Holocaust education is sacrosanct in the “Never Again!” arsenal among both Jews and non-Jews and across the political spectrum. Per a 2018 survey, 93% of U.S. adults want it taught in schools and 80% say “it is important to keep teaching about the Holocaust so it does not happen again.”
Although I am Jewish, knowledgeable about the Holocaust, viscerally concerned that it “not happen again,” and also not without a personal connection to survivors, I hold the minority opinion. Before making my case, let me first try to buttress the outlier view by name-dropping some Holocaust scholars and Jewish thinkers who have reservations as well: The late Lucy Dawidowicz in her 1990 article How They Teach the Holocaust provides an alarming critique of the methodology and materials used in schools; Ruth Wisse, in her recent article The Dark Side of Holocaust Education slams both the practice and the principle; Holocaust author Rosie Whitehouse speaks of fruitless decades of compulsory Holocaust education in The Failure of Holocaust Education in Britain; Hillel Goldberg, Executive Editor of Intermountain Jewish News ends his recent article Teaching the Holocaust – excruciating pitfalls with the question, “Is no Holocaust education better than distorted Holocaust education?”; David Fleshler explores its counterproductive effects in Does Education Fuel Antisemitism?; and finally, Bruce Abramson and Jeff Ballabon in the recent Making Holocaust Education About Jews and Antisemites write, “both dominant approaches to Holocaust education—teaching about Nazis as unique and teaching about the Final Solution as generic—invite abuses that, with ghastly irony, have become central weapons in the arsenal of contemporary antisemitism.”
To be clear, my skepticism is aimed only at specially focused Holocaust studies, which now can be found across the globe and increasingly by mandate. It goes without saying that the Holocaust belongs in any curriculum covering genocides or World War II, and that it demands eternal remembrance.
At the top level, I question the premise that deploying more Holocaust education will help stem rising antisemitism. The crucial lessons of the Holocaust should be obvious from the rudimentary knowledge millions already possess: that “Jews are a minority” and that “a lot of Jews were killed not long ago.” From this alone, one can deduce that “the Jews” aren’t powerful; that even a people who look “privileged” can be vulnerable; that Israeli Jews may have self-protective reasons for wanting to govern themselves; and that to believe that Jewish Holocaust pain is faked but that Palestinian “Nakba” pain is real is inconsistent. Yet none of these insights have taken hold. As Einstein noted,
antisemitism is irrational and therefore can’t be impacted by reason. To think that forcing teenagers to memorize names of concentration camps will undo the kind of deep-seated hatred that drove this genocide in the first place is overambitious. Moreover, many antisemitic acts are committed by neo-Nazis; meaning, they already know all about the Holocaust. That’s how they know to shout “Jews to the gas!” at sporting events or to spray swastikas on synagogue walls. It is a tall order if schools think they can reform these offenders, especially given the disinformation on the Internet. Or if decent students are expected to take on such thugs in any kind of consequential way, this is an even taller order.
In fact, the goal of cultivating “individual responsibility” as a means of thwarting genocide is another questionable premise of Holocaust education. Both Dawidowicz and Wisse astutely point out that mass lethal antisemitism has above all a political and governmental aspect. Dawidowicz, who reviewed 25 U.S. curricula in 1990, observed:
Most curricula focus on individual attitudes, beliefs, and opinions rather than their embodiment in public policy and law. This approach conceives of prejudice as a psychological or mental-health problem…Yet antisemitism as public policy is an essential aspect of what the Holocaust was about.
And Wisse states:
The destruction of European Jewry [began by] organizing politics against the Jews…Fighting political evil takes political will, which requires political perception.
The veracity of their observations is confirmed by noting the impotence of individuals even while the Holocaust was knowingly unfolding. Newspapers in November 1942 reported that two million Jews had already been killed and that full extermination was underway. But it was leadership – particularly of U.S. Jewish organizations and government – that was key in making a difference, whether positively or negatively. Average people are followers, for all the character-building lectures imbibed, whether in houses of worship or in classrooms. Once a political situation has devolved to the point that individual “responsibility” really means “heroism” of the sort shown by saviors of Jews under the Nazis, the window for avoiding mass scale tragedy has already closed. For decent people, morality is easy to grasp; the hard part is political – distinguishing oppressor from victim without having to wait till one group is wearing yellow stars.
And was lack of “individual responsibility” the barrier to a better outcome in Germany? Traction for this idea can be credited largely to Jewish social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s 1960s lab experiments which found that subjects were compliant when pressured to administer electric shocks to strangers. “Obedience to authority” was thus supposed to explain what caused Adolf Eichmann (“the banality of evil”) and ordinary Germans to ignore if not perpetrate atrocities. However, a less palatable analysis is that ingrained and rampant antisemitism of the eliminationist variety was the driver. Such is the conclusion of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his 1996 book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.
Yet Holocaust education, with its call to individual responsibility, is premised in the first concept; Milgram’s, making the issue of antisemitism largely optional. Indeed, Dawidowicz found that the word “antisemitism” was not even used in many curricula, but rather generic words like “racism” or “prejudice”. She also found that antisemitism predating the Nazis was often not mentioned, nor was Christian antisemitism; something she attributed to a reluctance to offend. Doubtless, the treatment of antisemitism is variable, but analysis of later curricula replicate Dawidowicz’s findings.
Another questionable premise is the importance of social pressure in facilitating the Holocaust. No doubt, social pressure is a powerful force and played a role in Nazi Germany. the Internet gives us a data source unavailable in the 1940s. We can now read the minds of millions of people free to express themselves anonymously, without social pressure. And what we find is not outspoken empathy for Jews, but a bottomless pit of antisemitism. The takeaway yet again is the primacy of antisemitism as the ill that needs ameliorating, not generic human weakness regarding authority or peers. As Dawidowicz observes:
Usually the curricula pose the problem in either/or terms: conforming (which is immoral) or resisting (moral), obeying authority (bad) or following the dictates of one’s conscience (good).
There is perhaps one lesson that could benefit from being taught, as it is not obvious. This is that the powers that be lie about Jews – and lie Big. And this includes Jews lying about Jews. Perhaps if more decent people understood this reality, they might be less inclined to swallow whole the statements made about the Jewish state by mainstream media – and they might better understand the political challenges of the day. Unfortunately, as will be discussed, the powers that be are frequently the very ones involved in Holocaust education.
It currently appears that there is Holocaust education in 135 countries, with at least 272 curricula, developed by a multitude of institutions from Yad Vashem to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to UNESCO to European agencies and universities. In the U.S., sixteen states currently have some degree of mandated Holocaust education, and a federal role in developing material has just been formalized. In numerous European countries such as Germany, Austria, Poland, and the U.K., Holocaust education has been mandatory for some time.
It should be obvious that the mere extensiveness of Holocaust education invites corruption. In many places, teachers must strain to make the material relevant since no one has ever had contact with Jews. One teacher shared that he ended up analogizing to the disabled, as this was all his students could relate to. Non-receptive students can also be an issue. A German study noted that one neo-Nazi student saw the program as evidence that “the Jews” are muzzling his negationist ideas, while Muslim immigrant students insisted, among other things, that “the Jews were all infected with Typhus and therefore Hitler should be revered for preventing it from spreading.”
As to accuracy about the subject, in a study of Holocaust education in England, most teachers believed the Holocaust pertained to “a range of victims” rather than “the Jews”. It was also found that students generally believed that victimization owed to being “different” from the Aryan race. In some cases, this led them to conclude that Muslims and Asians were targeted. And students’ answers to the question “Who was responsible for the Holocaust?” were regularly limited to “Hitler” or, at best, “Hitler and the Nazis” (which is no better than my simplistic understanding at age 9).
In one case that Dawidowicz uncovered among late 1980s curricula, Hitler was selectively quoted so as to suggest that his primary target was Blacks. Another drew an analogy between silence in the face of possible nuclear holocaust and silence during the Nazi Holocaust. Dawidowicz also found disconcertingly broad use of the term “genocide.” One can easily imagine the young social justice warrior of today, fresh off Holocaust studies, entering university and eagerly “standing up” against the “genocide of Palestinians” that her leftist professor insists is happening.
To get a clear sense of how some curricula creators view their teaching mandate, one need only read the title of this ADL assessment: Survey of U.S. College Students Shows Holocaust Education is Effective in Building Empathy, Tolerance and Open Mindedness. In the vaunted survey results, the word “antisemitism” is nowhere to be found; it only appears at the bottom, in a description of the ADL’s origins. Instead, the survey reports that Holocaust education brought measurable gains (though with undisclosed metric) in “being more comfortable with people of a different race or sexual orientation” and in “attitudes regarding diversity and tolerance.” Also, students were “50 percent less likely” to give bullying a pass. That this type of “Holocaust education” is what the ADL most values should be unsurprising given that its current CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, believed that the separation of immigrant families at the U.S. border was similar to that of Jewish families under the Nazis.
If any doubt remains that “content-fluid” intersectionality is what is demanded of Holocaust studies, the rebuke visited on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum when they issued a statement denouncing use of the term “concentration camp” for immigrant holding areas on the U.S. border should make this clear. Scores of academics from around the world, many in fields such as Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, Self and Identity, and other Humanities signed an open letter calling for the statement to be retracted and asserting that the “very core” of Holocaust education is “to alert the public to dangerous developments that facilitate human rights violations and pain and suffering.”
So there you have it: the “very core” of Holocaust education is not Jews.
In fairness, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s statement had been rather terse, “unequivocally” rejecting any analogies to the Holocaust without explaining why. Per Dawidowicz, the Holocaust was unique because it was the only instance, possibly excluding Armenians, of an officially sanctioned program by a national government. (It was also uniquely perpetrated across multiple countries. And Jew-hate is unique because followers of the world’s two largest religions – more than half the planet – can find scriptural validation for it.)
Yet these differences are not why I would resist broad analogizing. Rather, it is for the same reason that Irish people wouldn’t want every disappointing vegetable yield to be called an “Irish potato famine,” why African Americans jump on casual use of the word “lynch,” and why these signatories would never sanction calling a remote volcanic eruption “Hiroshima.” However, when Jews assert their distinct people-hood, this is considered inappropriate if not immoral by leftist academics.
Fact is, there is an inherent contradiction in shopping Holocaust studies to the four corners of the globe and expecting it to be meaningful even though Jews are only 0.2% of world population. In characteristic form, Jews have put themselves out front, yet are also trying to “assimilate.” This has generated the same external repercussions and internal divisions as always. If the Holocaust is to function as cautionary tale for all humanity, then analogizing is inevitable and necessary. I don’t know that the dilemma is soluble. For this reason, among others, my own preference is to see the Holocaust taught accurately, but not in its current discrete form. Indeed, if it were instead presented as part of a broad genocide line-up, the greater obsessiveness and dedication of Jew hate might actually be clearer. More importantly, this format would subliminally communicate the much needed lesson that Jews are like everyone else (“prick us do we not bleed?”) – and who knows, maybe even that Israel is just like other countries. Currently, the lesson is that everyone is like a Jewish Holocaust victim. And the subliminal message now is that Jews are powerful enough to get top billing in schools for a Jewish matter, throwing doubt on whether Jews are vulnerable after all. All this is moreover against the backdrop of the “Oppression Olympics” taking place in the West as well as the popular antisemitic belief that “Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.”
Perhaps the most glaring evidence that Holocaust education is irrelevant at best and damaging at worst is the co-existence, often in the same person, of sincere anguish about the Holocaust and raging, sputtering anti-Zionism. Anti-Zionism is antisemitism, protestations by the duplicitous and the deluded notwithstanding. And by virtue of anti-Zionism’s penetration into the politics and governments of many countries (not to mention academia and media), it is perhaps also the most dangerous form of it. Antisemitism driven by the state is what both Dawidowicz and Wisse call out as a classic element in the orchestrated mass killing of Jews.
Indeed, state sponsored Jew-hate is already in play. Anti-Zionism is state policy in Iran, which has Israel in its sights. And the anti-Zionist leanings in Western European governments dispose them to trade briskly with Iran and to coddle it even as Iran continues to violate the JCPOA agreement (“Iran Nuclear Deal”) and threaten Israel with nuclear annihilation. Indeed, rather than sanction Iran for its violation of both the nuclear accord and U.N. rules against threatening member states, Europeans allow sanction of Israel via BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) for alleged violations (all contested) of international law respecting Palestinian goals. Yet European leaders unfailingly appear at Holocaust remembrance ceremonies to mourn the genocide of six million Jews of yesteryear. As for stabbings of Jews in Israel, there’s little sympathy. And as for Iran-subsidized militarization of Israel’s neighbors and the potential nuclear genocide of Israel’s six million-plus Jews, these things are enabled. (David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee recently called out the hypocrisy in Europe Can’t Fight Antisemitism While Ignoring Threats to Israel.)
Holocaust education also provides easy cover for anti-Israelism/antisemitism at the United Nations. In 2005, the General Assembly passed a resolution on the Remembrance of the Holocaust. Item 2 “Urges Member States to develop educational programmes that will inculcate future generations with the lessons of the Holocaust in order to help to prevent future acts of genocide.” This is the same U.N. that has a bigger problem with Israel than Iran. In the past five years, it passed 96 resolutions against Israel. (The next highest number was ten; against Russia. There were five against North Korea and four against Iran.)
But if we want a sense of how pro-Jewish the world would become with more Holocaust knowledge, we already have a data set to tell us, which is Jews themselves. Jews know more about the Holocaust than anyone, yet Jews, even rabbis who bash Israel abound; and squarely antisemitic Jews are also not hard to find. I recall even seeing a YouTube video of a Jewish man spewing all kinds of fallacious vitriol about Israel alongside his adulation of the Palestinians, and this man not only knew about the Holocaust, but had been in it. Curiously, Jewish Israel-defamers are often accomplished individuals who presumably have no trouble with basic reasoning like “buy low, sell high,” yet when given the test “Tweedledee is to Tweedledum as Nazi Germany is to Israel,” they check “True!!” Why expect more from anyone else? I would wager that were an ADL survey to report that students who completed Holocaust studies “were 80 percent more likely to sympathize with Zionism,” this would create a firestorm and perhaps “discredit” Holocaust studies altogether. What does this tell us about its efficacy against antisemitism?
I’ve already stumbled on two university theses postulating dark Zionist plotting behind Holocaust studies. With the usual painful irony, neither grasps that the Jews driving the bus are the Greenblatts; those who undermine Jewish interests rather than serve them. The first author noticed a suspicious parallel between the growth of Holocaust education and the growth of U.S. financial support for Israel; the second says it all in her title: The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education.
Perhaps the most compelling counter-argument to Holocaust education is something Wisse points out – that “antisemitism in the United States has spread in tandem with increased teaching about the Holocaust.” Notwithstanding recent headlines calling deficiencies in Holocaust knowledge “shocking,” the reality is that knowledge today is greater than it was in the past. In 1993, 38 percent of adults and 53 percent of high school students did not even know what the Holocaust was. In 2018 the numbers were 11 percent for adults and 22 percent for millennials. (And what the media omitted to say about the 2018 survey is that a roughly equal percentage of respondents thought the number of Jews killed was 20 million as thought it was 1 or 2 million.)
The current state of Holocaust education recalls the leftist-driven sex education campaign in the U.S. in the 1960s. The intent was purportedly to reduce teenage pregnancy and venereal disease, yet both had already been declining. Instead, by the late 1970s, after the proliferation of clinics, pills, and sex education, all rates dramatically increased. It turns out that the original, publicly stated pragmatic agenda had not been entirely forthright. More privately, promoters expressed its purpose as instilling “healthy attitudes about sex” (The Vision of the Anointed, by Thomas Sowell, pp. 15-22). So it may be that in leftist minds, the program was a success after all. Is Holocaust education similarly destined to betray its stated promise?
Most of the writers cited in the first paragraph of this piece stopped short of wanting to throw out the baby of Holocaust education with the bathwater. Wisse is more categorical:
The liberal conscription of the Holocaust as a moral exemplum was misguided from the start, and as presently conceived, it conceals rather than confronts anti-Jewish aggression, falsifies both the nature of anti-Jewish politics and the nature of the Jewish people, advances political causes under false pretenses…