On Monday 27th January, I attended a Holocaust Memorial Day Event hosted by the Lord Mayor of Westminster and Chair of Westminster Faith Exchange.
This was an incredibly moving event that marked 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The theme of ‘stand together’ was very fitting; an encouragement to invite people from all backgrounds to gather and reflect on the Holocaust as well as other past and current atrocities. Ruth Bush, Lord Mayor of Westminster welcomed community, faith and voluntary leaders from across Westminster to attend.
The first speaker was Nick Ross, Chair of Westminster’s Hate Crime Commission and host of BBC’s Crimewatch for 23 years. Westminster Council is the first local authority in England to create an independent commission to gather evidence on hate crimes and find ways to combat it.
Ross spoke about how prejudice is inextricably linked to the human condition and how this can help explain human’s repeated violence against one another through history. This was an interesting point to reflect on – today we so often think prejudice in society as being triggered by current affairs, legislation and the media narrative.
Perhaps though it is not current events that cause our prejudices to form, but instead it is current events that give us permission for the prejudices we already held to be openly shared. This can take the form of stereotyping or a lack of respect for differences between people. It creates the feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them’ by distinguishing between people according to their ethnicity, race, religion and nationality. This normalisation of discrimination leads to classification, which is the first stage of genocide according to Dr Gregory Stanton’s publication – ‘The 10 Stages of Genocide’. Therefore while casually racist jokes or stereotyping groups can seem minor, they build the foundation necessary for enabling much more serious actions to take place. The Nazi’s systematic murder of Jews and several other minority groups could not have taken place without the foundations of anti-semitic propaganda first being engrained in German society under Hitler. This leads onto Ross’s next point: that to view the holocaust as an aberration is exceedingly dangerous.
The scale and horrors of the Holocaust make it appear like an atrocity that could never be repeated today. But genocide based on prejudice did happen again: Stalin’s, Mao’s, Pol Pot’s and the Rwandan genocides killed a minimum of over 50 million people in total. The Dafur genocide is still ongoing today.
As to whether humanity will eventually endure less genocides in the future, Ross is cautiously optimistic; as he puts it “it seems to be 2 steps forward one step back”. Ross referenced Steven Pinker’s publication ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ which demonstrates that humans have killed a smaller proportion of each other than in the previous century. Certainly not a cause for celebration but perhaps for hope, that eventually this proportion could become zero.
Hella Pick CBE, one of the UK’s most distinguished journalists, was the second speaker of the evening. Pick fears that prejudice will continue to prevail in society, leading to future genocides. Pick said in reference to her own less optimistic opinion about humanity “I hope I am wrong but I fear I am right”.
To close Ruth Bush read a special prayer written by the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Senior Imam Qari Asim. These faith leaders from Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities coming together to write a prayer was made especially poignant given the theme of standing together.
By Sasha Lawson.