The Depressing Saga of the Holocaust Exhibition in Golders Green

4th January 2019

The story of those non-Jews – including Muslims – who put their lives on the line during the Holocaust to save their Jewish friends and neighbours is one of the few luminous points in one of the darkest periods of human history. Ironically, although not unexpectedly, an attempt to retell that story has handed an unwelcome victory to some of the most unpleasant forces in local and international politics.

In late December, it was announced that the Markaz El Tathgheef El Eslami – the Centre for Islamic Understanding – had agreed to host Yad Vashem’s travelling exhibition that highlights the courage and sacrifice of those Albanian Muslims who protected Jews during the Holocaust. The exhibition was brought to the Markaz with the assistance of Rabbi Natan Levy, who is Head of Operations for the Faiths Forum, London. Natan Levy is well known for his powerful advocacy of interfaith relations between Muslims and Jews.

The event received significant international, and overwhelmingly positive coverage in the Jewish press.

A little further context is helpful at this point. Golders Green is a neighbourhood with a particularly high Jewish population. When the purchase by the Markaz of the Hippodrome was announced in 2017, a campaign opposing the planning application was launched. The gist of the campaign was that a large Muslim institution would present a threat to the Jewish population of Golders Green.

That campaign was condemned by a full spectrum of religious communal figures. Prominent activists within the Jewish community in particular spoke up in favour of the Markaz, including Laura Marks, chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, Marie van der Zyl who is now President of the Board of Deputies, and Adrian Cohen who is Chair of the London Jewish Forum. Marcus Dysch, the political editor at the Jewish Chronicle, described the campaign as “inexcusable, blatant Islamophobia”.

It is fair to say that not everybody welcomed the decision of the Markaz to host an exhibition commemorating the bravery of those Albanian Muslims who rescued Jews. The “Campaign4Truth” went so far as to describe the event as ‘Holocaust Revisionism’: their argument being, in essence, that because other Albanian Muslims had joined the SS, that the legacy of those who protected their neighbours should be ignored.

However, the Campaign4Truth were not the only ones who objected to the exhibition. Had they been the only nay-sayers, they could have been ignored. But, thanks to the efforts of British Islamist agitators, the Islamic Republic of Iran stuck its oar in.

Again, let us pause for a little background on the Markaz. It is an institution which follows the Shirazi school of Shi’a Islam. Shirazis are at odds with the Khomeinist regime that governs Iran, chiefly because they believe that there should be complete, or at least greater, separation of Mosque and State. Khomeinists, by contrast, take what might be described as an Islamist position on the issue of clerics in ruling positions. The Shirazis fell out with the Iranian Regime because they well understood the dangers of theocratic Islamism, and doubled down on the importance of separating clerics from the state. As a result of this theological and political conflict, the followers of the Shirazi school have been persecuted and its leaders arrested.

The persecution of the Shirazi school by the Iranian regime is central to an understanding of what happened next. The organisation that lit the blue touchpaper was Press TV UK, the UK branch of the mouthpiece of the Iranian regime. Press TV UK notoriously lost its licence to broadcast in the United Kingdom after it aired an “interview” with the journalist, Maziar Bahari – carried out under duress – who had been imprisoned by the Iranian Regime. Following the loss of its ability to broadcast on satellite, it maintains a presence on the internet.

Press TV UK behaved as one would expect such an organisation to conduct itself. It described the Holocaust exhibition as “OUTRAGEOUS” and characterised it as an “‘interfaith’ event with Zionists”.

The rationale for this description was provided by Roshan Salih, who works at both Press TV and edits the Islamist news site, 5 Pillars. Salih’s view is that Yad Vashem – the preeminent global commemorator of the lives of the murdered Jews of the Holocaust, and of those who sought to save them – is an “Israeli institution”. For good measure, he concluded: “No to any kind of normalisation with Israel”.

The attack by Press TV and its minions would, perhaps, not have been enough to torpedo the exhibition. It was the spread of the campaign to Iran itself which proved to be the final nail in the coffin of the event. In January, the story was picked up by the Islamic Republic’s Mehr News Agency. Tellingly, Mehr described the event as a cooperation with a “Zionist Institution”, and the Markaz as the “Shirazi Cult”.

Not long after the Islamic Republic of Iran took up cudgels, the Markaz backed out of the exhibition. Given the long history of persecution of Shi’a who follow the Shirazi school, and the family connections of many at the Markaz have in Iran, it is not difficult to see why they chose that route.

So, there we have it. A Shi’a group which sought to celebrate and commemorate the heroism of Muslims who protected Jews during the Holocaust was bullied and threatened by the Islamic Republic of Iran and its cheerleaders out of doing so. A supporting role was played by a group that sees itself as opposing antisemitism.

If you work in counter-extremism, you expect politics to consist of a mixture of hope and despair. Today, the bad guys won.

But depressing news should be a spur to greater effort and resolve. The story of the Albanian Muslims who put humanity before hatred can and must be told.

And it surely will be.