Are American Jews a hated minority or a respected part of the American fabric? Do Americans know enough about the Holocaust or too little? The answers seem to be “all of the above.” A recent Pew Research Center survey revealed that only 6% of Americans harbored unfavorable views of Jews. An American Jewish Committee survey showed that 53% of Americans over age 18 knew that approximately 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust – an impressive statistic in light of an Annenberg Constitution Day survey indicating only 47% of American adults can name the three branches of government.
Of course, even positive data feels meaningless when shooters target synagogues or Jews are physically attacked – incidents occurring with a shocking frequency we never imagined in 21st-century America. The FBI reported a 20% increase in antisemitic hate crimes, representing the majority of religion-based hate crimes in 2021.
A potentially deadly combination
We don’t need research to tell us that social media – a conspiracy theorist’s paradise – in a violence-prone, polarized society is a potentially deadly combination for Jews and other minorities.
In light of all this, what is the role of Holocaust education? It’s not the answer to a 2,000-year-old problem that manifests itself in multiple forms.
Scapegoating Jews has always served a useful purpose in all kinds of societies and circumstances, including politics on the far Right and far Left. This is what the study of history teaches us. But we live in an era when history education is on the decline.
So it should be no surprise that I heard a young American being interviewed on the radio about antisemitism. She generally knew what antisemitism was and also knew about the Nazis’ systematic murder of Europe’s Jews. But she never connected the two.
Nor is it surprising when many of the American and foreign officials I guide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum often have no idea why Jews came to be scattered across Europe, with significant numbers in Eastern Europe. They are not aware that Jews were repeatedly persecuted, dispersed and expelled over centuries, always living as a precarious minority in “other people’s” countries.
This lack of historical context is why Holocaust education must focus on not only what happened but how and why. Starting with Hitler’s rise to power is insufficient. Hitler and his henchmen could not have killed six million Jews on their own. They needed the complicity of many and the acquiescence of most. And they got it. Longstanding European antisemitism – both religious and secular varieties – was essential in making the Holocaust possible.
NAZI ANTISEMITISM was not a meteorite that fell from the sky. Conspiracy theories about Jews and their perceived power and control of world events was a global phenomenon that long predated the Nazis – and has unsurprisingly outlived them. The Nazis understood the worldwide prevalence of antisemitism as they witnessed the refusal of other countries, including our own, to take in desperate Jewish refugees when German policy in the 1930s was forced emigration.
Conspiracy theories about Jews outlived Nazis
Holocaust history teaches other urgent lessons about antisemitism. Democracy and education are not enough. Weimar Germany was an educated, advanced nation with a democratic constitution, free speech and a rule of law.
Hate started with the Jews, but did not end with the Jews. The Nazis aimed to systematically kill all Europe’s Jews but would also persecute and kill others – Germans with disabilities, Roma and Sinti, Slavs, and gay men.
Another important lesson is that one need not be an ardent antisemite to be complicit in antisemitic acts, even their deadliest form.
Before the war, Hitler was always testing domestic and international opinion and moderated his antisemitism when it was politically expedient. Even the many Germans who did not agree with his extreme antisemitism over time came to view his early accomplishments – economic stability, national pride and foreign policy successes – as reasons for tolerating distasteful policies such as the persecution of Jews.
People, who actively collaborated, in ways ranging from “desk killers” to shooters of Jewish men, women and children, often had mundane motivations: greed, career advancement, or peer approval. Had they been exposed to deeply ingrained antisemitic views and more recent Nazi propaganda? Definitely, the answer is yes. Were they always acting solely out of those beliefs? Not necessarily.
The Holocaust teaches vital lessons about our human tendency to rationalize our behavior, our desire for simple answers to complex questions, and our susceptibility to fear, resentment, conformity and scapegoating others not like us. Our current “us vs them” moment needs these lessons more than ever.
The museum is working with educators nationwide to teach these lessons to new generations. It is not enough for students to conclude the Holocaust was a terrible event that should never happen again. They need to know why Jews were targeted, what made it possible and who was responsible – not just “true believers” – but the essential role of ordinary people; people who are like us. Holocaust history should be presented in ways that provoke critical thinking about one’s own roles and responsibilities in society today.
The bad news is that teachers tell us their students today come with more doubt about the Holocaust as an actual event than in the past. The good news is that more teachers want to teach the Holocaust and also see it as a way to raise awareness of and help address antisemitism. And they want educational resources based on primary source material from our collection – artifacts and documents that personalize history and demonstrate its authenticity.
The other good news is that a 2021 survey by the American Association of Museums indicated that museums are among the most trusted institutions in our nation. Why? This is because they are research-oriented institutions, independent and teach through original objects.
Many different strategies are needed to address the two-millenia problem of antisemitism, such as advocacy, laws, inter-communal activities, popular culture, education and storytelling. As noted author Richard Powers says, “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”
Rather than tell people antisemitism is bad; we must show it. No story shows the dangers of unchecked antisemitism as powerfully as the Holocaust. One leading scholar believes Holocaust education has the potential to create “anti-antisemites.”
Elie Wiesel said, “The most vital lesson to be learned from the Holocaust era is that Auschwitz was possible because the enemy succeeded in dividing, in separating, in splitting human society, nation against nation, Christian against Jew, young against old. And not enough people cared.” Inspiring people to care is a crucial first step in the enduring battle to confront humanity’s longest hatred.
The writer is director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.