In 2018, Jewish students at a pluralistic community high school participated in a project called “We Will Not Be Silenced,” a week-long commemoration of the Holocaust. To broach this topic, this prestigious school focused on Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom carried out by the Nazi Party against the Jews of Germany. The interactive project compelled students to write on small pieces of paper the things about which they would not be silent as a result of Kristallnacht. The following are examples of what students chose to write. On note cards bearing the heading “I will not be silent in the face of,” students wrote “homophobia,” “trans violence,” “gun violence,” “environmental degradation,” “rape culture,” “sexism,” “racism,” and “any hate.” Not one student wrote “anti-Semitism,” the very reason that Kristallnacht occurred.
An essential question surfaces: why not? What occurred pedagogically in the classroom that encouraged students to walk away with knowledge that in no way expressed the main undercurrent of the Nazi regime?
One should be shocked by this. But taking stock of the field of Holocaust education, the answers yielded by the students are not in any way exceptional. They reflect the fact that Holocaust education—very simply—is not working. Far worse, it has been usurped by individuals with very specific learning objectives, one of which is to universalize the Holocaust to such a degree so as to render its particular history abstract—almost irrelevant.
The universalization of the Holocaust did not occur overnight. Historically, in the immediate post-war years, awareness of the Nazi atrocities began to grow. One of the first testimonies, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, published in 1952, slowly became a staple of Holocaust literature in public schools. Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night, joined Anne Frank’s diary in the hope of serving as eternal witnesses to the Holocaust.
The first state to mandate Holocaust curriculum was Illinois in 1990. It is important to note that initial efforts, as reported in a 2006 study on the “State of Holocaust Education in the State of Illinois,” produced eight major findings as a result of teaching the Holocaust, one of which was “a wide array of topics such as death camps, anti-Semitism, Hitler’s rise to power, non-Jewish victims, creation of the state of Israel, and the U.S.’s response to the Holocaust is being taught in Illinois high schools.” It would seem, therefore, that, initially, the architects of Holocaust curriculum seemed to grasp the singular nature of the subject. Using the state of Illinois as a case study, a major shift occurred in 2005, when the legislature mandated that Holocaust education include “other cases of genocide.” Other states slowly followed suit. Before 2016, only seven states required Holocaust education in schools. In the past seven years, eighteen more have passed Holocaust education mandates. And yet, anti-Semitism in the United States is at an all-time high. For example, the phrase “Hitler was right” was posted online more than 17,000 times over the course of just one week in 2022 alone.
All in all, the belief that Holocaust education is an effective antidote to hate is not consistent with reality, mostly due to its universalization. Take, for example, a person who condemns the “Israelization” of American domestic policy, or says that Israel is a “colonial” state guilty of “state terror” and “is waging a war against civilians.” That same person claims “it is certainly true that one universal truth about the Holocaust” is that “there is value in seeing analogies and perhaps hidden similarities” between it and the “Palestinian disaster.” Do we really think this person does not know about the Holocaust? Was his problem really a lack of knowledge, or something much darker?
More to the point, the numbers indicate that Holocaust education has simply failed. A 2020 poll of young Americans across all fifty states, commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, reveals that disturbingly high numbers of respondents know precious little about the Holocaust. As the study’s press release details:
Nationally, there is a clear lack of awareness of key historical facts; 63 percent of all national survey respondents do not know that six million Jews were murdered and 36 percent thought that “two million or fewer Jews” were killed during the Holocaust. Additionally, although there were more than 40,000 camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust, 48 percent of national survey respondents cannot name a single one.
The state-by-state analysis yielded a particularly disquieting finding that nearly 20 percent of Millennials and Gen Z in New York feel the Jews caused the Holocaust.
Holocaust education has been required in New York State since 1994. If nearly a fifth of the young people (polled) in America’s most Jewish state (compared to 11% nationally) believe that the Jewish people were responsible for their own extermination, the very existence of such a statistic—even among, in all fairness, a relatively small sample size—indicates that at least something is wrong. Its exact cause cannot be precisely determined—for instance, such attitudes are likely not picked up in schools—but it certainly appears that the curriculum in use today is not flattening this steepening curve. Nevertheless—and not surprisingly—the New York State Education Department maintains that no “corrective action” is required.
The Holocaust education remedy is not only appearing in classrooms. Public figures who make anti-Semitic statements are invited to tour Holocaust museums, and schools with a rise in anti-Semitic instances invite Holocaust speakers, or themselves go on tours of those museums. The assumption being that if one is either involved in anti-Semitic hate speech or is witness to it, the necessary panacea is to go to a museum to witness how the story of anti-Semitism in the 20th century concluded: with the attempted genocide of the Jewish people.
The problem is that such a visitor to these museums seems to walk out with a very different message. Recently, a high school English teacher in Los Angeles who wishes to remain anonymous spoke to me, Naya Lekht, about one such trip her school took to the Museum of Tolerance. The Museum of Tolerance, established in 1993, is the educational department of the prestigious Simon Wiesenthal Center, named in honor of—though not founded by—famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Here is her recollection of the event:
Our school has been having quite a significant rise in antisemitic instances; you know, like swastikas etched into tables. And the school took us on a trip to the Holocaust museum and the docent took us through the exhibit, and then at the end—you know, when you walk out—we somehow found ourselves in this relatively big exhibit on trans and gay rights and BLM and environmental justice. I did not quite understand how the gas chambers constructed to kill Jews had anything to do with trans rights. And the reason I am bringing up the gas chambers is that one of the final rooms in the exhibit on the Holocaust was a room of what gas chambers looked like. It was haunting. But I was confused.
What this teacher’s “confusion” reveals is that Holocaust curriculum and Holocaust museums have transformed from spaces to commemorate the particularity of the Jewish story into temples dedicated to a universal story of human insensitivity—a mere allegory of anything unjust, now or then. The Museum of Tolerance indeed does offer exhibits on the subjects of “homelessness, LGBTQ+ issues, bullying, the challenges of policing,” and much more that has nothing to do with the Nazis’ Final Solution, including the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot.
Sadly, the Museum of Tolerance is not alone in this behavior. The website of Boston’s Holocaust memorial includes a lesson plan from the program Facing History and Ourselves, which discusses the teachings of elite Black Lives Matter activist Clint Smith, as well as the “human responsibility” to rescue Syrian refugees. (No mention is made of either Black Lives Matter’s or Syrian refugees’ anti-Jewish attitudes.) Even the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the most prestigious institution of Holocaust education in America, has published material concerning how “climate change” has contributed to several modern-day genocides.
Of course, it was not always this way. Just like the 1990 Illinois curriculum, which seems to have focused on the singularity of the Holocaust, museums established to teach people about the Holocaust echo similar stories of origin. In 1978, a President’s Commission on the Holocaust, chaired by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, recommended the establishment of a memorial building that would preserve the memory of the six million victims, and, through education, inspire the American public to perpetuate that memory. Indeed, with clear moral convictions, the Commission’s letter urged the president that the effort to remember the Holocaust in the United States must not stray from acknowledging that, while many others were killed in the Holocaust, it was only the Jews who were targeted for annihilation because they were Jews:
…Mr. President, the next question your Commission had to examine was whom are we to remember? It is vital that the American people come to understand the distinctive reality of the Holocaust: millions of innocent were tragically killed by the Nazis. They must be remembered. However, there exists a moral imperative for special emphasis on the six million Jews. While not all victims were Jews, all Jews were destined for annihilation solely because they born Jewish (p. iii).
The report goes on to outline the guiding principles for establishing a memorial space for the Holocaust, one of which is to recognize the “uniqueness of the Holocaust,” noting that the concept of annihilating “an entire people” in such a way “was unprecedented” (p. 3).
To understand how and why Holocaust education and museums evolved into spaces that universalized the particularity of the event, we need not look too far. In terms of the Jewish institutional world, most fundamentally spearheaded by the ADL, Holocaust education is shaped by the phrase “never again.” As early as 1983, a curriculum published in New Jersey with the help of the ADL developed and published a program they called “The Holocaust and Genocide: A Search for Conscience,” in which teachers are instructed to discuss the “nature of human behavior” and “views of Prejudice and Genocide.” By about 2010, the Jewish institutional world’s use of the phrase “never again” was commonplace in political slogans in support of immigration reform, “climate justice,” anti-racism, equity, and “reproductive justice.”
The origin of the phrase “never again” might surprise the average ADL employee. It originated in the introduction to Menachem Begin’s 1951 memoir The Revolt:
…I have written this also for Gentiles, lest they be unwilling to realize, or all too ready to overlook, the fact that out of blood and fire and tears and ashes, a new specimen of human being was born, a specimen completely unknown to the world for over eighteen hundred years, “the Fighting Jew.” That Jew, whom the world considered dead and buried and never to rise again has arisen. For he has learned that “simple truth” of life and death, and he will never again go down to the sides of the pit and vanish from off the earth” (p. xxv).
Indeed, “never again” was written by a fervent Zionist who barely escaped the Holocaust. These words were not and are not meant to be appropriated by any other cause. And yet they have been.
Nobody disagrees that there have been all too many acts of depraved mass murder throughout history, some far larger per capita than the Nazi genocide of the Jews. From the communist Chinese “Great Leap Forward” of 1958-1962 (killing perhaps 45 million people) to the Islamic conquest of India beginning in 1001 (perhaps 80 million), Jews are hardly the only people on earth who have suffered or been murdered. Social injustices and genocides certainly do still occur, and we must always encourage people of good will to stand against them regardless of time or place. Jewish suffering is categorically never “more important” or “worse” than non-Jewish suffering. Still, it is neither historically nor morally correct to relegate the extermination of the Jewish people to the status of just another story of “hate.”
Genocide exists on a spectrum, on whose most diabolical end one must, without compromise, place the genocide of the Jews. For example, though murderous in the extreme, Islamic armies’ crusades against Christian or Hindu kingdoms aimed chiefly to wipe out the practice of kufr (non-Islam) and benefit from rendering vast non-Muslim populations politically powerless. Whereas Muslim warriors often gave the conquered two choices—conversion or death—Jews on the ramp at Birkenau, even if selected to “live,” ultimately had none.
More recent atrocities like the Armenian Genocide and the Arab Sudanese regime’s racist jihad against rebellious black populations were indeed genocidal, but had other, arguably more general, objectives in mind. Of great importance were also destroying religious and national identities, as well as stealing natural resources. These radically reduced, subjugated populations—most infamously in the case of Sudan—were far more useful to the state and its agents as living slaves than as hills of corpses. Such titanic suffering rightly diminishes this rather academic distinction’s relevance, but the point is that the Holocaust is unique.
Even the Rwandan and Cambodian Genocides—the ones most repellently similar to the Holocaust in their pathological racism—were committed against people hated almost exclusively within Rwandan and Cambodian society. Zulu people in South Africa, for example, thousands of miles from the blood-soaked hills of Kigali, harbored no hatred of Tutsis. Almost nobody outside the Indo-Chinese peninsula has, like Pol Pot, attempted to completely exterminate ethnic Chinese or Vietnamese minorities. Jews, however, have been hated for century after century by every social class across both the Christian and the Islamic worlds. In fact, Jews are reviled today in societies like Poland and Syria, where their presence is microscopic to practically non-existent.
Racism, even genocidal racism, like that of Sudanese Arabs or Rwandan Hutus, is universal, however ironically, in its provincial particularism. Inter-tribal bloodlust is a constant as old as human nature itself. Hatred of Jews, however—as “Christ-killers,” host desecrators, child murderers, usurers, bloated capitalists, rabid communists, political puppet masters, organ thieves, “occupiers,” racists, slave masters, and sexual criminals—is particular in its universalism. People who have never met, seen, or lived within hundreds of miles of Jews have wanted to kill them. Put simply: the Holocaust was not simply one of many “holocausts.”
Curricular system failure
Why, and how, did Holocaust education come to degenerate into, at the very best, an insipid reflection on “man’s inhumanity to man”? And what does this mean for a branch of education so vital to vaccinating children against what the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called the “mutating” virus of anti-Semitism?
American Jewish writer Dara Horn most recently addressed this in her essay “Is Holocaust Education Making Anti-Semitism Worse?” Horn writes that when it comes to teaching historical facts, Holocaust education remains essential; when it comes to addressing contemporary anti-Semitism, however, Holocaust education is “incapable” of doing this and sometimes even contributes to Jew-hatred. This conclusion is as fascinating as it is disturbing. We have been mandating Holocaust education in American schools precisely to better comprehend anti-Semitism and prepare students’ moral immune systems against the spread of this virus. Or have we?
Truth be told, the lessons of the Holocaust we have been teaching, whether in the classroom or in museums, boils down to “othering” a people is “bad,” Jews were the quintessential “other,” racism is the only cause of the Holocaust, and white supremacy is the peculiar outgrowth of Nazism alone. Dare we say, racism was not the cause of the Holocaust, but rather the vehicle used by the Nazis in order to deploy Jew-hatred; and Jews, especially German Jews, who were highly assimilated and integrated into German society, were hardly the “quintessential other.”
No, the Holocaust occurred because of anti-Semitism, a particular and highly complex form of hatred. Those who want to teach about the Holocaust, therefore, should not begin their courses with Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, but with the birth of European Jew-hatred, dating to the Middle Ages in Europe, or even to the rise of Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries. Indeed, the history of the Holocaust is but the most hideous chapter in the many-volume history of Jew-hatred.
We begin, therefore, to arrive at some sort of answer to the question posed in the beginning: what occurred pedagogically in the classroom to compel students to walk away with the notion that, because of Kristallnacht, they will dedicate their lives to combatting racism, homophobia, sexism, and gun violence? Most likely, students were taught that Kristallnacht is an instructive tale of how dangerous it is “to other” another people, how racism leads to genocide, and how we must fight those who seek to oppress a persecuted minority.
It would be curious to find out whether the teachers at the school had taught students anything about the origins of Kristallnacht itself: that a Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan, shot a German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, in Paris on November 9, 1938. A few days earlier, the Nazi government expelled thousands of Polish Jews living in Germany from the Reich. Having received the news that his parents were among those expelled, Grynszpan killed vom Rath, the third secretary of the German embassy in Paris. That very evening, Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels used the story about one Jew in Paris to convince Hitler to unleash an all-night wave of brutal pogroms against German Jews throughout the country. (The timing could not have been any more apt: the violence peaked in the early hours of November 10, venomous anti-Semite and Nazi hero Martin Luther’s birthday.) Kristallnacht would also mark the first instance in which the Nazis targeted, arrested, and incarcerated Jews on a massive scale specifically because of their Jewish origins. It would be equally important to explore why the German population, hundreds of miles away from Paris, was not only ready but willing to enact such a crime against the Jews of Germany.
Is it intellectual or pedagogical laziness on the part of our educators, educational non-profits, state legislators, and museum curators to write off Kristallnacht or the Holocaust as “a crime against a marginalized group”? Have we been asking the wrong questions? Or have we been aiming to achieve flawed learning objectives (i.e., how the story of the Holocaust can teach us about crimes against humanity and global injustice)? Perhaps all of this is intentional? Have the educators, state legislators, and museum curators been committed to a very focused goal: to arouse partisan social action via Holocaust education, thus easily explaining its universalization?
And, of course, all of this is done—one would hope—by very well-intentioned individuals who seek to educate through empathy and want so badly to restore this broken world. But what have these intentions yielded? The best case scenario is the abstraction of the Holocaust to such a degree that students do not even know that they are learning about the murder of Jews; the worst case scenario is how easily such universalization lends itself to accusing the only Jewish country, Israel, of crimes against humanity and the anti-Semitic canard of comparing Israel to the Nazi state.
Not too long ago, Bob Kellog, a radio host for American Family News, reached out to me, Naya Lekht, for comment about flyers distributed all around the Nashville, Tennessee, campus of Pepperdine University comparing banning drag shows to the Holocaust.
“Do you find this to be insensitive?” Kellog asked. “The easiest thing for me to be is upset about the appropriation of the Holocaust,” I said. “But this should not at all come as a surprise to anyone. For decades, we have been abstracting the history of the Holocaust to such a degree that we do not even know what the Holocaust was.”
This, then, is the tragedy of Holocaust education: that well-intentioned dollars have been used to teach about everything but the main culprit: anti-Semitism.