Anti-Denial Laws: The Politics of Remembering

In many countries it is criminal to deny the Holocaust; yet, many historians have argued heavily against this concept. Do laws like these, which are passed by parliaments, unjustifiably limit the freedom of expression? Or are they necessary in the remembrance of genocides, such as the Holocaust, or the Armenian genocide?

Protesters at a demonstration against anti-Semitism in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018.
(Credit: Henry Nicholas, Reuters)

Holocaust deniers either state the Jews were not killed in a systemic genocide or minimise its extent; some claims suggest they were instead victims to disease, or other forms of indiscriminate hardship. The reality, as we well know, was “the most documented tragedy in recorded history”, as Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, Elie Wiesel declared during a discussion in 1999 at the White House. Due to the indescribable suffering inflicted upon many by the Nazi regime, many countries have in response passed Anti-Denial Laws, which criminalised both the promotion of Nazi ideology, as well as the denial of the Holocaust. In France, there is a more general law on genocide denial, geared perhaps to the Armenian genocide, which was commemorated formally for the first time in 2019. President Macron said during his 2017 presidential campaign, “France is, first and foremost, the country that knows how to look history in the face”, setting a precedent perhaps for other countries to not only set Anti-Denial laws, but to also commemorate such genocides. 

However, historians protested heavily against the more general law on genocide denial in France, and on the concept more broadly. As Garton Ash writes for The Guardian, such laws “curtail free expression”. Through restricting this by law, regardless of good intentions, other freedoms which free expression sustains are suffocated. Although ex-German justice minister Brigitte Zypreis argues “this historical experience puts Germany under a permanent obligation to combat systematically every form of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia”, Garton Ash contends there is no evidence that a ban on free expression will make any significant difference. Many of the countries with laws against Holocaust denial (such as France, Germany, Lithuania, Romania, and Belgium) happen to also be some of the countries with particularly strong right-wing xenophobic parties. It is of course not that these parties exist due to the existence of Anti-Denial laws, but independent of this. 

When the French Anti-Denial law was passed in 2006, many felt, again, that this was a repression of free expression. Even the renowned Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink passionately opposed such laws, as they placed limitations on the discussion of what happened to thousands of Armenians in 1915. While in Turkey, it was illegal for Dink to describe these events as ‘genocide’, for which he was tried. Before his death, Dink responded to the first moot of such a law in France: “I cannot accept that in France you could possibly now be tried for denying the Armenian genocide. If this bill becomes law, I will be among the first to head for France and break the law.” He continued somewhat humorously, that then we could all watch whether it would be the Turkish Republic or the French government to condemn him first. 

Anti-Denial laws while necessary in the remembrance of genocides, have proven a particularly contentious topic for historians. Although we promote free speech in society, there has to be limits. Therefore, while I have discussed both views, the promotion of free speech should not act as a gateway to hate speech in any form.

Emily Glynn

The Floating Jew: Manifestations of Migration in Chagall’s Art

Although there are many distinct features of a Marc Chagall painting, it is the floating figures that are the artist’s most curious motif. In amongst the rich pastel colours and two-dimensional composition are people suspended in mid-air – an idea that features in some of his major works across his career, from 1915’s Birthday to 1950’s La Mariee. Whilst the concept of the “wandering Jew” is not unique to Chagall, it is the optimism that he embeds within his art that makes his work significant. To understand this we must not only analyse the artist’s life, but also the position of Jews in the early twentieth century. 

Born Moïche Zakharovitch Chagalov in what is modern-day Belarus, the artist’s formative years were spent not in art school but in the synagogue. The majority of Jews in Eastern Europe lived in shtetls; insular agricultural villages that were governed by Chassidic law, allowed to live under the Russian rule. Anti-Semitism was rampant, often manifesting in the violent form of pogroms and attacks on Jewish property and people. They reached a height in 1881, after Jews were partly blamed for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II given that they were viewed as foreign, and loyal to Israel rather than Russia. 

Marc Chagall’s ‘The Birthday’, 1915 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The pogroms were one of many factors that forced Jews to move out of Eastern Europe in the early twentieth century. Shtetls were often characterised by intense poverty, exacerbated by Jewish farmers’ reluctance to embrace industrialisation in the name of preserving traditional culture, despite the fact that the agricultural way of life that had sustained the communities for thousands of years was becoming inefficient in supporting growing populations. Chagall was one of many Jews who fled westwards. Around 200,000 Jews migrated to London between 1880 and 1919, with thousands more emigrating to America in search of new opportunities and safety. This forced the abandonment of the Jewish traditions and lifestyle that permeated in the shtetls, a process which exacerbated with growing multiculturalism and secularism: Chagall himself emigrated to Paris in 1923, a time when France was still reeling from the Dreyfus affair where a Jewish Captain had been falsely accused of leaking military information to Germany and was imprisoned. Despite Dreyfuss being exonerated in 1906, there still loomed a distrust of Jews, especially as many did not view them as French, and thus disloyal to the French Republic (as was the case in Russia). Many immediately deserted any semblance of Jewish identity both in lifestyle and identity out of fear of being identified as an alien: Jews changed their names to aid their attempt to integrate; Chagalov became Chagall, and fellow Russian-Jewish artist Chaim Sutin became Chaim Soutine. 

Jews not only ran the risk of alienation from western society but also the Jewish culture that they turned their back on, a feeling likely exacerbated by the growing popularity of Zionism. The call to create a Jewish state had entered mainstream thought, and transcended the Jewish intellectual circles with the 1917 Balfour declaration which decreed support from the British government. This would have intensified feelings of displacement for many Jews living in the diaspora knowing that there was a spiritual and literal home for them elsewhere, a place where they could belong. 

So what of Chagall’s art? How do these broad socio-political ideas translate into paints and canvasses? The phenomenology of lacking a true homeland to act as a spiritual ballast explains Chagall’s floating figures. As an itinerant Jew himself, Chagall would have known what it was like to be “a stranger in a foreign land”, as was predicted in the Abrahamic covenant. This theme is well documented in art and literature: the image of the “Wandering Jew” appears in novels by Dickens, poems by Shelly, and illustrations by Doré. Chagall twists the usual despondent pessimism which the “Wandering Jew” is depicted by giving his figures a distinct serendipity. They appear buoyant like helium balloons, following each wind and current without resistance. His figures, sometimes ostensibly Jewish and sometimes not, are not melancholic or cursed, they exist as a testament to survival over thousands of years of being wanderers. None of his figures are shown to be tormented or suffering. Instead, they appear to be at one with their predicament, calmly accepting the surrealism of the situation. This is best implemented in his 1923 Green Violinist, which depicts a violin player precariously balancing on two rooftops as he towers over his shtetl whilst a figure glides over the houses behind him. There is a precariousness to his position: he is lumbering and clumsy but whilst he could fall at any moment, he continues to play his violin absorbed in the moment. Chagall captures the sentiment of Jewish identity in the early twentieth century: one of duality and one of homelessness. Despite the persecution and adversity, his optimism endures through his artwork.

Alexander Cohen

Deconstructing a Homage to Secularity: A Reflection of Turkey’s Changing Political Identity

After 85 years as a secular museum, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has decreed the 1,500 year old Hagia Sophia will return to its former use as a Mosque. Hagia Sophia represents Turkey’s varied history; for a thousand years, the dome covered the largest indoor space in the world and remains a focal point of the Istanbul skyline.

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I ordered the construction of a grand cathedral in 537 CE. Remains of one of the two previous cathedrals which were destroyed during riots, such as the 532 Nika Revolt, remain buried under the modern structure. The cathedral symbolised the Emperor’s dominance over those opposing his reign. 

The Hagia Sophia. (Credit: David Spender, via Flickr)

Hagia Sophia represents the prevailing ideology of the day, being used as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral, a Roman Catholic Cathedral, and most recently a Mosque. In 1453 CE, Ottoman Sultan Mehemet II conquered the Christian city of Constantinople and claimed the cathedral as a personal possession, thereby demanding that Hagia Sophia be converted into a Mosque. The mosaics were plastered over and Islamic features, such as minarets, were added. Hagia Sophia is now a physical manifestation of centuries of interaction between Islam and Christianity, East and West. 

The building’s dedication to secularity despite its fickle past indicated the identity of contemporary Turkey, ushered in by the foundation of the Turkish Republic and the Atatürk administration. The building became a recognition of Turkey’s varied religious history and a prime tourist attraction. In 1934, Hagia Sophia was converted into a secular museum and has since been a symbol of Turkey’s multiculturalism, religious tolerance, and status as a safe haven for Christians in the region. Christian mosaics plastered over in the 1400s were uncovered. Commitment to secularity and multiculturalism has meant that no religious practice has been undertaken inside Hagia Sophia (excluding the staff prayer room) since then.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has decreed the building be converted back into an operational Mosque on the 24th July. This is something many see as a culmination of his seventeen years of conservative leadership and an attempt to gain favour from pious Muslim voters, some of whom resent the strict secularity of the country. The decision was affirmed by the court on the basis that Hagia Sophia was owned by a foundation established by Ottoman Sultan Mehment the Conqueror and was presented to the country as a Mosque, the property deeds therefore irreversibly label the building as a Mosque. 

The decision represents the battle for Turkey’s identity. Erdogan seeks to deconstruct the secular profile built by the revolutionary Atatürk administration. He is appealing to his core voter base, the conservative nationalists who are receptive to Erdogan’s policies of Islamic revivalism. The President has previously said ‘If we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey’. Last year, he lost the municipal elections in the city.

In Turkey, Erdogan’s decision has stirred tensions between those who favour sectarian politics and those committed to secularism many of whom are concentrated in Istanbul. The AK Party of which Erdogan is a member is the predecessor to the Virtue Party which was shut down by the country’s constitutional court for its anti-secular policies. Erdogan has previously run on the idea of protecting pious citizens in Turkey, some of whom see the enforced secularity introduced to the Republic of Turkey as a repression of the muslim majority.

On a global scale, Erdogan has presented the decision to convert Hagia Sophia as a statement of national sovereignty. The natural allies of Turkey in Europe do not support the transition. The already ill-fated Turkish application to the EU now looks consigned to failure and Turkey’s troubled relationship with their Christian neighbour Greece has been worsened by this decision. The strongmen leaders such as Christians Putin and Trump, who also practice brands of populist politics, also do not view his decision favourably.

Erdogan has used the repurposing of Hagia Sophia to indicate which part of his country’s history his values are compatible with. Much like the right-wing governments of the US, UK and Russia, the President is alluding to a more ‘glorious’ past. The Atatürk reforms are associated with the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate. Similar to the anachronistic messaging of sections of the Brexit campaign and the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, Erdogan is harking back to a time when the region was a more powerful actor on the world stage and presenting himself as the leader of this revival. While the conversion of Hagia Sophia has been an issue on the agenda for a number of years, the decision has come when it is rumoured that elections could be called next year and Erdogan is keen to appeal to the nationalist sentiment becoming ever more present in the global political landscape. 

Reversing the secularisation of Hagia Sophia is a demonstration of Erdogan’s values and his appeal to Islamic revivalism in the Republic of Turkey. The President has rebuked commitment to secularity one of the foremost monuments to secular Turkish history. In a statement of national sovereignty, Erdogan is using the conversion of Hagia Sophia, Atatürk’s homage to secularity, to appeal to pious and nationalist sentiment in the country and assert himself as national leaser in an evermore and nationalistic political landscape. 

Emerald McLaughlin

The Crisis Surrounding Gibraltarian Identity

My struggle with identity has led me to consider the multiple avenues in which these ongoing issues arose. One should not see this piece of writing as factually generalising an entire population of thirty thousand, but rather the one small blip that is my meandering experience. As my internal monologue pushes out these ideas, please sit down and pretend you are my therapist, paid to listen to every word. 

Steps in Gibraltar. (Credit: Ben Ginger, via Shutterstock)

Gibraltarian identity can be considered synonymous with contradiction; rooted in an everyday dichotomy between the right of self-determination and Britishness. As an overseas territory, Gibraltar and the Gibraltarian become the problematic spawn of an Empire buried under the burning sun. This is reflected in our unique code-switching dialect, Llatino – something which Wikipedia describes as a dialect of Spanish, and thus begins the descent into contradiction. Llanito is a complicated linguistic feat. Borrowing from Andalusian Spanish, English and other localities, it is a fine concoction of cultures and beliefs that a young Gibraltarian will be spoon-fed, one that relieves the ability to code-switch, whilst also subtly discriminating against all things Spanish. My struggle is based on this notion. Despite having Spanish family and ancestry, I was taught that any ideas of ‘Spanishness’ should be hidden away: disassociating myself from a major piece of my identity and impacting my ability to speak my grandmother’s tongue.  

Our hostility towards Spain was not always as poignant as it is today. It is the case that during the earlier half of the twentieth century, marriages between Gibraltarian and Spanish people were rampant. My mother is a product of such a marriage. However, Francoist terror and the eventual border closure in 1969 contributed to the development of a fearful hatred towards our Spanish roots, precipitating often conscious omissions of Spanish ancestry. 

“I am not Spanish,” my Seville-born granny would often say, “I am Gibraltarian, I am British.” 

However, it was not just my granny who had this mentality. A study by professor Canessa found that whilst older generations of Gibraltarians stress their Britishness, and middle-age respondents associated themselves with a Gibraltarian-British identity, my generation emphasised an identity that built away from the classic British notions that plagued our ancestors: denouncing being Llanito and rather adopting a Mediterranean identity (Canessa, 2019). One often rooted in Spain but hidden by the associations of the Mediterranean. It has provoked in me a major identity crisis. As a result, I am still afraid of being associated with Spain due to repercussions in my home community, yet I simultaneously try to prove that I am not wholly British. 

This identity crisis has been provoked even more so through the racist Brexit campaign. This heightened tensions around Gibraltar’s relationship with the UK and the colonial buttons that signal outdated sentiments of Empire. As a child of Gibraltar, and one that has grown up forced to idolise the protection of the British state, it is a disgusting revelation that it is the Conservative party which we must rely on to bolster a nationalistic pride which defends our very community. It creates a phrase which my father would often repeat: “Labour is good for the UK, the Conservatives for Gibraltar.” It once more uproots a further identity crisis that is rooted in politics, history, and personal beliefs. It is a dilemma which not many Gibraltarians feel strongly about. A nationalistic pride has created a system whereby Gibraltarians will switch beliefs based on who appeals to us the most, and many do not seem to care about their identity; they will denounce Spain, preach being Llanito, all whilst sipping tea at the beach in a caricature of what they have defined as being British. 

In an era of identity, culture and equality, Gibraltar stands as a unique example of the opportunities and obstacles which come with multicultural identities, and serves as a poignant reminder of the troubling impact of the British empire. 

Saray Imlach


Bibliography

Canessa, A., 2019. Bordering on Britishness. Palgrave Studies in European Sociology.