I WENT to Edinburgh University in 1985. At that time, it was only 40 years since the end of the Second World War. It seems extraordinary that it is almost 40 years ago from now.
Everyone smoked. Everyone went to the pub. It was cheap. I was on a student grant supplemented by benefits in the holidays and the occasional job, but if you were reasonably careful going out wasn’t a problem. The idea that Scotland might become independent didn’t occur to us.
In 1985 everyone at university was white. There were hardly any foreign students. The only people from ethnic minorities I met ran shops or takeaways.
There was casual racism, but no one had heard of the concept of Islamophobia. We weren’t scared of the pleasant owners of corner shops. We had no more fear or hatred of Islam than we had of Hinduism.
For the same reason anti-Semitism did not exist. The old-style anti-Semitism that you come across in pre-war novels had been destroyed by the films of the Holocaust and by the understanding that such attitudes had contributed to the deaths of 6million Jews. For this reason, the Holocaust was not controversial. It was something you knew about because of TV documentaries such as The World at War. I don’t remember it being taught in school. Everyone who was educated knew at least the basics and accepted them.
The continued battle between Israel and Palestine was incredibly distant back then. We ignored the Troubles in Northern Ireland as best we could, let alone the Middle East. No one went on marches about Palestine. We wanted higher grants. I didn’t once see either a Palestinian or Israeli flag. This was a conflict you read about in newspapers and books – if at all.
There was an arts cinema in Edinburgh where you could go in the afternoon for 50 pence. I was a film fanatic and so I would go very often. It was completely uncontroversial that this cinema would show Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour documentary Shoah. I learned the Hebrew word for the first time. People with all political viewpoints went to see this film. There were no demonstrations outside. No comparisons were made with the deaths of anyone else or any other genocides.
I watched Shoah again not long ago. It is a completely shattering experience. It’s entirely witness testimony. People filmed on camera telling what they saw and what they did.
The Holocaust was not contested in 1985. It was politically neutral. It didn’t matter who you were or who you voted for. It didn’t matter what if anything you thought about Israel. It is this that has changed in the last forty years.
The conflict between Israel and Palestine is no longer far away, it is right here, right now. It’s partly due to the internet and social media, but the real difference is that the people who now go on marches did not exist in 1985. The left were concerned with getting rid of Thatcher. Islamism was still to emerge.
The Middle East conflict from 1948 until 1985 had been a largely secular battle. The PLO and the Arab states that fought against Israel were motivated primarily by Arab nationalism rather than Islam.
The PLO’s form of terrorism was not at that time suicide bombing. The terrorists wanted to survive, so they hijacked planes. They didn’t talk about Jihad. If they took hostages, they didn’t chop their heads off. They didn’t fly planes into buildings.
It was, I think, Iran that turned the Israeli-Palestine struggle and the wider fight with the West into one between Islam and Judaism and then Islam and Christianity. It is this too that means where previously in Edinburgh in 1985 there were no demonstrators, nor indeed in London, now there are hundreds of thousands, many motivated by their religious beliefs.
It is this above all that has made the Holocaust controversial and a political matter. Previously there were a tiny number of extreme right-wingers who denied the Holocaust because they were concerned that the reputation of the Hitler and the Nazis would be damaged. Now we have a different form of Holocaust denial, but which is motivated also by political reasons.
Palestinian nationalism contests the Holocaust by relativising it. It uses the history of the Holocaust to exaggerate the suffering of the Palestinians and to justify present-day attacks on the Jews. Thus, by comparing the Warsaw Ghetto to Gaza, or the accidental deaths of civilians in warfare to Auschwitz, or indeed by describing the whole Israel-Palestine conflict as Jews committing genocide against Palestinians, the goal is to minimise the Holocaust.
Worse, Palestinian nationalists support an organisation, Hamas, that wishes to recreate the Holocaust, only this time with more efficiency and with more enjoyment. The reason is that Palestinian nationalism is motivated now by Islamism and the supposed Muslim duty to take back land that was once part of the Dar al-Islam (house of Islam) and which is now ruled by Jews.
The left in 1985 was still mainly interested in replacing capitalism with socialism, but the embrace of critical race theory and its hierarchy of victimhood, means that the left is mainly interested now with replacing Jews with Palestinians all the way from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea.
Here we have a new form of a Holocaust denial. It depends on context. People are allowed to support genocide against Jews if it is part of the righteous struggle of the Palestinians against oppressors and colonisers. On this basis the Germans could have justified the Holocaust by saying that the Jews colonised Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages when they were kicked out of Paris in 1182, England in 1290 and Spain in 1492.
It is bad enough that a film like Shoah would today be relativised and minimised. Why are you upset about Treblinka? Something much worse is happening in Gaza and it’s happening now. What’s infinitely worse is that instead of being the province of a few far-right extremists, Holocaust denial has gone mainstream to the extent that vast numbers in Britain support Hamas, who think the only mistake the Nazis made was that they did not kill enough Jews and who view it as their religious duty to finish the job.
This article appeared in Country Squire Magazine on December 18, 2023, and is republished by kind permission.