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Making Holocaust Education About Jews and Anti-Semites

We must find a balance between overly universal or hyperspecific approaches to ensuring ‘never again’

Bruce Abramson and Jeff Ballabon
June 12, 2020
First daughter and adviser to the U.S. president, Ivanka Trump, visits the Holocaust memorial in Berlin on April 25, 2017MICHAEL SOHN/AFP/Getty Images
First daughter and adviser to the U.S. president, Ivanka Trump, visits the Holocaust memorial in Berlin on April 25, 2017MICHAEL SOHN/AFP/Getty Images

On May 29, President Donald Trump signed into law the “Never Again Education Act,” expanding the federal government’s role in developing and providing educational materials about the Holocaust. Yet while Holocaust curricula, museums, memorials, and documentaries have proliferated over the decades, they have manifestly failed at their primary mission—the “Never Again” alluded to in this law’s name. Anti-Semitism is reemerging as a potent political tool, increasingly wielded throughout mainstream Western culture. For this law to make a difference, it must trigger a critical reconsideration of past efforts.

The Holocaust is history’s only instance in which a people were hunted, trapped, consolidated, enslaved, and exterminated on an industrial scale. That the people in question were the Jews is hardly coincidental; the Holocaust lies along a grim continuum of brutal anti-Semitism that has taken many guises across many centuries.

Unfortunately, most existing programs push Holocaust education in one of two directions: Either they emphasize the unique evil of Nazism—utterly missing the vital universal aspect of the Holocaust, or they universalize the experience of bigotry and oppression—eliding the crucial uniqueness of the Holocaust. Neither approach captures the centrality of anti-Semitism and the Jews to the Holocaust, and both have had disastrous unintended consequences.

These observations are not new. In 1990, historian Lucy Davidowicz surveyed 25 Holocaust curricula used around the United States. She noted that they

undertake to do two things: first, to give pupils basic information and, second, to provide appropriate moral education … Though all curricula discuss Nazi anti-Semitism, preferring generic terms like “racism” and “prejudice” instead of the specific “anti-Semitism,” 15 of the 25 never even suggest that anti-Semitism had a history before Hitler. … Most curricula also aim (in the words of one) “to teach students the inevitable consequences of hatred, prejudice, bigotry, and scapegoating.” They try to instill respect for racial, religious, and cultural differences, and to foster a commitment to democratic values … Most focus on “individual responsibility” as against “obedience to authority” as keys to moral behavior.

That emphasis never changed. Twenty years later, in a 2010 guide for those teaching grades 7-12, the Illinois Holocaust Museum explained:

The Holocaust provides one of the most effective subjects for an examination of basic moral issues. A structured inquiry into this history yields critical lessons for an investigation of human behavior. Study of the event also addresses one of the central mandates of education in the United States, which is to examine what it means to be a responsible citizen. … The Holocaust was not an accident in history—it occurred because individuals, organizations, and governments made choices that not only legalized discrimination but also allowed prejudice, hatred, and ultimately, mass murder, to occur.

In 2008, Yad Vashem hosted a conference dedicated to “Teaching the Shoah: Fighting Racism and Prejudice.” A decade later, the announcement for its 2018 conference laments that “the challenges that educators worldwide face today are many: universalization of the Holocaust, inaccurate comparisons and parallels outside of the context of the historical event, and the daunting task of creating relevancy for students in the 21st century.”

In a less scholarly vein, the universalization and diminution of the Holocaust was concretized by Mike Godwin’s early 1990s observations of the still-emerging internet. Thus, “Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” According to Godwin, what first piqued his curiosity were the “obvious topics,” such as reminding “gun-control advocates … that Hitler banned personal weapons,” “pro-lifers’ insistence that abortionists are engaging in mass murder, worse than that of Nazi death camps,” and the inevitability that someone will “raise the specter of Nazi book-burning” in any discussion of censorship. Once attuned to the issue, Godwin noticed Nazi comparisons arising in general discussion of the law, among libertarians “ready to label any government regulation as incipient Nazism,” and elsewhere. In Godwin’s words, “invariably, the comparisons trivialized the horror of the Holocaust and the social pathology of the Nazis. It was a trivialization I found both illogical … and offensive.”

Whether illogical and offensive or well-intentioned and pedagogically compelling, the combination of casual Nazi analogies and universalization of human suffering have both neutered the effect of teaching the Holocaust and created endless misdirection, including the current widespread practice of accusing Israel of Nazi behavior and genocidal intent.

Programs emphasizing the Holocaust’s uniqueness tend to focus on the evil ideology of the Nazis—the perpetrators. Audiences are taught to become hypervigilant against Nazism’s return. They identify characteristics of Hitler’s regime that most trouble them personally, project parallels in today’s world, and insist that contemporary regimes exhibiting these characteristics are on the brink of unleashing a second Holocaust. Focused on externalities, they often are blind to actual threats which manifest differently. Thus, for example, many of the same people eternally vigilant about the threat of neo-Nazis and white supremacists seem blithely unconcerned when equally dangerous rhetoric emanates from anti-Semites and racial separatists and supremacists who are not white.

Programs that emphasize the Holocaust’s brutality tend to conflate the Holocaust with whatever grave injustice offends audiences at that moment—Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, apartheid, etc. In fact, none of those atrocities, evil though they were, were the Holocaust. As the analogies ratchet downward in scope, scale, and significance, the universalization inevitably diminishes and ultimately trivializes a historically unique crime against a specific people. Audiences are conditioned to weaponize the charge and deploy it in grossly offensive ways, comparing the Holocaust to America’s immigration policies, or to Israel’s struggles with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

In short, 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 anti-Semitism. Holocaust education is exploited for resurgent anti-Semitism because it bends over backwards to avoid the essence of the event itself: Though race obsession and industrialized barbarism characterized the Holocaust, the essential characteristic of the Holocaust, like all anti-Semitism, was the conspiracy-theoretic belief that the Jews are to blame for all that is wrong in the world.

Precisely what distinguishes anti-Semitism from other forms of prejudice and hatred—however murderous—is that it is a conspiracy theory. Most discriminatory societies have justified their behavior by claiming that the mistreated “other” was unworthy, intellectually or morally deficient, in the way, and/or consuming desired resources. When it comes to the Jews, such common complaints are only part of the story. Even when the Jews have lived as ghettoized impoverished peasants, Jew haters have nevertheless attributed to them unrivaled power to control and manipulate events.

Nearly all contemporary anti-Semitism, whether born of identity politics or anti-Zionism, casts Jews (and/or Israel) as a uniquely powerful force in today’s world. As became clear publicly not long ago, in the United States, in the 21st century, there still lurks the belief that Jews control everything including the weather. For those concerned about “Never Again,” and for those aware of the history of anti-Semitism, this level of primitive paranoid delusion should be far more alarming than amusing.

The Holocaust itself thoroughly manifested such thinking. Hitler preached that “International Jewry” was subverting the superior Aryan culture, as well as directing the American, English, and Soviet opposition to his glorious Third Reich. The perfection of industrial death machinery was not a diversion; it was among Hitler’s central war aims. In the rhetoric of scapegoaters and the minds of conspiratorial Jew haters, the real battlefront is always the war against the Jews from without and within. Eliminate the puppeteers and the puppets will collapse; exterminate the vermin and the body will heal.

Acknowledging the centrality of conspiratorial Jew-hatred to the Holocaust does not preclude also acknowledging the suffering of tens or hundreds of millions of people across Europe who fell victim to Nazi aggression, occupation, and oppression. Nor does it downplay the horror of the millions of non-Jews who perished in Nazi death camps—including Romani, gays, and Poles. It simply highlights the reason those death camps existed in the first place. Without the pressing need to eradicate international Jewry, the Nazis would never have developed their industrial death machinery. And like all other weapon systems, once the Nazis perfected it, they were inclined to deploy it broadly. “Never Again” is not meant to protect only the Jews; it is meant to stave off societal suicide.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is the entity charged with developing educational material under the new law. The museum currently teaches that anti-Semitism has “its origins in the days of the early Christian church.” It traces the Holocaust’s origins only within the context of Christian Europe. But Jews have recorded anti-Semitism, and attempted genocide, for many centuries before the church and in many cultures untouched by Christianity. As described in Jewish literature from the epochs of ancient Egypt, Persia, Rome, and Greece, and until today Jew-hatred has defined a unique, stunningly consistent, niche in the annals of human hatred. Millennia of Jewish literature relate how, in the deranged minds of conspiratorial anti-Semites of all races, creeds and cultures, the real battlefront is always the war against the Jews.

Holocaust education is not getting that message across. It was not merely “hate” that created the Holocaust then or that threatens Jews today. It was not the charismatic leader, the socialist, nationalist, and populist overlays, or even the assertion of racial purity. Nor was it merely a continuation of Europe’s Christian anti-Semitism. Haman is described to have won his bid for Jewish genocide based on claims that the Jews of the Persian Empire were a disloyal fifth column. Today, with the advent of the State of Israel, this argument takes the form of suspicions of Jewish “dual loyalty.” The Holocaust itself was framed as a conscious, strategic response to imagined Jewish manipulations.

For Holocaust education to counter anti-Semitism, it must be reoriented away from hyperfocus on the externalities and mechanics of Nazism toward the inner obsession that remains relevant and dangerous in disparate guises. Teaching the threat of conspiratorial Jew hatred can counter the barbarism of a Europe intent upon atoning for its atrocities against Jews by opening its borders to violent anti-Semites. It can explain why a member of Congress’ paranoid public fulminations about the Jewish State hypnotizing the world and Jewish money manipulating Washington are cut from the same cloth as swastika-brandishing white supremacists chanting about not being replaced. It can halt the accelerating descent of the American intelligentsia into paranoid blood libels that characterize hardcore anti-Zionism and BDS—including the rising obscenity of Jewish groups trafficking in the same delusional psychosis.

Understanding—and holding at bay—the ancient, culture-destroying threat of anti-Semitism lies not in obsessing over the inconstant identities of fungible Jew-haters, but in seeing beyond those details to the unique and consistent nature of toxic anti-Semitic conspiracy narratives.

Understanding history is vital. Fighting bigotry and racism is imperative. But those who take up the “Never Again” banner must not look away from what lurks in the heart of darkness that once again threatens to engulf society. “Never Again” education must focus directly on the dangerous delusions of the anti-Semite and stop providing that beast the narrative tools by which to scapegoat us. Anti-Semitism—including the Holocaust—is always all about the Jews.

Dr. Bruce Abramson and Jeff Ballabon are principals at JBB&A Strategies/B2 Strategic and founders of the Jewish Legal Defense Fund. Dr. Abramson’s most recent book is The New Civil War: Exposing Elites, Fighting Utopian Leftism, and Restoring America (RealClear Publishing, 2021).

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