OPINION: Rejecting hate speech isn’t stifling Israel criticism; it’s fighting antisemitism

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OPINION: Rejecting hate speech isn’t stifling Israel criticism; it’s fighting antisemitism

A swastika on the streets of London in 2024 is NOT a symbol of political protest. It is a symbol of genocide, racism and antisemitism, writes Karen Pollock

A man carries a tote bag showing a Swastika/Star of David design, struck through in red. © Amstel Adams/ Alamy Live News
A man carries a tote bag showing a Swastika/Star of David design, struck through in red. © Amstel Adams/ Alamy Live News

Next week, the Jewish community will come together for Yom HaShoah, the day when we remember the six million Jewish men, women and children murdered in the Holocaust, just for being Jewish.

Nearly 80 years ago, when the concentration and death camps of Europe were liberated and the Shoah ended, in many cases survivors were alone. They were the sole members of their families, communities and for some, entire villages and towns. Many tried to return home only to find that their houses were no longer theirs and they were no longer welcome. Some found refuge in the UK, some in the United States, but most ended up in what is now the State of Israel.

Fast forward to today and the Nazis, their leaders and their symbols, have become almost synonymous for ultimate evil. Online, we see this result in the phenomenon of Godwin’s law: the idea that the longer an online discussion continues, the more likely it is that someone stresses their point by using a comparison to the Nazis. However, what may have begun as an online phenomenon has now truly cemented itself into the real world.

Whether individuals donning a yellow star to protest pandemic restrictions or environmental groups using Holocaust related language to warn against inaction on climate change – it seems that the only way you can make your point heard is by trivialising the murder of the six million. It is hurtful, it is wrong, and it is an insult to victims and to the survivors who see the Holocaust being deliberately used and misused.

Karen Pollock of HET (Blake Ezra Photography Ltd)

Perhaps even more shameful, is the practice of deliberately abusing the Holocaust to attack the State of Israel. Since 7 October, the streets of Britain have been flooded with protesters not calling for the release of the hostages and not condemning Hamas terrorists. While some might be calling for peace, we see others equating the Jewish star of David to the swastika, Israeli leaders to Hitler and Zionism to fascism. We even saw the Holocaust memorial in Hyde Park covered up – apparently as a precautionary measure.

If a memorial to the six million Jewish men, women and children who were murdered during the Holocaust has to be hidden out of fear that it will be desecrated, this should serve as a warning. Many survivors rebuilt their lives here cherishing shared values of freedom, democracy and respect. These values feel under threat.

This year, as we mark Yom HaShoah, we must remember the past while also addressing the antisemitism we are seeing today. We have to be clear in saying there is no excuse, no additional context, for carrying a swastika on the streets of London. It is not a symbol of political protest. It is a symbol of genocide, racism and antisemitism.

There can be no excuse for comparing Israeli leaders to Hitler. The Nazis tried to eradicate the Jewish people in their entirety, no matter where they were. Their mission was to exterminate all Jews, because they were Jews. These comparisons do not add weight to an argument, they make its proponents racist. It is an abuse of the memory of the victims and a distortion of the Holocaust, a pernicious form of antisemitism.

We all want to see peace and stability in the region and an end to the tragic loss of life. Calling out this hate speech is not silencing criticism of Israel, it is demanding that antisemitism has no place on our streets or in our society. On Yom HaShoah, it is not too much to ask for.

  • Karen Pollock, chief executive, Holocaust Educational Trust
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