What happened when I met a Holocaust denier on a hospital ward – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

The rise of Donald Trump and other populists, on both the left and right, has changed what is considered acceptable debate, providing cover for racists, anti-semites masquerading as ‘anti-Zionists’ and Islamophobes, writes Alex Cole-Hamilton.

Wednesday, 16th October 2019, 6:00 am
Prince William, with Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis of the United Congregations of the Commonwealth (left) and chairman of Yad Vashem, Avner Shalev, right, tour the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. (Picture: Debbie Hill/AFP/Getty Images)

I cut my hand on a shard of porcelain in the summer. A piece of the cereal bowl punctured the garbage bag I was forcing into a bin outside a Welsh holiday ­cottage and cut my index finger. I didn’t clean it and within 48 hours I was having emergency, hand-saving surgery to clear out the resultant infection at St John’s.

The morning after my surgery, I was getting to know my ward-mates when inevitably the conversation moved to Brexit. The man next to me, a cheerful Brexiteer, muttered something about Germany and gas chambers. I didn’t hear him properly but I was still about to take issue with the comment when the patient in the bed opposite him doubled down. He replied: “No mate, there never were any gas ovens, it was all a hoax, I can give you a link to a YouTube video which explains it all.”

Despite being pretty high on painkillers I challenged him, explaining his statement wasn’t just wrong but it was offensive. He responded by saying that he was as much entitled to his opinion as I was, to which I replied that my “opinion” was empirically verifiable as historical fact.

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Protesters rally against anti-semitism at Bebelplatz square in the centre of Berlin following the Halle shooting. Picture: AFP/Getty

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Record number of anti-semitic incidents recorded in 2019

The whole exchange left me pretty shaken and the atmosphere on the ward was strained for the duration of my stay.

Of course, I’d heard of Holocaust denial – but I have never encountered it in the dismal flesh before. It prompted me to think more about it and last week’s horrific Yom Kippur shootings in a synagogue in Halle, Germany hammered home to me, the brutal and murderous end that unchecked anti-semitism can lead to.

Trump’s effect on racism

It is a desperately sad reflection of our times that the Halle shooting was not the first mass shooting in a Jewish place of worship during the past 12 months. As such, we can no longer ignore the prevalence of alt-right hate speech against the Jewish community. It is incumbent on all of us to challenge it wherever we encounter it. The same goes for Islamophobia as well.

Part of this problem is political. There is a prevailing assumption, particularly on the radical fringes of the left wing of UK politics (aka the Labour Party) that support for the Jewish community is a tacit endorsement of Israeli domestic policy and the annexation of Gaza. I fundamentally disagree with that point of view.

I am a passionate proponent of a two-state solution and utterly condemn the expansion of the illegal Israeli settlement programme. Yet the Jewish community in Scotland will always enjoy my friendship and support. Those two positions are not mutually exclusive, in fact they represent the only viable path to peace and security in the region.

Furthermore, that ultra-left wing of the Labour party has found a nifty way of getting round accusations of racism and can deliver anti-semitic tropes by simply trading the word, ‘Jew’ for ‘Zionist’. Just plug the word Zionist into the search field of your Twitter feed and you’ll see what I mean. Their assumptions are wrong and their views are racist.

The rise of Trump and other populist figures on both the hard left and the hard right have moved the Overton window – the frame of acceptable debate – around race today. Whether it’s hate speech about Islam or Judaism, or any other minority, people saying this stuff on TV or on social media and going unchallenged are giving cover to the reptiles.

The struggle against the politics of hate is never-ending. We have to win it with every generation. It falls to each of us to tackle it, even if that’s under sedation in a West Lothian hospital ward.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western.