It is in the here and now that UK racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, far-right and mainstream, are situated, embedded, and do harm. It should be tackled, not displaced and denied.
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich (centre) and Chelsea Chairman Bruce Buck (left) prior to kick-off, Villa Park, 2009. Neal Simpson/Press Association. All rights reserved.
On 11 October 2018, it was reported that Chelsea Football Club has proposed sending supporters accused of anti-Semitism and racism to Auschwitz-Birkenau as an alternative to banning orders. That action was being taken by the club came as good news for those concerned about the issue in football and particularly at Chelsea, where some of their supporters are known for anti-Semitic chanting and making the ‘hissing’ sound of gas chambers when playing the traditionally Jewish supported Tottenham Hotspur and other teams.
In terms of wider football, less than a week after the Chelsea announcement, West Ham suspended Mark Phillips, who coached their under-18 team, after he attended a march organised by the far-right Democratic Football Lads Alliance.
The Chelsea plan was proposed by team owner, Roman Abramovich, who is himself Jewish, as part of the club’s ‘Say No to Antisemitism’ initiative, in partnership with the Holocaust Educational Trust, which runs the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ programme. According to Chelsea Chairman Bruce Buck: ‘If you just ban people, you will never change their behaviour. This policy gives them the chance to realise what they have done, to make them want to behave better’. The club sent a delegation to Auschwitz for the annual March of the Living in April 2018, and 150 staff and supporters went on a trip in June.
At this stage, it is just Chelsea doing this, but it has also been discussed as a way of approaching the prevention of far-right extremism and de-radicalisation of far-right activists in Britain. It wouldn’t be surprising to see it become more common in the context of the revival of the far-right across North America and Europe, including countries once occupied by the Nazis. However, we are unconvinced and even opposed to the idea for a number of reasons.
While Auschwitz, as well as other concentration, labour and death camps, Holocaust museums and memorial trusts, have long served educational purposes, firstly we question the wisdom of sending racists and anti-Semites, as well as fascists, to such a place – one that is also a solemn memorial and cemetery to the victims of Nazism, and gathering place for survivors and descendants. This offers offenders a free trip to a site of sensitivity to the victims of anti-Semitism as a result of expressing anti-Semitism.
There is also a real risk as Auschwitz is not immune to anti-Semitic acts, including a recent case of three young women giving Sieg Heil salutes at the gate. Like many sites associated with Nazism, it is also a rallying point for the far-right to offend, desecrate or deny. Cases include Holocaust denier David Irving organising tours there and visits from the Magyar Guada (Hungarian Guard) and others.
Secondly, using the Holocaust as a reference point for understanding and addressing cases of anti-Semitism today and in Britain is not unproblematic. It places anti-Semitism in the past, in the extreme and elsewhere, in a different country, locking it into a particular time and space. This can serve to negate the very contemporaneity of the act and the continuous existence of anti-Semitism, as well as its specific history and legacy in Britain, on the far-right and in the mainstream, as well as the links to a wider racism.
There have been ongoing issues throughout the post-war period (including at Chelsea), and earlier. It is not uncommon that racism, particularly in the so-called ‘post-racial’ era is reduced to the illiberal far-right, something ‘we’ in the liberal mainstream defeated, with the far-right reduced to fascism and specifically Nazism, something ‘we’ as a nation defeated in the past.
Yet, even if we have to travel back into history to learn lessons about anti-Semitism, then why not look at Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and the way they were chased out of the East End at the Battle of Cable Street in Whitechapel on Sunday 4 October 1936; or the rise of the National Front in the 1970s and 80s and the British National Party in the 1990s and 2000s. We could go back even further to the conspiracy theories prominent in liberal circles in the nineteenth century, where Jews were blamed for fomenting revolutions; or even to King Edward I’s Edict of Expulsion of Jews from the United Kingdom in 1290. They were not readmitted until 1655. No Nazis required. In the context of Brexit, the Chelsea trip also appears as somewhat ironic, with racism and the far-right seen as ‘a European problem’ historically.
Colonialism missing piece
Thirdly, while the Chelsea situation is more clearly linked to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, the strategy not only skips British fascism and anti-Semitism, but wider racism. It fits too closely with the British use of Nazism and the Holocaust as a distraction from its own historical, foundational and institutional racism, including colonialism and its legacy.
Of particular interest is the way in which Nazism and the Second World War acts on the British popular imagination. The Blitz, D-Day and other specific battles (except Cable Street whose left-wing roots go against the national narrative and hegemonic practices) are commonly used in a hagiographic fashion on TV, in films, popular non-fiction, public ceremonies and school lessons. As such, it constantly reminds the population that ‘we’ defeated racism qua Nazism at a moment when the racist empire was still being held onto, and also when much of the politics leading to fascism had been tried out experimentally in our own liberal societies. The past, when it is dark, truly is another country.
In fact, where colonialism is acknowledged, it is widely seen in a positive manner and is celebrated both in politics and popular culture, particularly in the context of Brexit, where nostalgia for Empire played a significant role. The royal honours are still given ‘of the British Empire’ and films such as Victoria and Abdul (2017) are produced and screened alongside Second World War fare such as Dunkirk (2017) and Darkest Hour (2017). In the context of Brexit, Liam Fox called for the creation of ‘Empire 2.0’, and former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson recited Kipling in Burma (in addition to a number of other racist comments, regularly propagated on his multiple media and political platforms).
In the meantime, criticism of British colonialism and Empire, including its violence, is regularly dismissed and critics attacked as unpatriotic, overly repentant and, in some cases, subjected to racism. This was the case with Priyamvada Gopal when she challenged Nigel Biggar’s Ethics and Empire project and Kehinde Andrews when he criticised former Prime Minister, colonial racist and Nazi fighting war hero Winston Churchill on GMTV. And yet one does not have to look far to find quotes such as that in 1937, when Churchill told the Palestine Royal Commission:
‘I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place’.
He also defended the use of poison gas, bombing and other forms of violence to maintain the Empire. In the context of discussing anti-Semitism and where to find it historically, it is also worth noting Churchill’s unpublished article ‘How the Jews Can Combat Persecution’, from 1937 during the war:
‘It may be that, unwittingly, they are inviting persecution – that they have been partly responsible for the antagonism from which they suffer … There is the feeling that the Jew is an incorrigible alien, that his first loyalty will always be towards his own race’.
Churchill embodies the exchange system between British racism and colonialism and Nazism, with the latter negating the former. In a similar vein, and as is the case with other colonial powers, slavery is rarely acknowledged unless to celebrate its abolition, even though the British not only played a key part in the establishment of the system, but also benefited from it massively and fought tooth and nail to uphold it.
Having said all this, the Holocaust is of course part of our universal, and particularly central to our continental history, and thus should be taught in our education system in those terms as well as part of a wider education on racism and genocide. It should also be taught in communities who espouse anti-Semitic views such as the Chelsea supporters.
In fact, there is excellent Holocaust educational provision in Britain for this, including from the Jewish Museum and the Weiner Library, as well as football focused anti-racist organisations and campaigns such as Show Racism the Red Card and Kick it Out. You do not need to send offenders to Auschwitz.
However, this is not enough if we do not also discuss homegrown fascism and the racism at the core to the colonial system, throughout much of British history actively, honestly and explicitly. We must also move beyond history lessons and engage with the present and the impact of a system built on racism and exclusion in our society. The Nazis were defeated, but fascism and racism were not.
The ‘hostile environment’ bites back
In addition to ongoing structural and institutional racial inequality, we are currently experiencing an increase in hate crime and far-right activism as well as a normalisation and mainstreaming of racism and the far right in Britain and across much of the west. It is not a foreign, far-right or football phenomenon. The Tory Government sent around Go Home Vans and created a ‘Hostile Environment’ for immigrants and stigmatised Muslims and legitimised Islamophobia through Prevent.
Refugees have also been subjected to suspicion, demonisation, accusations, medical tests and left to drown in the Mediterranean, locked up in detention centres or deported (including those belonging to the Windrush Generation).
This is occurring in a country that lays claim to the Kindertransport rescue of Jewish children from Nazism as part of its history. Ironically, even with the focus on the Holocaust and Nazism, the lessons have not been learned here in Britain in the mainstream.
During the Brexit campaign, Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign group used a Nazi-esque image of refugees crossing from Croatia to Slovenia in 2015 with a banner reading ‘Breaking Point: the EU has failed us all’. More recently, only days after the Chelsea news, Farage discussed the disproportionate power of the ‘Jewish lobby’ in America on his LBC radio show, one of several mainstream media platforms – the BBC is another – that he has appeared on.
While history can teach us much, it is in the here and now that racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, on the far-right and in the mainstream, are situated, embedded, do harm, and should be tackled., This needs to be acknowledged and addressed, not displaced and denied.
First published on Open Democracy