Will Holocaust education solve anti-Semitism?

The growing trend of hate incidents in Europe reveal a disturbing number of people with little knowledge of, or interest in, the Holocaust.

French policewoman photographs swastika 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
French policewoman photographs swastika 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In recent months, there has been a spate of public statements from high-profile European personalities and public figures, in which they have expressed ideas that appear anti-Semitic.
From former Christian Dior fashion designer John Galliano, who in February declared that he “loved Hitler,” to Danish film producer Lars von Trier, who said at the Cannes film festival in May that he understood and sympathized with the Nazi leader, it seems that quite a number of people in Europe are losing their inhibitions when it comes to expressing their anti-Semitism.
Last December, Greek Orthodox Bishop Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus declared on a morning TV show in Greece that “Adolf Hitler was an instrument of world Zionism” and that Zionists control international banking. The Mayor of Malmo, Sweden, meanwhile, equated Zionism with anti-Semitism on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, saying that he rejected them both.
Other European officials have also let slip their feelings about the power of the Jewish community. European Commission trade commissioner Karel De Gucht said on Belgian radio in September last year that one should not underestimate the “grip” of the Jewish lobby on American politics, nor, on the subject of Israel, should one “underestimate the opinion... of the average Jew outside Israel” in light of a belief “among most Jews that they are right.”
In May, Belgian Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck said in a television debate that he was in favor of amnesty for those who collaborated with Nazis during World War II, and that it was time for Belgium to “forget” about this period of history.
Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, is concerned by this trend. The increasing number of public anti- Semitic statements illustrates, for him, a rise in what he defines as “respectable anti-Semitism,” and that such prominent figures can evoke these anti-Semitic canards is disturbing.
“All levels of society need to be accountable for their words and their actions. Jews cannot possibly feel safe on a continent whose prominent figures can say such things,” Kantor says.
MORE WORRYING, perhaps, is the continuing increase in general of anti-Semitic incidents across Europe. According to the Community Security Trust, the body dealing with Jewish community security in the UK, 2010 was the second-worst year on record for anti-Semitic incidents since recording began in 1984.
In France, the Jewish Community Protection Service has gone so far as to say in its 2010 report that anti-Semitism has become “an enduring attribute of our society,” and according to a study on worldwide anti-Semitism conducted by the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism and the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry, serious anti-Semitic incidents of physical violence, direct threats and major acts of vandalism were the thirdhighest in 2010 since recording began in 1990.
Louise Ellman, a UK Member of Parliament for the Labor Party on the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism, notes that “anti-Zionism is certainly a convenient cloak for anti-Semitism.”
But as a politician who has striven to combat anti- Semitism, she is understandably more circumspect about the implications of the kind of statements made by Galliano and von Trier.
“Of course it’s deeply disturbing that they felt comfortable expressing such opinions in the first place,” she says, but she doesn’t agree that these kinds of incidents indicate a growing acceptance of anti-Semitism. “The fact that condemnation and action against them came so swiftly shows that the kind of sentiment they expressed is still beyond the pale,” she argues.
At the same time, there are indications that knowledge of the historical facts of the Holocaust might be declining in European countries.
A recent poll commissioned by the European Jewish Congress on the topic showed that almost two-thirds of those surveyed did not know how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust. In Spain, of those polled in the 18-44 age bracket, nearly 35 percent didn’t know when the Holocaust occurred, and in the UK, in the same age range, nearly 20% didn’t know what Auschwitz was.
Two-thirds of the youth surveyed could not identify Holocaust organizer and facilitator Adolf Eichmann.
There is concern that these levels of ignorance could prove fertile ground for Holocaust deniers or minimizers.
The findings can be interpreted as evidence for those who claim that a greater investment in, and a redirection of, Holocaust education is required.
“Europe has put a lot of effort and resources into Holocaust education,” Kantor says, “but it does not seem to be working. Perhaps it is time to rethink the strategy of Holocaust awareness. As the Holocaust recedes further into the past and fewer survivors are alive to tell their story, we have to find new and innovative ways of imparting knowledge and understanding about the darkest chapter in modern European history.”
Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, who is based in the United States, says that “while the situation is not so pessimistic, given the [EJC Holocaust awareness] survey’s results, there certainly needs to be greater investment in education.”
SAMUEL PISAR – an internationally renowned lawyer and the author of Of Blood and Hope, a memoir of his experiences as a youth under Nazi tyranny – stresses this need as well, especially among the younger population in Europe.
“We have to find a way to alert the young people,” Pisar says in a conversation with The Jerusalem Post. “We must print books in local languages and place information on the Web where it is more accessible. Holocaust books must also be made available in the Arab world where people only have access to official and often poisonous propaganda.”
He also emphasizes that with fewer survivors able to recount their experiences and build the record with authentic first hand evidence, there will be more room for those who call the holocaust a “myth” to spread their lies about the Holocaust. .
“We, the last survivors, are disappearing one by one.
Soon we will not be around. The Holocaust will be discussed and debated by researchers, novelists and other well-meaning people – if we are lucky,” he says. “However, it will also be distorted by deniers, negationists and incendiary demagogues. That process has already begun.”
According to Pisar, De Clerck’s views reflect an increasing outlook in Europe, but he also places it in a broader context of anti-Semitism.
“Yes, of course this reflects that growing mind-set,” he says in reaction to the Belgian justice minister’s comments.
“But there is a larger answer here. Things have changed. Anti-Semitism today is not the same anti-Semitism. It has also moved to the political left, and there is a lot of simplification and naïveté in it.”
Dr. Shimon Samuels, director of international relations for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris, agrees that the issues of rising anti-Semitism and the lack of Holocaust awareness are interconnected.
“Holocaust awareness,” he says, “is a function of how it is processed and interpreted through the prism of sentiment toward Jews in general.”
To him, there might not be a problem with awareness of the Holocaust itself but with the context within which it is being taught.
He argues that there are many other external factors influencing people today, having a negative impact on the way they perceive the Holocaust. This includes the largely negative manner in which Israel is portrayed in the media, as well as the phenomenon of Holocaust denial and trivialization, and possibly a backlash against Holocaust education.
But more importantly, Samuels believes that the Holocaust is being “anthropologized,” in that it is being universalized as one (albeit the worst) among several genocidal events in the twentieth century, and its uniqueness is therefore being corroded.
Moreover, he says that “the Holocaust is being decoupled from contemporary anti-Semitism,” and that this may be one reason the lessons of the Holocaust are being forgotten amid the growing acceptability of anti-Semitic sentiments today.
To address this problem, he believes the Holocaust must be contextualized and taught in conjunction with the phenomena of contemporary anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, if the specificity of the Holocaust to anti- Semitism is not to be lost.
OF GREATER concern for Prof. Robert Wistrich of the Hebrew University’s Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism is, he says, the reluctance of those in Europe to deal with the anti-Semitism that is prevalent in many Muslim communities on the continent, as well as the complete disregard for the virulent and toxic anti-Semitism that is rampant throughout the Middle East.
“The liberal consensus in Europe has buried its head in the sand for the past 10 years, and the Western world is, to an extent, exhibiting the same syndrome it did in the 1930s, in that no one wants to acknowledge what’s happening today,” he asserts. The media highlights incidents in which high-profile people in the West make anti- Semitic comments, “but there is silence with regard to the rabid incitement that goes on day to day in the Middle East.”
Wistrich does not consider Europe to be ignorant of the Holocaust and points to a high level of awareness brought about not only by formal education but also by media, theater and cinema.
But Holocaust education is failing, he says, “because it needs to be adapted to the world we live in. Throwing millions at building museums is not working in Europe; a more thoughtful approach is required.”
Evidence for this, he says, is the way in which Nazi imagery is often used as a means to demonize Israel. Stars of David are shown morphing into swastikas, Israel is referred to as a fascist or Nazi regime, Gaza is compared to Auschwitz, and Israel is accused of carrying out a holocaust against the Palestinians. All this is common fare for those on the extreme end of the anti-Zionist spectrum.
If Holocaust imagery can be so readily used against Jews, then for Wistrich, it is clear that the historical event has become divorced from the phenomenon of anti- Semitism through which it was conceived, and this presents a big problem.
MANY BELIEVE that better educational strategies can be found to combat the alarming trend in which classically anti-Semitic notions are seen as less taboo as time passes.
Even though knowledge and awareness of the Holocaust in Europe are still widespread, its unique lessons as they pertain to historical prejudice toward the Jewish people are in danger of being lost.
Some believe that European leaders need a combination of education and legislation to reverse these alarming trends. One possibility is to consider that the “working definition of anti-Semitism” created by the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) adopted in 2005 could serve as a good model.
This definition has been utilized by, among others, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the US State Department and UK All-Party Parliamentary Enquiry into Anti-Semitism, and the National Union of Students in Britain. However, the British University and College Union (UCU) recently voted to reject this definition of anti-Semitism – a decision slammed by a large number of Jewish organizations in Europe.
Many believe Europe is not moving quickly enough to legislate against anti-Semitism and other forms of hate.
In 2008, the EU Commission created a framework decision calling on all EU member states to adopt model legislation to combat hate and intolerance in their respective legal systems within two years. To date, none have done so.
According to Kantor, “Jews have always been a barometer for European open-mindedness. I would claim that this could be described as a dark period for European tolerance.
There must be greater investment in a more robust education, beginning at the youngest age... All of us, Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, European leaders and legislators and the average European, can and should be doing more.”