Mary Dejevsky

Is a national Holocaust memorial still a good idea?

Victoria Tower Gardens - the intended site for the national Holocaust memorial (Credit: Getty images)

Whatever the fate of the ceasefire and hostage exchange between Israel and Hamas, the latest conflict in the Middle East is reverberating far beyond the region. Recent weeks have seen hundreds of thousands of people march through European and American cities in support of either side. Flag-waving protesters were out in London again this weekend: pro-Palestinians on Saturday, those against anti-Semitism on Sunday.  

In London, though, it is not just on the streets where this conflict is resonating. It is sharpening a dispute that has simmered for the best part of eight years over plans to construct a national Holocaust memorial and learning centre in a small park adjacent to Parliament. 

Some British Jews opposed such a prominent memorial from early on over security concerns

The project was initiated in 2015, with the blessing of the then prime minister, David Cameron. It had a stuttering start. There were objections to the design, which includes a series of huge bronze fins, and to the proposed site: Victoria Tower Gardens, a place favoured as much for dog-walking as for political interviews. 

When Westminster Council made known that it was unlikely to grant planning permission, the application was taken over by central government and submitted to a special planning inquiry. I was among many local residents who testified (by Zoom, during Covid lockdown) against the proposal. We argued that it would remove a well-used local amenity, flouted local and national policy on green spaces, and lacked all respect for the surroundings. 

Those testifying included MPs, peers, historians, families of Holocaust survivors, as well as tree-root and flooding specialists. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, supported the project. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Rowan Williams, opposed it. There were leading members of the UK’s Jewish community on both sides. 

When the planning inspector gave his approval – as it seemed to me quite against the grain of the inquiry – it was reversed on appeal by the High Court, which unearthed an 1900 Act, protecting the park as a public space. Those who had hoped that this court judgment would offer ministers an elegant way out, however, were wrong. 

At the start of this year, the government, by now in the hands of Rishi Sunak, decided to legislate against the pesky Victorian law that had designated the site a public garden. Ten months later, against a foreign political background that was suddenly transformed, this intention was enshrined in the King’s Speech. 

On 5 November, just a month after the Hamas atrocities against Israelis – and so inevitably in their shadow – the King read: ‘My government is committed to tackling anti-Semitism and ensuring that the Holocaust is never forgotten. A Bill will progress the construction of a national Holocaust memorial and learning centre in Victoria Tower Gardens’. It now looks less likely than ever that the project will be cancelled or relocated, but the arguments, and the stakes, are a good deal higher now than they were before October. 

It should be clarified at this point that the differences thus far have been less about the merits of a national Holocaust memorial per se than about where it might go. There were, however, those at the inquiry who asked why the UK needed such an edifice at all, and others who objected that a learning centre risked duplicating the just-opened Holocaust galleries at the Imperial War Museum. This could change, however. 

The latest violence between Israel and Palestinians, and the way that it has played back in the UK, is giving new succour to both sides in the argument. Watching the huge numbers coming out in support of Palestinians – and implicitly (or explicitly) against Israel – it is possible to conclude that the ‘lessons’ of the Holocaust have either not been learned or have been lost on today’s younger generation. A striking new national memorial and learning centre might be just what is needed to help those with no memory or family history of the Nazi genocide understand the experience of Jews. A site beside Parliament, juxtaposing the seat of democracy and a monument to its destructive opposite, would drive the message home more effectively than a memorial on any other site. 

But the very same pro-Palestinian demonstrations could invite quite different conclusions, with the site and the design taking on quite a different perspective. Put together the size of the pro-Palestinian marches and the reluctance, as some would see it, of the police and politicians to enforce the law, and you could conclude that a demonstrative national Holocaust memorial risks becoming a focus for disorder.  

Some British Jews opposed such a prominent memorial from early on for exactly such reasons. Security concerns were a central point made to the planning inquiry by Lord Carlile, a former independent reviewer of terrorism laws, who described the proposed complex as potentially creating a ‘trophy site’ for terrorists. The marches of recent weeks suggest that any such memorial could be a target not just for terrorists, but for anti-Israel sentiment more broadly, and that its proximity to Parliament would make it the perfect place for political rallies.

Such a memorial would need solid protection 24/7, and that part of the park that was supposed to remain a public space would be closed off to casual visitors. It would become just another section of the parliamentary estate, with the current feel of a locale where people both live as well as work being lost. 

Of course, it could be argued in turn that not to build the memorial, either here or at all, would be tantamount to giving in – if not to terrorists, then to opponents of Israel, including anti-Semites. Given the passions now raised on either side, however, it hard to see how the construction of an imposing new Holocaust memorial could be a realistic proposition. 

The authors of this project are now even more damned if they do and damned if they don’t than they were at the outset. And the cost to the taxpayer – who will be forced to foot the bill for maintenance, and inevitably security, in perpetuity – will only balloon. 

Compared with the real wars currently raging, the controversy around a national Holocaust memorial has so far been relatively discreet and may look trivial. As the Bill eliminating the last obstacles makes its way through parliament, however, with cross-party support and the King’s say-so, discussion could quickly become more heated. It could reach a point where the whole project becomes a serious source of inter-communal discord. 

So far, advocates of the memorial and learning centre have declined to give ground, either on the project itself or the location. The political will to build it remains strong. But that could change, as recent events prompt new and more problematical questions. 

Will this government or the next be prepared to commit to an open-ended bill for security? And what about the disruption to local life? What if the site becomes a focus for division rather than understanding, as well it might?