LONDON — British Prime Minister David Cameron, who two weeks ago lost a vote in Parliament calling for military intervention in Syria, said he had wanted to act because of the lessons of the Holocaust.
“The horror of the Holocaust is unique but the lessons we learn from it are absolutely applicable right across our society at home and abroad. In particular, the lesson of not standing by,” he told 500 guests at an appeal dinner marking the 25th anniversary of the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) Monday night.
He suggested that those who opposed taking action will feel “shame” in the future.
“It’s an extraordinary human emotion but somehow when genocide is taking place, the shame of not acting sometimes doesn’t quite register properly until afterwards,” he said. “When we look back at Srebrenica or Rwanda, we wonder now why we didn’t do more at the time. When something truly terrible happens, it’s almost as if we put up a defense mechanism and try and rationalize why we are powerless to act. The same could so easily be said of Syria.”
Describing his horror as he watched the videos of “those children being gassed to death by President Assad’s regime” while on holiday this summer, Cameron seemed to contrast his reaction with that of Jewish Opposition leader Ed Miliband, who led the vote against military action. He asked: “What was my instinct? It wasn’t to say, what’s the best way politically to secure… advantage. It was to say, what is the best way for my country to stand up. Because Britain is not the sort of country that wants to stand by.”
Although his plans for military intervention were blocked, he felt taking a stand had been worthwhile.
‘Let us not pretend that Syria would now be promising to give up its chemical weapons if the world had just stood by and said nothing’
“Let us not pretend that Syria would now be promising to give up its chemical weapons if the world had just stood by and said nothing.”
Before his address, Cameron met with four Holocaust survivors and during the course of the evening he announced several initiatives to strengthen Holocaust education and commemoration in the UK, including a personal pledge to “do my part” by visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau during 2014.
The government will give an additional £300,000 ($477,000) to an HET program that sends two students from every high school in the UK to the Nazi camp each year, bringing its total investment to £1.85 million. Over the past 14 years, over 21,000 students and teachers have participated in the Lessons from Auschwitz project.
Cameron also announced the establishment of a multi-faith, cross-party national commission to investigate whether Britain should have a “permanent and fitting” Holocaust memorial, and will personally chair its first meeting later this year.
“At a time when anti-Semitism is returning in some parts of mainland Europe, it is more important than ever that – as a whole country — we do everything possible to make sure that the memory of the Holocaust is preserved from generation to generation,” he said.
He strongly attacked Holocaust denial and “those who try to draw completely inappropriate parallels with other political causes.” On the domestic front, he said he would fight “pure discrimination” because that is where the Holocaust began.
“That means banning preachers of hate from coming to our country, it means proscribing organizations that incite terrorism, it means stopping extremist groups from getting an audience on our university campuses,” he said. “It means universities themselves ensuring a clear line between free speech which we all support and which is a fundamental right, and intimidation, which is fundamentally wrong. And it means a bit less of the hands-off tolerance that makes us too cautious, or frankly even fearful as a society, to stand up to those who hold unacceptable views or pursue unacceptable practices.”