The Dark Side of Holocaust Education

September 23, 2020 | Ruth R. Wisse
About the author: Ruth R. Wisse is professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

On May 29, President Trump signed into law the Never Again Education Act—passed with near-unanimity by both houses of a bitterly divided Congress. The act sets aside $10 million for Holocaust education, to be spent over the next five years, and declares that “learning how and why the Holocaust happened is an important component of the education of citizens of the United States.” Behind it stands the reasoning—widely accepted by Jews and Gentiles alike—that teaching about the Shoah can help serve as an antidote to the “hate” that caused it. Ruth Wisse is skeptical:

[T]he destruction of European Jewry was not about “hate.” The mass murder of 6 million Jews began [when a political] party came to power by organizing politics against the Jews. The politics of grievance and blame may indeed foment hatred, distrust, envy, rage, fear, and violence, but it is primarily a political instrument for gaining, wielding, and extending power. Anti-Semitism draws on centuries of anti-Jewish teaching and opposition, but it assumes greater political potency when leaders need to win the allegiance of voters and followers. Hitler ran on this platform and used it in the conquest of other nations, inviting their citizens to join in the killing and plundering of the Jews. Some people [even] organized against Jews without hating them. . . . Fighting political evil takes political will, which requires political perception.

Holocaust education as currently defined introduces Jews at their lowest point in history—as victims, humiliated, suffering, starved, pursued, despised, and turned to ashes. . . . When I began teaching at Harvard in 1993, I was told that at least half the entering class had not taken a history course beyond the ninth grade. Yet even the best of students—the ones accepted to places like Harvard—are being forced to learn about the Jews first and foremost as victims of the Nazis. Among those being introduced to Jews in this form are many American Jews who have no other Jewish education, and certainly none as dramatic as this federally supported curriculum.

[But] education that centers on the Holocaust violates the spirit of America, which is about the attainment and protection of freedom and a constant drive for self-improvement. Americans and Jews won their freedom in wars of independence. America fought a civil war against slavery and to remain united. Nazism and Communism would rule the world had it not been for American military resistance. Israelis fight for their existence every day of their lives and suffer great losses whenever they relax their vigilance. Now as ever, only the will to fight for the good can defeat the forces of evil, and a peace-loving people that does not train for self-defense will suffer the fate of the Jews of Europe. The perversity of teaching about the Holocaust rather than American and Jewish struggles for freedom extracts the wrong lesson from a horrifying precedent.

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