How David Cameron’s London Holocaust memorial turned to a battle of wills

At the heart of this shift is the fundamental change that has hit Britain’s political climate over the three years following the plan’s conception.

March 12, 2019 04:27
4 minute read.
How David Cameron’s London Holocaust memorial turned to a battle of wills

David M. Rubenstein (L), co-founder and co-chief executive officer at The Carlyle Group, holds a discussion with former British Prime Minister David Cameron during the SALT conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. May 17, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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In 2016, then-prime minister David Cameron announced a project to build a “striking” Holocaust memorial at the heart of Britain’s capital. The idea of commemorating Europe’s worst genocide was well received by the House and Jewish bodies. It was the location of the monument, “beside the houses of parliament” that proved to be a serious bone of contention.

To Cameron, the purposely chosen Westminster location was to “act as a permanent statement” of Britain’s “values as a nation,” resonating for “generations to come.” Some opponents however, saw it as yet another example of “Jewish lobby’s” alleged stranglehold over British politics.

Residents’ legitimate concerns over noise levels and preserving Victoria Tower Gardens’ green space, were soon overtaken by what Christians United for Israel (CUFI) describe as a “sinister” antisemitic tone.

It seems like Cameron’s attempt to educate the public about “the darkest hour of humanity” has brought poisonous antisemitic sentiments to the fore, and unintentionally turned the monument into a symbol of ideological struggle that both sides are determined to win.

Three years on, the discussion has shifted from residents’ concerns over quality of life, to age-old conspiracy theories and the rising plague of antisemitism.

At the heart of this shift is the fundamental change that has hit Britain’s political climate over the three years following the plan’s conception.

In 2019 Britain, antisemitism is an integral part of the news agenda and the number of antisemitic attacks stands at an all-time high. The troubled Labour party is to be investigated by the Equalities and human rights commission for “unlawfully discriminating against people because of their ethnicity and religious beliefs,” whilst Britain’s Jewish community is reported to be anxious over future developments. Forty percent of British Jews have in fact stated in a Jewish Chronicle poll they will “seriously consider emigrating” should Jeremy Corbyn come to power. Survey after survey reveals youth’s ignorance about the Jewish Holocaust with alarming statistics showing one in 20 British adults deny it ever happened, and 8% believing the stated figure of 6 million Jewish victims to be a lie.

Three years on, the planning permission is at risk of not being granted, prompting Mayor Sadiq Khan, a member of the jury which selected the winning design, to voice concern over the potential demise of a “vital symbol against all forms of hatred.”

As things stand, supporters of the monument blame its challengers for raising arguments that bear no hold in reality.

Calls for the memorial to be moved to a less “politically charged” location for example, are met by the likes of Daniel Filkenstein who argues that “while there may be other prominent places, there are few as good as Victoria Tower Gardens.” The close proximity to Parliament “means the memorial is a political monument, not merely an historical curiosity.” A view supported by The Guardian’s Rowan Moore, who sees the proximity to London’s palace of Westminster as a “reminder to decision-makers of the future.”

Talk of the pastoral nature of the area being destroyed is refuted by the award-winning team (architect David Adjaye, designer Ron Arad and landscape architect Gustafson Porter Bowman) whose efforts have ensured that the serenity of the green space is maintained.

“The proposals have been developed with great sensitivity to the existing context and character of the Gardens,” confirms the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation. Only 7% of the park grounds is employed for the monument, the new digital education center is to be housed underground and contrary to some reports, the trees that line the park will remain untouched.

The Imperial War Museum’s concern that the education center will compete with its own planned digital center, is responded to with the confident assertion that both centers will be in demand and of great educational value to visitors.

UNESCO’s worry over the 23 tall bronze “fins” disrupting the view is dismissed with the uncompromising explanation of the monument’s scale being essential to its message hitting home.

This is a golden opportunity for Britain to create a “garden of conscience,” says Finkelstein, as the garden already houses Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais, a statue of the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and the Buxton memorial to the abolition of slavery. A sentiment also shared by Moore who sees the case for placing a Holocaust memorial in existing monuments’ company, but at the same time worries that the holocaust memorial’s “disproportionate scale blows them away.”

To Jewish bodies ranging from the Campaign Against Antisemitism to Christians United For Israel, the need to make a stand against antisemitism overrides all others. CUFI claims to have “seen evidence of antisemitism from some opponents,” including “conspiracy theories about Jews trying to claim the site and impose their will on the government,” claims that the memorial was designed to spread “Zionist propaganda” and objections on the grounds of “politics” and “Palestine.”

With just days to go before the planning permission deadline, the government’s Holocaust Memorial Foundation – which is spearheading this development – is of the belief that “the national Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre will reaffirm Britain’s commitment to stand up against antisemitism, prejudice and hatred in all its forms.”

For the likes of CUFI the choice is clear, boiling down to one question: “Is 7% of Victoria Tower Gardens worth more than honoring the 6 million Jews who were brutally murdered during the Holocaust, and the hundreds of thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers also lost their lives?”

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