The daughter of Holocaust survivors who now runs a Jewish-Christian dialogue has raised strong objections to plans for a Holocaust memorial in Westminster over fears that it could exacerbate anti-Semitism.
Dr Irene Lancaster, Chair of the Broughton Park Jewish Christian Dialogue Group in Salford, questioned the proposals for a multimillion pound memorial to sit alongside a Holocaust education centre in Victoria Tower Gardens.
The gardens are a small Grade II listed park sitting directly adjacent to the Houses of Parliament on the banks of the River Thames, and housing a number of important monuments, including the Buxton Memorial celebrating the abolition of slavery.
The memorial, to be dedicated to the memory of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, is backed by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who told Westminster Council that in the face of rising anti-Semitism, the memorial would “make a powerful national statement”.
The current Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, is another supporter, who has said that the memorial would stop the “atrocities of the past” disappearing from memory and “add significantly to the status of the City of Westminster as a place of government that is a world model”.
However, Dr Lancaster said that the proposals appeared to have a “focus on the superficial, rather than the meaningful” and that Holocaust education in schools would be a far more effective way of addressing anti-Semitism.
“This project is expected to cost £102m, but much of that won’t even go into education,” she said.
“It will go into all the engineering work required to build in a small riverside park – reinforcing flood defences, protecting tree roots, etc. All for the sake of ‘making a statement’.
“How much more meaningful it would be, and how much cheaper, to ensure that every schoolchild is introduced to the works of [Holocaust survivors] Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel.
“That would be quieter, subtler and less in-your-face, but would be so much more effective in ‘reminding us what can happen when hatred is left unchecked.”
Dr Lancaster said that it was “wrong” of supporters to suggest that opposition to the plans was anti-Semitic as there were many Jewish people harbouring concerns over the memorial.
Jewish historian, Professor Geoffrey Alderman, from the University of Buckingham, has voiced alarm over the cost of the proposals in a letter to The Times.
“The argument that the memorial will act as an antidote to anti-Semitism is preposterous,” he said. “The eyewatering sums of money involved can be put to much more deserving uses.”
Dr Lancaster said she feared that the memorial could have the opposite effect of alleviating anti-Semitism and even lead to an increase in attacks.
“Similar memorials haven’t worked in continental Europe,” she said. “The structure that is being put forward will actually cause rather than prevent anti-Semitism.”
She said there was “superb” work already being done on the Holocaust by the Imperial War Museum just across the River Thames, which is building brand new multimillion pound World War II and Holocaust Galleries, due to be opened in 2021.
The Duke of Cambridge, President of the Imperial War Museums Foundation, was at the museum recently to view plans for the £30m galleries.
The campaign group Save Victoria Tower Gardens has echoed these sentiments, saying that the construction of two Holocaust learning centres within such close proximity of each other “would inevitably entail considerable overlap”.
It said that the “impressive” planned galleries at the Imperial War Museum would “explain better” the connection between the Holocaust and World War II, and that the millions earmarked for the Victoria Tower Gardens memorial would be better spent on education.
“The Government has pledged £50 million of public money to create this memorial and learning centre. We think this money should be spent on Holocaust education nationally,” it said.
It has been estimated that if the Victoria Tower Gardens memorial is given the go ahead, it will attract an extra million visitors a year to the park.
Extremism expert Adrian Tudway has warned that it could make the park an attractive target for terrorists.
“The proposal to site [it] in such close proximity to Parliament, with the television news cameras of the BBC, Sky, and ITV yards away at 4 Millbank, would make it a high value target for those individuals wishing to promote their cause on the world stage,” he was quoted as saying by MyLondon.
Westminster has already suffered terrorist attacks. In 2017, five people were killed and 50 injured during an attack on Westminster Bridge.
Several distinguished bodies have raised concerns about the impact on the environment and surrounding heritage.
Royal Parks, which manages the site, said there would be “significant harmful impacts” in building the Holocaust memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens.
“The structure will dominate the park and eclipse the existing listed memorials which are nationally important in their own right,” it said in a letter to Westminster Council.
Historic England said it feared that the memorial would have a “significant impact on the heritage of this relatively small site” and “fundamentally change its character”.
“We support having a UK Holocaust Memorial, however we believe that the proposals in this location would cause serious harm to the significance of the historic Victoria Tower Gardens, the listed Buxton Memorial, and the Westminster Abbey and Parliament Square Conservation Area,” it said.
Other objections have come from UNESCO’s International Council on Monuments and Sites, which has weighed in due to Westminster’s World Heritage Site status.
“The current plans would result in the gardens being dominated by the memorial, its bulky entrance pavilion, enclosed forecourt and hard landscaping, as well as the forecast one million visitors a year,” it said.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has expressed some sympathy with those questioning whether the proposals put forward are the best way to memorialise the Holocaust.
“We must be realistic about what it entails and how to communicate effectively and challengingly, and we mustn’t expect it to solve all problems about anti-Jewish prejudice in a simple way,” he said.
He added: “There are obvious drawbacks to the proposed location, given the limited space, jostling up against other significant memorials, and putting some pressure on public amenities in a crowded area.”
Last month, The Times reported that the memorial plans are headed for rejection.
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