of Lords and a prominent voice of Jewish opposition to the memorial, has championed this argument. The memorial, she says, will give visitors the impression that Jewish life today amounts to a lament for dead Jews. “As Jonathan Sacks wrote, it’s not enough to present the Holocaust on its own,” she says.
The Holocaust scholars, meanwhile, have qualms with the proposed presentation of the Holocaust in the memorial and think they could spend the money more efficiently. Sidelined at every turn in proposals for the memorial’s content, leading academics from the British Association for Holocaust Studies have argued that the memorial stands to be an ineffective and extremely costly one-stop solution to the many problems with British knowledge of the Holocaust. Instead, they argue, the funds allocated to the memorial should be used for the resourcing of educational materials and for funding of research at the academic level in order to train the next generation of Holocaust scholars. Indeed, a Cameron government commission highlighted these matters in a landmark 2015 report, but ultimately chose to prioritize the memorial and the memorial alone.
They have something of a point. Going by current designs, there will be little room for learning at the memorial. Thanks to the park, the learning center will have to be pushed underground, where it will apparently only have space for four rooms, wholly inadequate to telling the story of European Jewish history, the Holocaust, and Britain’s mixed response to it. What content will make it in promises to be problematic as well. A sizeable amount of that limited space is dedicated to commemorating other genocides—Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia, and so on—rather than focusing on the Holocaust itself. This is an old argument by now and it is tiresome to have to keep making it: universalizing the Holocaust is a way of de-Judaizing it. And while there is mention of the new rise of anti-Semitism in Britain and other societies today, there is no mention of the creation of the state of Israel, or the role it played in re-homing thousands of survivors.
What’s more, the learning center plans to celebrate Britain’s “interventions” in the Holocaust, naming the Kindertransport and the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. As for the not-so-good parts? The original mission statement for the memorial does mention plans to highlight “the complexities of Britain’s ambiguous responses to the Holocaust” as part of the text in the underground learning center, but so far, there’s little sign of that. The extent of any critical analysis of Britain’s shortcomings mentioned in the planning proposal is currently limited to “building on the lessons of the past” by noting the rise of the British fascist leader Oswald Mosely. (And at the same time, it paints him as a fringe figure, entirely separate from the shining actions of the British government itself.)
Nearly all of these problems, which are perhaps really problems of competition for resources, could be alleviated with more space. So why erect the building in a space as small as Victoria Tower Gardens and in a location as saturated as Westminster? There were other options. The 2015 report mentioned the possibility of expanding a standing exhibit at the Imperial War Museum. That museum—rebranded as IWM in 2011—styles itself as the “world’s leading museum of war” and is renowned for its quality. To house an expanded Holocaust exhibit, and perhaps even a memorial, on its larger grounds in south London would likely ensure a better presentation of the history. Or it could go somewhere new entirely.
But there is a specific purpose to the government’s choice of Westminster as the location of the memorial.
The Holocaust memorial is at its core a political project. The British government has allocated a majority of the funds for it, and the rest of the money is being raised by the UK Holocaust Foundation, whose board is adorned with mostly Conservative-party-affiliated figures.
The memorial was floated in the Cameron years as part of a wave of initiatives to revive Britain’s national image. This was amid rising worries about new threats to the solidity of contemporary British identity, threats as various as rising Islamist extremism to the question of Brexit. In response, Cameron hoped to forge a post-Christian British identity that could both level with Islamist extremism and allay nerves about the changing face of British culture—immigration and multiculturalism—that motivated some supporters of Brexit. (Despite initiating the referendum vote, the former prime minister was fundamentally opposed to Brexit.) He thus presided over the creation of a vague initiative to advance “British values.” The idea was that Britain, at this confusing historical juncture, should have something quantifiable to promote, ideally in easily remembered phrases, about its national identity. (In classic government-planning fashion, when asked to share these with the media or constituents, government ministers were known to blunder and stumble over their words.)
After the unexpected 2016 referendum result for “Leave” and Cameron’s resignation, his followers as prime minister, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, have continued to push “British values.” Not rooted in historical texts, events, or the ideas of great leaders, these values tout abstract concepts: “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs.” All great concepts in and of themselves, but what are they anchored to? (The journalist Peter Hitchens once noted that British values “might as well be a taste for instant mashed potato.”) I have a vague memory of defending these catchphrases myself in the past, out of sheer hope that my belief in them would come to mean something. It never did. Britain was still powerless in the face of European expansion and consolidation, despite leaving the EU, and had been let down by the United States in the aftermath of its outsized contribution to the Iraq War.
Within this context, the Holocaust memorial appears to have been treated as an easy way to show that the British are, indeed, on the right side of history. The British government’s press release announcing the official selection of Victoria Tower Gardens as the site for the memorial stated: “Holocaust memorial will stand beside Parliament as permanent statement of our British values.”
So, while the Holocaust memorial could have been located anywhere in Britain, in order to convey unambiguously the triumph of British values as a political tool, it needed to be in the most obvious place possible. Put yourself in the shoes of a politician and you can see the appeal: the memorial’s underground learning center would have visitors emerge from the ground, witness the majesty of Parliament, and marvel at Britain’s moral fortitude.
Britain is insecure about its role in the world post-Brexit, and, as it stumbles out of the European Union’s shadow, claiming some sense of moral legitimacy for itself is a necessary and worthwhile task. But I worry about the consequences of this happening with the story of the Jews.
Under Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as leader of the British Labor party, the position of the Jews in Britain—are they a religion, an ethnicity, a besieged minority, a bunch of rich complainers, or not?—and the issue of anti-Semitism sprung to the fore of public life. Jeremy Corbyn sought to present himself as a friend to besieged minorities. He is a “lifelong anti-racist” was the mantra he and his supporters chanted. Yes, he showed up and spoke out on Holocaust Memorial Day, like other major politicians were expected to. But at the end of the day, “anti-racist” amounted to nothing more than “anti-Semite,” and, as for Holocaust remembrance, it became yet another tool in that campaign (and that universalizing tendency) when Corbyn sponsored a resolution to change the name of Holocaust Memorial Day to a title that reflected all genocides.
Now that Corbyn is gone the issue of anti-Semitism still lingers, and the question of its role in British public life is uncertain. Curiously, it is still viewed as a new phenomenon; there is little historical memory of anti-Semitism here. Perhaps this is in part because no significant Holocaust memorial has hitherto been built in the country’s capital. Of course, the lack of a memorial is not a good thing. But maybe it is not a rectifiable thing.
Maybe, 80 years after the government issued the 1939 White Paper restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine to a trickle, 80 years after the Kindertransport separated 10,000 Jewish kids from their parents and left the rest to die, 80 years after the British learned of the Final Solution and decided to hold back from bombing the camps, almost 75 years after the decision to abstain from the UN vote on the partition of Palestine, and just over a five years since a sizeable segment of the British public elected an anti-Semite as leader of a major political party, Britain is not yet ready to remember. On the subject of the creation of Israel and Corbyn’s ascendency—not unrelated—there are a great many ways to connect British Protestantism with political and ideological support for Zionism in the 20th and 21st centuries. But just as the British government has decided to secularize British values, so too has this rich and heartening history been ignored.
Why were the Jews chosen to be the face of Britain’s new quest for moral legitimacy? Why not other groups? Perhaps the government believes that, compared to the other memorials currently housed in Victoria Tower Gardens, the issue of the Holocaust is less controversial. The sculpture by Rodin deals with the issue of migration, a fraught subject in Britain, and the Buxton memorial deals with the issue of slavery, an equally fraught subject, both connected in the public mind to the 2018 “Windrush” scandal, where immigrants of Caribbean descent who had been in the country since the 1950s faced deportation. For these two memorials to be thrust into the national spotlight—and even properly acknowledged as landmarks—the government would be risking Britain’s public relations. Perhaps the Holocaust is less of a risk. Ultimately, the weaponization of the Holocaust for political gain in the secular crusade for British values is a no-brainer for the government: it is a tale of good vs. evil that will pay dividends without the heightened public sensitivity attached to subjects like slavery or migration.
The outcry against the memorial remains split between concerns regarding its aesthetic impact and concerns regarding its treatment of Jewish history. Meanwhile, the government is more concerned about its own appearances than anything else. And if that doesn’t scream that Britain is not yet ready for a Holocaust memorial, what does?