Dear Student Union Executive Members,
Why do I compose such a preamble, you may ask? I do so because what I am about to write will be a criticism of your union and its members, mainly over two resolutions you have reached in September and October of this year. I have described my familiarity with non-British cultures to deflect any response that may accuse me of being a knee-jerk imperialist or monoculturalist. That would make it too easy to dismiss me. I approach you on the assumption that, as university students, you may be capable of engaging in some form of dialogue, may be able to rethink your own positions, and may see that yours is not the only meaningful viewpoint on the topics I am about to write about.
I have just come from reading a number of press reports detailing your recent vote, dissociating yourselves from the observance of Holocaust Memorial Day, European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism, Holodomor [Ukrainian] Memorial Day Act and Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day’ . It seems that the reason for this deranged rejection is that the motion was, in the applauding words of your Education Officer, Sarah El-alfy, that it was ‘Eurocentric’. Another of your students tweeting under ‘Defy’ wrote ‘This is a colonialist motion. Vote it down’, and again: ‘White people should not be proposing motions condemning genocide without a lot of thought. This does not have that thought’.
This means that we should not condemn or commemorate the deaths of 6 million Jews and countless homosexuals, Gypsies and others under the Third Reich, the millions (perhaps as many as 61 million) who were massacred under Stalin, the Ukrainians killed by Russian forces, or the Armenians slaughtered under the Ottoman Empire. What on earth is ‘colonialist’ about such commemorations? They are condemnations of the cruel empires that colonized entire countries and claimed the right to kill, expel, or imprison at whim: the Nazi empire across Europe, the Soviet empire across Russia and Eastern Europe, the Ottoman Empire that oppressed most of the Middle East. The British killed 1 million of my fellow-countrymen and caused another 1 million to go abroad during the Potato Famine, and my country commemorates that genocide once a year. Is that also ‘colonialist”?
And what is so terrible about being ‘Eurocentric’. Of course it’s Eurocentric. We all live in Europe, most of us were born there, and Europe has been at the centre of innumerable wars and genocides. Is it realistic not to be Eurocentric in this way? Will you condemn the Arab League for being Arabocentric? Or do you criticize any other groups for focussing on their region or continent: the African Union? The Asian Cooperation Dialogue? The Pacific Islands Forum? The Organization of American States. The Arab Maghreb Union? Or the Community of Portuguese Language Countries that focuses on one language to the detriment of others from Brazil to Europe to Africa to Asia?
I take grave exception to defy's comments. (defy cisnormativity@drcab1e)
The immaturity and political naïvety expressed in those comment and in the vote itself betrays something dangerously dehumanizing, racist, and deplorable among members of your Union. Such knee-jerk rejectionism would have been jeered soundly by students in my university years. It is absolutely meaningless posturing. We in the UK are part of Europe, something we have been from the dawn of time. Why on earth should it be deplorable if we seek to memorialize and condemn genocide committed by Europeans in Europe? Is it a crime to show our embrace of humanity, our concern for the victims of Nazi, Soviet and other brutality in the countries where we live and in the last days when survivors of the Holocaust are still able to tell us face to face just how many loved ones were taken from them and gassed to death and to stand before mankind as witnesses of brutality and cruelty beyond measure. In what way did that motion preclude commemorations at suitable times and in suitable places for genocides in many countries? The 85 to 100 million killed under Communist regimes under the Soviet Union (perhaps as many as 61 million), in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, in China under Mao, in Rwanda, the many who died under Japanese rule during World War II, in Nigeria, in Congo, in Ethiopia, and on and on.
Let me return to the Nazi Holocaust, which took the largest total of lives within a short period. It has a significance that merits worldwide commemoration. The Third Reich represented the breakdown of European values, values that had been sorely tested in the First World War. A war was a terrible thing, but what the Nazis did to innocent civilians in war and the utter barbarity of what they did to the Jews during the Holocaust, by bullet and noose and, above all, by gas, ripped apart all our beliefs about mankind’s basic sense of morality, for there was no morality in the Nazi system. A single race was singled out for slaughter, and that slaughter was one of the worst things that ever happened in human history. You are, I am sure, all anti-racists, yet here was the greatest act of racist violence of all time, yet your members voted not to commemorate it for thoroughly spurious reasons. What on earth brought you to this? Political Correctness? What can possibly be correct in refusing to recognize, commemorate victims, and condemn perpetrators of racism? By refusing to do these things, your Union just became complicit in Nazi racism.
None of you will remember, as I do, life in the 1950s, when people everywhere became aware of what had happened in the Nazi concentration camps and the death camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bełżec, Sobibór and elsewhere. I vividly remember the moment, in my teens, when the Czech dance instructor in my drama school, rolled up her sleeve and exposed the tattoos on her arm. Many year later, when she published her memoir, I understood the terrors she had gone through as a young woman, losing most of her family in the camps, but surviving and leaving Terezin to be a witness of the horrors she had seen. In Ireland, she married a new husband and raised a new family. She remains one of the most impressive people I have ever known. She suffered in Europe and she found a home in a different part of Europe. Just as Sarah El-alfy, an Egyptian, and so many in your college, have found a welcome in the UK. Europe is not what matters. This is about humanity, and it troubles me that members of your Union did not take that into account when they voted. This year, we commemorate the start of the First World War. Not all wars but one particular war that cost the lives of millions in Europe and the Middle East. Different countries will commemorate those events in their own ways (though I am unaware of any memorials in Middle Eastern countries), but they all commemorate the same thing: a disastrous breakdown in international affairs. British, French, Germans and others memorialize, not victory or defeat, but the cruelty and waste of war.
If Goldsmiths’ students cannot find it in their hearts to commemorate one of history’s greatest tragedies, then something is wrong in those hearts. To allow political correctness and an unbalanced sense of multiculturalism to dissuade students from bowing their heads out of grief for the dead in the Holocaust, in the Ukraine or Turkey is to undermine the very principles on which those values are based. Political correctness, though unnaturally politicized, stands among other things for the proper treatment of people regardless of race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or religious belief. You know all this. In that case, what do accusations of Eurocentrism tell us, by saying it is somehow wrong to belong to Europe or to want to commemorate the evil of the Nazis and to celebrate the humanity of those many who helped Jews and others hide from their persecutors and to live to tell their tales, crying ‘never again’. If people like Ms El-alfy and ‘Defy’ have their way, it will happen again, and the signs of that possibility are clear in the present rise of renewed anti-semitism across Europe and the Middle East. If we do not commemorate, we will lose our memory, and all those witnesses who are slowly passing from the face of the earth might as well never have borne witness to evil. And when a veil is drawn over evil deeds, we will forget and some will do it all again.
Political correctness, so commendable in its origins, has become a tool with which to distort reasonable debate, and this is particularly true in today’s universities. At the recent NUS NEC meeting on 16th September, a very worthwhile motion that called for solidarity with Iraqis and Kurds, asking for support for Yazidis and others caught up in the present round of violence, and identifying a pressing need to help them by opposing the barbaric Islamic State (al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi’l-’Iraq wa’l-Sham, Da’ish) was voted down because an idiotic representative claimed it was ‘Islamophobic’. As an Islamicist of over forty years’ experience, I can assure you that not a single word in the motion was even remotely ‘Islamophobia’. Saying it was would suggest either that ISIS and its barbarity are Islamic and must, therefore, never be criticized, or that the majority of Muslims who who openly condemn Da’ish are wrong and are, perhaps, themselves Islamophobes.
These two votes, cancelling fair and democratic motions based on principle, cannot be interpreted in any way as anything but bigotry. If a concern for things that happened in Europe or Armenia is ‘Eurocentric’ and a statement of solidarity with oppressed minorities, including many Muslims, in the Middle East is ‘Islamophobic’, then rationality has departed. Students studying in the context of values they have inherited from the Enlightenment (another European creation) are no longer capable of anything but doctrinaire, bigoted and politically extreme thinking. Liberal democracy, which grants you all the right to study freely, to debate openly, and to reach conclusions without being forced, is at risk from precisely those people who enjoy those benefits in the fullest.
It is, I believe, your duty, in tandem with the NUS Executive, to teach students in general the real meaning of the Holocaust and other genocides, the correct nature of Islamophobia, and, if I may add, the facts behind the Israel-Palestinian conflict, where myths and outright lies (‘Israel is an Apartheid State’ ‘Israel is a Nazi State’ ‘Israelis steal the organs of Arabs’ etc) have replaced historical fact and political reality. Ill-informed, rhetorical and knee-jerk opinions should have no space in an institution dedicated to the advance of knowledge.
Students like yourselves are at a crossroads. Which path you decide to take will have consequences, not just for yourselves or the world in which you live, but for future generations. If you cannot bring yourselves to commemorate the Holocaust, your children and grandchildren will forget it ever happened and will open the gate to future Holocausts of Jews, non-Muslims, of the citizens of countries that were once beacons of freedom.
Dr. Denis MacEoin
Distinguished Senior Fellow, the Gatestone Institute
Senior Fellow, The Middle East Forum