The coronavirus pandemic has been “deliberately exploited” by people seeking to spread conspiracy theories and instil hatred, the chief executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) has warned.
Olivia Marks-Woldman urged people to “take responsibility” for their words, and to stand up against those seeking to create tensions.
It came after a “deeply worrying” period which saw riots, including those unrelated to the pandemic, across America and beyond.
They included disturbances last summer following the death of George Floyd in police custody, and the storming of the US Capitol earlier this month after then-president Donald Trump used allegedly inflammatory words to stir up his supporters.
Speaking ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27, which remembers the genocide of millions of Jews and other minorities during the Second World War at the hands of the Nazis, Ms Marks-Woldman said she was “troubled” by the impact of “divisive language” used to pit communities against each other.
If you have been inspired by the stories of individuals who have been the light in the darkness, join us on #HolocaustMemorialDay to #LightTheDarkness against prejudice and hatred.— Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (@HMD_UK) January 23, 2021
Our lights are more powerful when we work together. https://t.co/KGYGvs4YI8 pic.twitter.com/rMqQob9OVt
She told the PA news agency: “What we’ve seen that’s really worried us is that the pandemic has been deliberately exploited by some people to spread conspiracy theories that scapegoat minorities – whether it’s blaming all Chinese people for the virus, blaming Jewish people for deliberately creating the virus and spreading it.
“We have seen numerous conspiracy theories propagated and spread online and that shows how very necessary Holocaust Memorial Day is, and we hope people will be learning about that and be doing what they can to challenge that when they see it.”
Holocaust survivors echoed her concerns, and said lessons from the Holocaust remained as relevant, decades later.
Martin Stern, who survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, said there was a “worldwide deficit” about what democracy means.
Speaking from his home in Leicester, the 82-year-old retired doctor said: “It (democracy) does not mean rushing up the steps of the government buildings in Washington DC and running a riot which leads to death.
“It means respecting the views of the other, even if you disagree with the other.
“So many youngsters think the important thing is to be angry about something, but it doesn’t make you look good if you’ve got your facts wrong – then you’re a danger to society.
“We need to work on that.”
Hungarian 88-year-old Ivor Perl, who was taken to the Auschwitz death camp in German-occupied Poland as a 12-year-old boy, and now lives in north London, said: “I’m not a politician. But I can think of myself thinking back 80 years ago – isn’t that how the Nazis came to power?
“I’m not saying it’s the same situation but one has to be very, very, very careful.”
Ms Marks-Woldman said divisive language was an early feature of previous genocides, and added that while current tensions would not necessarily lead to ethnic cleansing in America or elsewhere, it still meant there was potential for conflict to get worse.
“We all need to take responsibility for our language as well as our actions,” she said, “and leaders have a great responsibility on them to be leading the way in language and actions.
“We know when we learn about the Holocaust and other genocides, they didn’t come out of nowhere, they started with divisive language, setting some people up against another community, and things progressed incrementally.
“We need to learn where identity-based prejudice can lead if it’s not checked or challenged.
“That’s not to say we are seeing a genocide unfolding in America or Britain, but we need to be able to challenge that language, to recognise that language for what it is, and to challenge it.”
She said there was a particular need to combat hate speech online, in which extreme language can become “normalised”.
She said she wanted people to use the theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day – being the light in the darkness – to inspire people to challenge prejudice.
She added: “It’s more relevant now than ever to commemorate and learn from the past, and we do so for a purpose – to create a better future.”
For more information on Holocaust Memorial Day, visit HMD.org.uk