The dramatic uptick of antisemitism in America is the result of a near-perfect storm of factors. We know some of the major ones: Trump-era hangover, TikTok, and “normalization” thanks to celebrities such as Ye (Kanye West). But Holocaust education in schools may be yet another ingredient in this toxic stew.
Wait, what? How could an effort aimed at educating children of all backgrounds about the most evil result of antisemitism actually be fueling it?
Counterintuitive as it may be, this is the conclusion of well-known novelist and frequent Moment contributor Dara Horn in a new Atlantic magazine piece: “Is Holocaust Education Making Anti-Semitism Worse?” The subhead also is telling: “Using dead Jews as symbols isn’t helping living ones.”
Horn writes: “I have come to the disturbing conclusion that Holocaust education is incapable of addressing contemporary anti-Semitism. In fact, in the total absence of any education about Jews alive today, teaching about the Holocaust might even be making anti-Semitism worse.”
As we observe Yom HaShoah, the subjects of antisemitism and Holocaust education are more salient than anytime in recent memory.
I’ve conducted multiple explorations into this often-murky terrain. In the Winter 2022 issue of Moment, I looked at the emergence of legislatively directed Holocaust education in 27 states and traced the history of how Holocaust education came to America. And last month I wrote about antisemitic acts in K-12 schools, which 2022 ADL data shows are rising at a faster rate (up 49 percent compared to 2021) than antisemitic incidents overall (up 36 percent in the same time period).
In the K-12 story, I interviewed a New Jersey parent (who requested anonymity) who said his two sons were subjected to antisemitic taunts during periods of classroom instruction on the Holocaust. The behavior ceased once the segment came to an end. And Aryeh Tuchman of the ADL’s Center on Extremism reported he’d heard much the same thing anecdotally.
But curtailing Holocaust education (now mandatory in some form in 39 states) is not under consideration. “The Holocaust showed us the evil that people are capable of,” Tuchman told me. “Ignoring those lessons is not an option if we want our society to never go down that same dark path.”
To be fair, Horn was not advocating curtailing Holocaust education. The author of several well-regarded books (including People Love Dead Jews), Horn argues that too often the subject is taught in a vacuum, with little reference to Jewish history and tradition as well as centuries-old hatred of Jews.
“Isolating the Holocaust from the rest of Jewish history (makes) it hard for even the best educators to upload this irrational reality into seventh-grade brains,” she wrote.
What particularly makes her blood boil is the oft-stated view that Jews “are just like everybody else.” Horn wonders how educators can blandly say Jews are like everyone else “after Jews have spent 3,000 years deliberately not being like everyone else.” Horn also writes that caricaturing the Holocaust as a “morality play” may inadvertently excuse modern-day antisemitism. “When anti-Semitism is reduced to the Holocaust, anything short of murdering 6 million Jews… seems minor by comparison.”
Well-meaning, yes, but improving Holocaust education by including a history of Judaism and antisemitism runs up against practical reality in classrooms today: Teachers complain they have too little time to teach any subject thoroughly. In my interviews with teachers, the bottom line seemed to be that those with deep convictions about the Holocaust do a good job of educating their students. Those who see it as just another topic to move along the educational assembly line are less inspiring. And the worst may be teachers who trivialize the Holocaust or repeat antisemitic tropes. Among the examples I learned about: Antisemitism isn’t actually an issue anymore because “now all the Jews have money and are in Hollywood anyway”; the COVID pandemic and isolation are like being in a concentration camp; Japanese internment camps in the United States were just as bad as death camps, but they don’t get enough discussion.
There was no such thing as Holocaust education when I was growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, the word “Holocaust” didn’t come into common usage until 1978 with the airing of the four-part TV miniseries Holocaust.
For us, the Holocaust was more like current events. Seeing tattoos on the arms of even young men and women was commonplace. Everyone’s father had done something in the war. The mothers too had done their part. (My late mother-in-law worked at a bomb factory in Philadelphia.) Of my parents’ closest friends, two had been bomber pilots. One had nearly drowned in the 1944 invasion of Anzio, Italy.
It was a relatively quiescent period for antisemitism. My earliest memory of it is going to a party of a classmate in the Bronx and being confronted by some of his tough-guy friends: “Are you a Guinea or a Jew?” (“Guinea” is a slur against Italians.) Later on in college, I visited the home of a girlfriend in rural New Jersey and volunteered to wash dishes. After a few minutes at the sink, her uncle told me, “That’s the Jewish way of washing dishes.” My sin was to keep the water running between washing each dish. I stormed away. That same girlfriend (not Jewish) reacted in mock horror to a New York subway ad promoting awareness of Tay-Sachs disease, a rare hereditary disorder more commonly seen among people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. “Will I get it?” she exclaimed, as though it were a venereal disease.
My college friends and I befriended a salty Maine lobsterman who one time railed about how “the Jews” were buying up pristine waterfront property and dotting it with vacation homes. When reminded that some of us visitors were Jewish, he waved it off with “But you’re not practicing Jews!”
I think back on these and a few other incidents like them, and wonder: Were they harmless shortcomings born of ignorance, insensitivity or misguided humor, or evidence of antisemitism (by modern standards) that I chose to ignore?
I don’t dwell on it too much, especially when I see my seven-year-old granddaughter read the Four Questions in Hebrew (with just a little prompting), or hear my two-year-old grandson break into an unscripted chorus of “Dayenu!” Hopefully they and my other grandchildren will be better prepared to counter antisemitism and all other forms of bigotry.