Two weeks ago, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick intervened to overrule Westminster Council and approve the construction of a Holocaust Memorial next to the Houses of Parliament, a project first launched by then Prime Minister David Cameron in 2014. Backers of the project include some of the most influential members of the UK Jewish community, including Lord Feldman, Sir Mick Davis and Gerald Ronson . Those objecting, however, include not just the local council, but also Royal Parks (to which Victoria Gardens belong), the International Council on Monuments and Sites, the London Gardens Trust, Historic England, UNESCO, the Environment Agency, and fully 678 out of 714 testimonies to a public enquiry on the project.
The concerns raised by these opponents are various, including the risk of flooding by compromising natural defenses, traffic disruptions caused by the predicted 3 million visitors a year, potential for being targeted by terrorists, and the fact that it will cost the government £75 million at a time when public debt is already at record highs. The most widely-raised and shared objection, however, is that the memorial will involve concreting over more than 25% of one of London’s rare green spaces, and plonking on top something that looks like, well, this:
Some readers will at this point object that opinions about the ugliness of the proposed monument – described by Baroness Deech as a ‘gigantic toast rack’ – are purely subjective and one can, with equal justice, claim that the memorial will be a great work of art. Whether or not aesthetic subjectivism is valid in general, however, here it is quite irrelevant. The memorial may not have been purposely designed to be ugly, but it has most certainly been purposely designed not to be nice. Its goal, like other similar monuments around the world, is to induce feelings of numbness, sorrow, and gloom. In the words of David Adjaye, one of the chief architects behind the project, it has been specifically designed with the goal of ‘disrupting the pleasure of being in a park’.
The Westminster Holocaust Memorial question is, then, really very simple. Currently, Victoria Tower Gardens is a place where millions of Britons, as well as tourists from around the world, go year upon year to enjoy themselves while visiting the mother of all parliaments. The function of the proposed memorial is precisely to impose a note, indeed rather more than a note, of sadness in this place. Either those visiting the park should have their pleasure “disrupted” by a Holocaust memorial, or they should not.
Other arguments in favour of the proposed memorial are almost too specious to mention. It is supposed, somehow, to combat anti-semitism, though there is no plausible mechanism why it should do so, nor any empirical evidence from Holocaust memorials around the world that it will. It is supposed to offer a visible contrast to the Houses of Parliament by standing “as a physical reminder of what can happen when we take democracy for granted”, by virtue of some newly-invented rule whereby every monument must be ‘disrupted’ by its opposite. It is supposed to be a center of Holocaust education, but it adds nothing to the excellent exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, thirty minutes walk away. Indeed, the UK is, by any reasonable measure already well-stocked with institutions dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust, including the National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Notthinghamshire, the Holocaust Gallery in the Jewish Museum, the Wiener Library for the study of the Holocaust and genocide, the Hyde Park Holocaust Memorial, and the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre in Huddersfield.
What these arguments boil down to is that this memorial, which will completely change the landscape of the Houses of Parliament, and overwhelm all other statues and memorials in the park, has a very specific purpose. The Anglo-Jewish establishment wants it as symbolic affirmation of their own centrality to British life by placing Jewish collective trauma right in front of the cradle of democracy.
Whether or not this desire is legitimate in and of itself, the overwhelming volume of opposition that the project received should have been the end of the matter. The project’s backers ought to have realised that they had missed the mark, gone back to the drawing board, and sought either a design more appropriate for the location, or a different site. Instead, they have pursued the route of intimidating opponents with casual allegations of anti-semitism, making it clear that the only way to get on with the Jewish community, in whose name they presume to speak, is to sacrifice a national treasure.
Every human being is liable to err, and the same goes for groups of people too. One particularly common fault is excessive self-regard and blindness to the perspective of others. This is why all of us need critical friends to bring us down to earth from time to time with a well-placed critical word. Unfortunately, the Anglo-Jewish establishment has manoeuvred itself into a psychological state where it is incapable of accepting criticism. While in principle they accept it might be legitimate to criticise individual Jews, they have decided that any criticism of Jews acting collectively to pursue a specifically Jewish cause is ipso facto anti-semitism, a crime for which the only acceptable penitence is permanent withdrawal from public life. It feels good to be immune from criticism, but it isn’t good for you. As a result of shutting out critique, the backers of the project have become tone-deaf, lost contact with reality, and are in the process of disfiguring a place that is part of the collective inheritance of all UK citizens because they cannot see themselves through the eyes of others.
As British Jews, we have enjoyed a good deal for centuries, permitted to preserve – to the extent that we want to – a separate way of life, while no corridor of politics, business, or culture is closed to us. We have enough clout and influence to strong-arm dozens of politicians into publicly supporting the project as the price of proving their friendship. The question is not whether we can, however, but whether we should. Being able to intimidate politicians into acquiescing to unreasonable demands is no doubt tremendously satisfying, but the fact that people are scared to disagree with you in public is not the same thing as actually having friends.
Realistically, there is no chance of opposition from outside the Jewish community being successful. If Anglo-Jewry’s most visible contribution to the UK landscape is not to be an act of ostentatious vandalism on a world heritage site, figures from within the Jewish community must rise up to stop it. Imagine if, tomorrow, Jewish religious, business, and community leaders declare that while they are enormously appreciative of the gesture of good-will made by the UK government, they would rather work on a new proposal that does not impinge so grotesquely on the UK’s national heritage. It would be a kiddush Hashem.