Jackie Slesenger: Harmonious race relations are being damaged and may take years to repair

The former Lord Mayor of Newcastle on why Jewish members have resigned from the city's Holocaust Memorial Day Working Group

Auschwitz in Poland
Auschwitz in Poland

On November 6 this newspaper published a letter from Labour Party activist, N.Brodin, which attacked Maureen Lipman for denouncing Ed Miliband’s policy on Israel.

Indeed it published this attack without a reference to Ms Lipman’s original article which would enable your readers to make up their own minds.

As a former journalist, I support this paper’s right to publish whatever they choose, but I believe it was serious error of judgement to publish this letter which contained the phrase ‘Netanyahu’s stormtroopers’.

This is gratuitous and highly offensive and quite rightly the members of the Jewish Community in Newcastle, including myself are utterly incensed by it.

It touches a particularly sensitive and raw nerve. He seeks to associate Israel with Nazism. It is blatantly incendiary. Can Brodin really be unaware of the offence such words give to Jews? Unless this was his intention.

Last Sunday was the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht. A terrible event took place in the German Reich throughout the night of November 9, 1938, and into the following day.

This was a massive coordinated attack on Jews by Nazi stormtroopers and has become known as the Night of the Broken Glass. Ninety-one Jews were murdered and 30,000 arrested including my Uncle Simon and deported to various concentration camps. Jewish businesses and synagogues were attacked and burned along with thousands of hebrew and religious books.

Auschwitz in Poland
Auschwitz in Poland
 

The Jewish Community in Newcastle has a long and proud history. They were here in the 1790s and from that time they have made an enormous contribution to the life, wellbeing and status of the City and the country.

From its ranks have sprung many councillors, five Lord Mayors, two members of the House of Lords, two Lord Chief Justices, a Chief Rabbi, and a world renowned Professor of Archaeology who has a collection named after him in the Great North Museum. This apart from valued contributions made by others in the fields of law, medicine and commerce.

The events of Kristallnacht were a turning point for the Jews of Europe. It led to the terrible events of the Second World War and the subsequent establishment of the State of Israel where the pitiful remnants of the Holocaust found a haven of refuge, as did the 900,000 Jews subsequently expelled from Arab lands.

In order to remember those terrible events and to ensure that they do not happen again, an international Holocaust Memorial Day was established. It is commemorated on January 27, the date of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp.

Within Newcastle City Council this has been taking place since 2001 and over the years it has been a force for good, reaching out to the community involving schools, community groups and other organisations in the city, seeking to learn the lessons of the past in order to prevent discrimination racism and hatred.

I chaired the Holocaust Memorial Day Working Group for seven years and subsequently remained a member. It is composed of representatives from faith groups, schools and organisations in the city.

I would have continued to remain a member but for the unacceptable and unwise actions of the present chair, Coun Dipu Ahad. During the Israeli/Gaza crisis this summer he chose to flout all rules of impartiality, fairness and racial tolerance by involving himself in pro Palestinian activities on council premises and elsewhere. In short, he brought Middle East politics into the city.

He was asked to consider his position and, when he refused to resign, I resigned and all the Jewish members including founder members of the HMD committee have also left.

His actions, supported by several colleagues, have brought the council into disrepute and have been viewed with increasing alarm and dismay by the Jewish community. There has been a steady and unpleasant stream of antisemitic remarks on social media in recent months.

Despite the murders, violence and unrest in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Nigeria which are happening daily, Israel alone is singled out with increasing hostility and invective in the press and elsewhere.

To the population at large our Jewish community is linked to Israel and therefore a target of increasing abuse and as a result has increased its security arrangements.

My fear is that the harmonious race relations that many of us have worked so hard to cultivate have been been badly damaged by the likes of Coun Ahad and may take many years to repair.

Jackie Slesenger is a Liberal Democrat councillor in Newcastle and a former Lord Mayor.

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