During the past half-century, Holocaust education has been assiduously promoted in the U.S. by Jewish organizations, by numerous museums and memorials, by countless well-meaning Gentiles, and by state and local governments. These undertakings always rest on a belief that Nazis’ slaughter of 6 million Jews conveys some important lesson or message, and American Jews tend to assume that teaching about the subject inoculates against anti-Semitism. But by most indications anti-Semitism appears to be on the rise, despite all this education. Dara Horn investigates:
The effort to transform the Holocaust into a lesson, coupled with the imperative to “connect it to today,” had at first seemed straightforward and obvious. After all, why learn about these horrible events if they aren’t relevant now? But the more I thought about it, the less obvious it seemed. What were students being taught to “take a stand” for? How could anyone, especially young people with little sense of proportion, connect the murder of 6 million Jews to today without landing in a swamp of Holocaust trivialization, like the COVID-protocol protesters who’d pinned Jewish stars to their shirts and carried posters of Anne Frank? Despite the protesters’ clear anti-Semitism (because, yes, it is anti-Semitic to use the mass murder of Jews as a prop), weren’t they and others like them doing exactly what Holocaust educators claimed they wanted people to do?
One problem with using the Holocaust as a morality play is exactly its appeal: it flatters everyone. We can all congratulate ourselves for not committing mass murder. This approach excuses current anti-Semitism by defining anti-Semitism as genocide in the past. When anti-Semitism is reduced to the Holocaust, anything short of murdering 6 million Jews—like, say, ramming somebody with a shopping cart, or taunting kids at school, or shooting up a Jewish nonprofit, or hounding Jews out of entire countries—seems minor by comparison.
But a larger problem emerges when we ignore the realities of how anti-Semitism works. If we teach that the Holocaust happened because people weren’t nice enough—that they failed to appreciate that humans are all the same, for instance, or to build a just society—we create the self-congratulatory space where anti-Semitism grows. One can believe that humans are all the same while being virulently anti-Semitic, because according to anti-Semites, Jews, with their millennia-old insistence on being different from their neighbors, are the obstacle to humans all being the same.
One can believe in creating a just society while being virulently anti-Semitic, because according to anti-Semites, Jews, with their imagined power and privilege, are the obstacle to a just society. To inoculate people against the myth that humans have to erase their differences in order to get along, and the related myth that Jews, because they have refused to erase their differences, are supervillains, one would have to acknowledge that these myths exist. To really shatter them, one would actually have to explain the content of Jewish identity, instead of lazily claiming that Jews are just like everyone else.