Is Holocaust Education Making Antisemitism Worse?Historians in the News
tags: Holocaust, Jewish history, Jewish Americans, antisemitism, Holocaust education
Dara Horn is the author of five novels and the essay collection People Love Dead Jews: Reports From a Haunted Present.
When the 40-something reader in the kippah at my book event in Michigan approached the signing table, I already knew what he was going to say, if not the humiliating specifics. Readers like him always tell me these things. He hovered until most people had dispersed, and then described his supermarket trip that morning. Another shopper had rammed him with a cart, hard. Maybe it had been an accident, except the shopper had shouted, “The kosher bagels are in the next aisle!” He’d considered saying something to the store manager, but to what end? Besides, it wasn’t much worse than the baseball game the day before, when other fans had thrown popcorn at him and his kids.
The recent rise in American anti-Semitism is well documented. I could fill pages with FBI hate-crime statistics, or with a list of violent attacks from the past six years or even the past six months, or with the growing gallery of American public figures saying vile things about Jews. Or I could share stories you probably haven’t heard, such as one about a threatened attack on a Jewish school in Ohio in March 2022—where the would-be perpetrator was the school’s own security guard. But none of that would capture the vague sense of dread one encounters these days in the Jewish community, a dread unprecedented in my lifetime.
I published a book in late 2021 about exploitations of Jewish history, with the deliberately provocative title People Love Dead Jews. The anti-Semitic hate mail arrived on cue. What I didn’t expect was the torrent of private stories I received from American Jews—online, in letters, but mostly in person, in places where I’ve spoken across America.
These people talked about bosses and colleagues who repeatedly ridiculed them with anti-Semitic “jokes,” friends who turned on them when they mentioned a son’s bar mitzvah or a trip to Israel, romantic partners who openly mocked their traditions, classmates who defaced their dorm rooms and pilloried them online, teachers and neighbors who parroted conspiratorial lies. I was surprised to learn how many people were getting pennies thrown at them in 21st-century America, an anti-Semitic taunt that I thought had died around 1952. These casual stories sickened me in their volume and their similarity, a catalog of small degradations. At a time when many people in other minority groups have become bold in publicizing the tiniest of slights, these American Jews instead expressed deep shame in sharing these stories with me, feeling that they had no right to complain. After all, as many of them told me, it wasn’t the Holocaust.
But well-meaning people everywhere from statehouses to your local middle school have responded to this surging anti-Semitism by doubling down on Holocaust education. Before 2016, only seven states required Holocaust education in schools. In the past seven years, 18 more have passed Holocaust-education mandates. Public figures who make anti-Semitic statements are invited to tour Holocaust museums; schools respond to anti-Semitic incidents by hosting Holocaust speakers and implementing Holocaust lesson plans.
The bedrock assumption that has endured for nearly half a century is that learning about the Holocaust inoculates people against anti-Semitism. But it doesn’t.
Holocaust education remains essential for teaching historical facts in the face of denial and distortions. Yet over the past year, as I’ve visited Holocaust museums and spoken with educators around the country, 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.
The failure to address contemporary anti-Semitism in most of American Holocaust education is, in a sense, by design. In his article “The Origins of Holocaust Education in American Public Schools,” the education historian Thomas D. Fallace recounts the story of the (mostly non-Jewish) teachers in Massachusetts and New Jersey who created the country’s first Holocaust curricula, in the ’70s. The point was to teach morality in a secular society. “Everyone in education, regardless of ethnicity, could agree that Nazism was evil and that the Jews were innocent victims,” Fallace wrote, explaining the topic’s appeal. “Thus, teachers used the Holocaust to activate the moral reasoning of their students”—to teach them to be good people.
The idea that Holocaust education can somehow serve as a stand-in for public moral education has not left us. And because of its obviously laudable goals, objecting to it feels like clubbing a baby seal. Who wouldn’t want to teach kids to be empathetic? And by this logic, shouldn’t Holocaust education, because of its moral content alone, automatically inoculate people against anti-Semitism?