This Monday marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The timing of this important event coincides with an unprecedented escalation of anti-Semitism. From Pittsburgh to Paris, the killing of Jews in their synagogues and homes, within living memory of the Holocaust, is a horrific encounter with history.
The response to anti-Semitism can and should take several forms. Vigilance in our communities, stepped up law enforcement and cooperation with police. Advocacy by civic and public opinion leaders is essential. One crucial element is education— about Jews, Judaism, and no less important, the Holocaust.
Learning about the Holocaust in schools is not only for the purpose of teaching about one of the most horrific events in modern history or, for that matter, at any time, but it is also about learning the lessons that led to the genocide of six million Jews and how they apply today.
Holocaust education exposes the danger of conspiracy theories, stereotyping, the isolation of ‘the other,’ and the use of mass media for hate-filled propaganda — all of which are disturbingly familiar in today’s anti-Semitism. But there is more to Holocaust education than confronting Jew hatred. It also focuses on the demonization and incitement against minorities, of which Jews are just one of several groups singled out by hate propaganda.
Studying the Holocaust can demonstrate how an entire population was bullied and vilified by hate-mongers and denied their basic human rights and identity. It addresses the phenomenon of silence in the face of bigotry, persecution and mass murder. It also should highlight the ‘upstanders,’ those who had the courage to stand up against tyranny and genocide.
In a world where demagoguery is on the rise, anti-Semitism and racism have moved from the margins to the mainstream. This makes the lessons of the Holocaust more important than any time in the last eight decades. The threat is not only against Jews. It is a danger to democratic society. Anti-Semitism is often and rightly referred to as “the canary in the coal mine,” an early warning that, if left unchecked, it will spread to endanger other minorities and the erosion of democratic norms and institutions.
Recent polls have shown that knowledge of the Holocaust is disturbingly low.
Last year, a CNN survey of 7000 people polled in seven E.U. countries revealed that respondents knew “just a little or nothing” about the Holocaust. And a 2018 study by the Claims Conference showed that among millennials, nearly 68 percent couldn’t identify Auschwitz as a Nazi concentration camp.
There are important efforts to incorporate teaching of the Holocaust in secondary school curriculums. Several U.S. states and a few E.U. countries have mandated the teaching of the Holocaust. Too often, however, the fulfillment of this requirement becomes a short lesson sandwiched in the history of World War II.
Holocaust education should be taught as not only an historical episode. It should also be taught through literature and language courses, multi-disicplinary theme-based programs, media and the arts. It should be revisited throughout the school year as contemporary events, such as anti-Semitic attacks or vicious hate crimes gain public attention.
To confront anti-Semitism and the dark forces of racial and religious hatred, “Never Again” begins in the classroom.
David Field is the Chairman, Mark Berez, President of the Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights.