Many organizations were expected to attend Britain’s national Holocaust Memorial Day this year — but one was expected to be conspicuously absent. Thursday’s event, slated for London’s Westminster Hall and for primetime broadcast on BBC television, was to be attended by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip — after they host Holocaust survivors at St. James Palace earlier in the day — as well as Prime Minister Tony Blair and more than 600 Holocaust survivors and their British army liberators.
But the Muslim Council of Britain, the U.K.’s largest representative Muslim body, was expected to boycott the high-profile occasion, claiming it fails to recognize the “creeping genocide” they claim Israel is perpetrating against the Palestinians.
While acknowledging the pain and anguish felt by British Jews, the council’s secretary-general, Iqbal Sacranie, said, “We have expressed our unwillingness to attend the ceremony because it excludes ongoing genocide and human rights abuses around the world and in the occupied territories of Palestine.”
This was the fifth year that the council refused to participate in the commemoration, but Jewish groups found it particularly callous on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
The council’s claim that the memorial day isn’t comprehensive enough was rejected emphatically by Jewish community figures and those involved with the commemoration, which since its 2001 launch consistently has stressed the importance of also remembering atrocities elsewhere.
Last year, for example, the commemorations were linked to the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.
The “commemorations have always maintained a universal focus, and are aimed at educating everyone about the dangers of all forms of discrimination,” said a spokesman for the Board of Deputies, the representative body of British Jewry. Although the council has “declined the opportunity to be represented at the commemorations, Muslim groups and individuals across the U.K. will be participating” in memorial events.
But Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the council, which represents more than 400 Muslim organizations, said the group reflects a widely held view among British Muslims that Holocaust commemorations should be more inclusive.
“In the Muslim community it is quite important that Palestine is recognized for its ongoing suffering,” he said. “We would say it’s a creeping genocide, the gradual strangling of an entire nation and the manifestation of an injustice done to an entire people. The cry ‘never again’ has to be for all people.”
That attitude was especially shocking because it comes from a mainstream organization, said Peter Sheldon, president of United Synagogue, an umbrella group representing 65 British shuls.
“It showed the depth of the antagonism,” he said. “I am sure there are very many moderate Muslims who respect what the Holocaust meant, and means, but I fear there are not enough of them.”
Some Muslim groups indeed were more conciliatory.
Gul Mohammad, general secretary of the British Muslim Forum, an emerging group representing some 600 mosques, distanced his organization from the council’s planned boycott.
“Holocaust Memorial Day is an opportunity for all sections of British society to recognize and reflect on a unique moment in our recent history when normal human values were abandoned and mechanized killing on an incomprehensible scale became the norm,” Mohammad said. “Although the Jewish community was the principal target, many other communities also suffered, either for being different, or for being considered less than perfect.”
The day’s message “to combat racism, to challenge our perceptions and stereotypes of ‘the other,’ to teach that tolerance and inclusion are vital to democracy, are ones that we must wholeheartedly repeat, if we are ever to understand ‘why’ and build a better future for ourselves and our children,” he said.
A spokesman for the Israeli embassy in London rejected the council’s boycott as a “repulsive attempt to politicize the Holocaust that has no parallels in history.”
Some Jewish community members have warned that the council’s stance is a sign of the increasing radicalization of the Muslim community in Britain. With groups such as the Muslim Association of Britain — whose leaders refuse to condemn suicide bombings in Israel — and the political lobby group Mpac rising in popularity, the council may shift its policies to become more extreme, Jewish officials warn.
“It’s a problem that interfaith dialogue and diplomacy has been unable to address,” said Eric Moonman, president of Britain’s Zionist Federation.
“Whatever the immediate outcome of the Muslim attitude it will be damaging to them personally,” he said. “The leadership is making these pronouncements but they are on very dangerous ground, and will begin to lose respect from the wider community.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.