Should we compare the refugee crisis and the Holocaust in the lecture hall?

There is no easy formula for distinguishing between appropriate and inappropriate comparisons, says David Tollerton

September 8, 2015
Refugee camp in Syria (2013)

Like many academics who obsessively follow current affairs, this September’s round of updating teaching resources for the new semester has been intercut with coverage of the growing refugee crisis across Europe. Harrowing images of Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach and fierce debates about Britain’s willingness to take in the displaced loom large in the consciousness.

While preparing to teach a course on cultural responses to the Holocaust, I was suddenly struck by a passage from the latest resource in my teaching armoury: a report entitled Britain’s Promise to Remember: The Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission Report, produced in January of this year amid reflections on the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation.

The crucial passage, taken from opening sections of the executive summary, is worth citing in full:

“Ensuring that the memory and the lessons of the Holocaust are never forgotten lies at the heart of Britain’s values as a nation. In commemorating the Holocaust, Britain remembers the way it proudly stood up to Hitler and provided a home to tens of thousands of survivors and refugees, including almost 10,000 children who came on the Kindertransports. In debating the more challenging elements of Britain’s history – such as the refusal to accept more refugees or the questions over whether more could have been done to disrupt the Final Solution – Britain reflects on its responsibilities in the world today. In educating young people about the Holocaust, Britain reaffirms its commitment to stand up against prejudice and hatred in all its forms.”

Resonances with current debate can be easily felt. In light of the criticism David Cameron has faced from some quarters for his government’s stance on the crisis, is the very prime minister whose commission produced this report now failing to face up to the challenges of history it raises? Does our pride in providing sanctuary to the “almost 10,000 children who came on the Kindertransports” strengthen Yvette Cooper’s much-publicised call for Britain to accept, coincidentally, precisely the same number of refugees from the Middle East?

Yet only a few lines after the passage quoted above, the report warns against drawing “offensive and inappropriate parallels with other political causes”. Comparisons to the Holocaust have long been used to support all manner of political causes, most recently including the rejection of a deal on nuclear weapons with Iran.

The way in which it has come to represent the very darkest potentials of modern societies renders it easy fodder for moral argumentation. And there are rather obvious historical distinctions between the Holocaust and the crises in Syria and elsewhere that lay at root cause of the current situation. A basic student exercise in comparing and contrasting the civil war in Syria with the persecution of Jews by the Nazis would find plenty to put in the column headed “contrasts”.

However, a crucial similarity prompted by the passage above is that Britain is again facing a moral choice regarding how many refugees we should accept into our society. And as with the 1930s, parts of our media are again protesting that we are already overburdened.

Is this an “offensive and inappropriate parallel”? There is no easy and immediate formula that tidily distinguishes between the appropriate and inappropriate. It is a judgement we must wrestle with. But it is nonetheless clear that if the Holocaust’s uniqueness as a historical event is taken to the highest absolute, then its remembrance cannot help enable a situation whereby, as the commission report puts it, “Britain reflects on its responsibilities in the world today”. An event deemed wholly incomparable to all others has correspondingly no relevance to them.

So sensitivity to historical particularities must be balanced with critical allowance that some resonances between past and present may be cited. There will be disagreements about what is appropriate and offensive and they will have to be navigated. But, after reading the commission passage above, I would defend the right to ask students to consider it in relation to current events.

In 70 years’ time, will we feel pride in our treatment of refugees in 2015? Will we be able to cite the decisions made as exemplifying the “heart of Britain’s values as a nation”?

David Tollerton is lecturer in Jewish studies and contemporary biblical cultures at the University of Exeter.

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