ON MY MIND: Validating Holocaust denial

Even with the passage of 73 years, one should expect a visceral reaction to anyone publicly denying the Holocaust.

A visitor to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum walks past a mural of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Washington, January 26, 2007 (photo credit: REUTERS/JIM YOUNG)
A visitor to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum walks past a mural of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Washington, January 26, 2007
(photo credit: REUTERS/JIM YOUNG)
Is Holocaust denial becoming an accepted norm in American public discourse?
Some candidates for Congress openly reject the basic facts about the systematic Nazi extermination of six million Jews. Facebook equivocates on regulating those who exploit its platform to preach hatred of Jews and Holocaust denial. Meanwhile, an astonishingly large number of Americans lack knowledge about the Holocaust. It is that woeful ignorance that makes people susceptible to shameful falsehoods propagated more than seven decades after the end of World War II.
John Fitzgerald, the Republican candidate for a US House of Representative seat from a district in the San Francisco area, is offering a $2,000 reward to anyone who agrees with and can substantiate his contention that the Holocaust is a fabrication.
Though the California Republican Party supported Fitzgerald when he ran unopposed in the April primary, his brazen antisemitism, including robocalls claiming Jews are “taking over the world” and Holocaust denial, led the party leadership to repudiate him. But he is still on the November ballot, and Holocaust denial is at the top of his congressional campaign website.
In Illinois, Arthur Jones, another declared Holocaust denier and a former leader of the American Nazi Party, is the Republican candidate for a House seat from Chicago. He won the Illinois primary in March unopposed. In Jones’s case too, the GOP eventually disowned his candidacy, but his campaign website has a section on the Holocaust, which he has dismissed as “a great overblown moment” and “an international extortion racket.”
Back in California, Senator Diane Feinstein is facing a challenge from Patrick Little, a declared neo-Nazi endorsed by David Duke, the former KKK leader. The California Republican Party has disavowed Little, too.
While none of the three is expected to win in November, they have gained a degree of new legitimacy by garnering support from voters for one of the country’s two mainstream parties. Why alternate candidates could not be encouraged to enter the primary races is unclear.
The emergence of neo-Nazis as candidates for the US Congress comes amid a rise in hate crimes across the U.S. by 4.6% from 2015 to 2016. The latest FBI hate-crimes report, covering the year 2016, found that 54% of reported crimes motivated by religious bias in the US targeted Jews. This trend is likely to have continued in 2017 and this year.
Countering antisemitism and other expressions of group hatred should be a high priority for those who have the tools and the capacity to do so.
But why, then, has Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg displayed such a stunning ambivalence about confronting Holocaust deniers?
“I’m Jewish and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened,” he said in an interview with the technology news website Recode. “I find that deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong, but I think it’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent.”
Zuckerberg went on to assert that only if individuals posting the hateful content are “trying to organize harm against someone, or attacking someone,” would Facebook consider removing the posts.
Yair Rosenberg recommends posting a surgeon-general type of warning instead of simply removing the objectionable content.
“It’s easy to pretend your society doesn’t have a prejudice problem when your social-media platforms are systematically suppressing all evidence of it,” he wrote in The Atlantic.
Rosenberg suggests that Facebook place prominent disclaimers warning readers that the pages promote denial of the Holocaust, and then refer people to the websites of Yad Vashem and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
More than 73 years after the end of World War II, as the numbers of survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust diminish, we must urge with renewed vigor the need to preserve memory, educate and mobilize to prevent genocide and effectively counter the deniers.
That urgent need is reflected in a survey released in April by the Claims Conference revealing that the knowledge of Americans about the Holocaust is seriously deficient, if not alarming.
The survey found that 11% of US adults and 22% of millennials have not heard of or are not sure if they have heard of the Holocaust. Nearly a third – 31%, of all adults – and 41% of millennials, believe that only two million or fewer were killed during the Holocaust. Some 45% of all adults and 49% of millennials cannot name a concentration camp or ghetto. Asked specifically about Auschwitz, shockingly, 66% of millennials and 41% of all adults were not able to identify the infamous death camp.
The survey findings call out for stepped-up efforts in American schools, but most states do not require Holocaust education. Only California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island have mandatory Holocaust and genocide education in public schools.
Even with the passage of 73 years, one should expect a visceral reaction to anyone publicly denying the Holocaust and promoting antisemitism. Inadequate responses only encourage the haters.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.