Commentary

Antisemitism Is on the Rise. Can Teaching About the Holocaust Help?

Visitors observe the Topography of Terror outdoor history museum in Berlin.
Visitors observe the Topography of Terror outdoor history museum in Berlin.
—Getty

The Holocaust is ancient history for many students

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On May 2, Holocaust Remembrance Day (or Yom HaShoah), we remember the millions of Jewish and other victims killed during the murderous Nazi reign in Germany. Sadly, we only need to consider the shooting at a synagogue this past Saturday in Poway, Calif., to understand the importance of using classroom time to educate and reflect on this horrific period in history.

Not even two months ago, a photo showing students making a Nazi salute over a swastika made of Solo cups at a weekend party garnered extensive news coverage. This image came on the heels of another viral photo of a group of laughing young men who appeared to make the Nazi salute prior to a school dance. Swirling around these events have been Jewish cemetery desecrations, hate-filled graffiti, and even swastikas drawn in blood. Amid it all, we still grieve for the Jewish congregants shot dead at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last fall—and now Poway.

I am sure many have felt as I do: What is happening? What can I do about it? On an intellectual level, I know this is not new—hatred, violence, and targeting of the "other" have always been with us. The acts of violence may ebb, but these feelings are always there.

On a professional level, having spent the better part of 25 years working in anti-bias and Holocaust education, I feel some sense of personal failure. I know these incidents of antisemitism and other forms of hatred do not reflect the values and beliefs of the majority of people, but I can't help but question if the work I have done has mattered.

I recall my former colleague who would say that the work to counter hatred, antisemitism, and racism could sometimes feel like having a tiny pink Baskin-Robbins sample spoon, trying to chip away at a mountain of mistrust, fear, anger, ignorance, resentment, and downright apathy. She didn't use this analogy to discourage, but to inspire: If we all worked together, even with the smallest of tools, we could get there.

I've always framed my work, as many educators do, in three phases of impact: What do we need to know about an issue or topic, why should we care, and how can we act to make a positive difference? Or, in more poetic words, how do we inform the head, move the heart, and motivate the hands?

For those teaching the Holocaust, these three concepts could not be more vital and interdependent. What do we want students to know about this history? If you want to understand the why and how this genocide could have happened, you need a foundation of the what. The Echoes & Reflections Partners toiled for a year to distill the core historical content that now forms our 10 classroom units. Our goal was—and is—to guide teachers to build this essential knowledge with their students and to ask those critical questions of why and how at every step.

"Having spent the better part of 25 years working in anti-bias and Holocaust education, I feel some sense of personal failure."

But knowing isn't enough; students have to care. The Holocaust is practically ancient history for many young people, and, for the majority of people in the United States, it is not their history. It's remote, it happened somewhere else, and it's over. This is where we must teach about the Holocaust as a human story. We should bring this knowledge to life through the integration of visual history testimonies and primary sources. We want young people to see, listen, and come to know that these were real people who had desires, dreams, hopes, and lives that were just waiting to be lived.

I could never guarantee that students who watched a testimony of a survivor describing his arrival at Auschwitz or read a poem by a girl left alone in the Lodz ghetto would reject the Solo Cup swastika game. But maybe, just maybe, they would make a different decision in that moment.

Which brings us to action. How do we create and inspire a sense of personal agency so that in the face of hatred or antisemitism—or when anyone is excluded or "othered"—we don't just walk away or swipe the screen?

When I began my work in this field, this step used to be primarily about an in-person response: Will you speak up if someone is being taunted? Will you call out an antisemitic comment or joke?

Today, for most adolescents, these moral choice moments are experienced online and at lightning speed. Does this make it easier or harder to speak (or type) out? Does it fuel a level of insensitivity to these issues that carries over to real-life choices and decisions? Does an intervention online have more or less power to impact the person who is being offensive?

These are the questions I have been wrestling with these past few months. On Yom HaShoah, this sacred day of remembrance for all those who perished during the Holocaust, I hope to start to find some answers. I will work to learn more about the experiences and perspectives of the adolescents in our country and what is driving some of them to engage in or ignore hurtful behavior—and how can we inspire more to stand up.

And I encourage everyone, not just educators, to do the same. At a time when it feels so hard to have these tough conversations, isn't it that much more important that we try? If we want our children to care, we must first care enough to listen to them.

Vol. 38, Issue 32, Page 18

Published in Print: May 8, 2019, as The Enduring Relevance of Holocaust Education
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