Reverend Makota Otsuka, Chairman of the Holocaust Education Center in Fukuyama, Japan, has devoted his life to teaching the Holocaust in a country with no considerable Jewish population and no history of a Jewish community being destroyed. After a chance meeting with Otto Frank, Anne Franks’s father, on the streets of Israel in the 1970s, Otsuka decided to commit himself to Holocaust education. Traveling around the world, he visited over a hundred Holocaust museums and sent over two hundred letters to Jewish communities and organizations asking for artifacts to help start his museum.
The site of the Holocaust Museum in Japan is not far from the site of Hiroshima and the Atomic Bomb Memorial. When asked why he had chosen to dedicate his life to Holocaust education in a country with almost no Jews, he answered that the Holocaust was most likely the greatest disaster of the twentieth century and that, unlike other wars and devastations, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the cause of this monumental catastrophe was antisemitism. Antisemitism, which escalated during the last two thousand years, provided fertile ground for a democratic society to elect a man who would destroy European Jewry. He estimated that an “education shortage” caused this growth of antisemitism. Reverend Otsuka also believes that if people knew about the history of the Jewish people, their exile, and their suffering, then the Holocaust may not have happened. His devotion to Holocaust education and the Jewish people is extraordinary, and among the many exhibits in the museum hangs a Magen David with the word chai in it to indicate that the Jewish people are tenaciously still alive.
Antisemitism is again on the rise, and Holocaust education, far from being the answer, can potentially be making it worse. That is the premise of Dara Horn’s provocative essay, “Is Holocaust Education Making Antisemitism Worse? Using dead Jews as symbols isn’t helping living ones,” recently published in The Atlantic. The answer to the surge in antisemitism,” Horn tells us, has been a “doubling down” on Holocaust education and prescribed Holocaust museum and concentration camp visits for public figures. She believes that teaching about the Holocaust has a place for educating about historical truth and combating Holocaust distortion but is “incapable of addressing contemporary antisemitism.”
While this space does not allow me to do Horn’s essay justice, I encourage you to read it. It is thought-provoking and starts a meaningful conversation about the deficiencies in Holocaust education to address present-day antisemitism. Still, while she highlights its imperfections, she ignores its capabilities. I want to pose a different question. How can Holocaust education NOT be used to answer the recent rise in Antisemitism?
The story of the Holocaust is a story that begins with antisemitism yet fails to end it. With the palpable rise of antisemitism worldwide and fragmented ties between social, ethnic, and religious communities, Holocaust education can be a powerful platform to show the trajectory of unchecked antisemitism and hate.
Although hatred and violence toward Jews are as old as the Bible, the Holocaust, with the annihilation of an entire continent of Jews, can be seen as the culmination of centuries of European antisemitism. The Holocaust was the work of a madman, yet, it is imperative to remember that it could not have happened without society’s deep-seated hate of Jews not only in Hitler’s Germany but throughout all of Europe. Hitler blamed the Jews for all of Western civilization’s problems and gave voice and life to prejudices that had existed for thousands of years. Antisemitism and the tropes it embodies have been around for centuries, mutating for each historical period, its form continuously altering but its core remaining the same. It should be viewed as an evolving monster, steeped in centuries-old hate, morphing and changing shape, then presenting itself to meet the moment.
It is important to note that without the widespread antisemitism indoctrinated in Europe, Hitler would not have had willing partners in the countries he invaded and amongst the people the Jews considered as neighbors. Today, antisemitism is once again rising and raging; a three-headed monster with Jew-hatred, Holocaust distortion, and anti-Zionism. All are weaving together, rising hand in hand on social media and spewed, re-posted, retweeted, and screamed from numerous public platforms. The soapbox has changed, and the vicious, uneducated rants of a few spread like wildfire, fueling antisemitic echo chambers and influencing the impressionable, innocent youth who have not yet been influenced.
Yet, teaching the Holocaust in America has teachers facing many challenges, some of which Horn mentions. Only twenty-three states have mandates to teach the Holocaust, and five have permissive legislation, which allows but does not require the Holocaust to be taught. State mandates are not always clear, and often teachers are given this directive with minimal instruction. Teachers are left to create a curriculum for a subject they may know little or nothing about and face many obstacles when designing their lessons. In recent years Holocaust education has become politicized and tangled in America’s culture wars. In our cancel culture, teachers are under immense pressure to get it right and are constantly in check to ensure nothing is too current or relevant to avoid inciting criticism. Furthermore, Holocaust education in the classroom is often used for broad, lofty educational goals or as a platform to teach children to have a moral compass and fails to teach about antisemitism. It is problematic for Holocaust education if its teachers do not have the knowledge of or are afraid to teach that the antisemitism of the past, which caused the Holocaust, is linked to the antisemitism of today.
There is some good news. As Horn points out, Holocaust education has become part of common school culture. Students walk into the classroom knowing they will learn about the Holocaust and are excited. Student excitement? In middle school? That cannot be all bad, and what excites them and what they ultimately take away from these lessons may be different. State mandates often put the Holocaust in front of a classroom in states with few or no Jews. It is not done perfectly, and there may be much to improve, but this interaction starts an important conversation. It may not allow students to connect the dots the way we would like them to, but ultimately, everyone takes what they want from education, and we hope what they learn in the classroom may encourage some to read more, learn more and ask more questions. My professor once taught me that the Holocaust is so vast that it has within it every critical question and theme for someone who wants to lead an examined life. We all approach what we learn with our background and experience; while not flawless or the way I would like to see it done, I do believe that Holocaust education in the classroom is but one-foot soldier in the battle against antisemitism.
We must continue to educate educators by providing opportunities for Holocaust teacher development and access to materials and continuously reevaluating the resources we provide. We must also be involved politically to ensure that one day the Holocaust is taught in every classroom in America. We have no idea who is in those classrooms learning about the Holocaust. If we reach a handful of students every year, and they know more about what Jews are, where they come from, and what they have gone through, I believe that to be a success. Sitting in those classrooms are not only our future teachers, leaders, and politicians but our future citizens.
In the 1990s, Interview magazine came to my high school and picked a few boys to photograph. They outfitted them in designer black pants, belts, and white shirts. Their tzizis, a special knotted fringe worn by orthodox Jews, hung out. Over a center spread, the title read, “Mensches Wear White.” The pride our community, felt that day for being different and accepted was palpable. This was Los Angeles, and Interview was a hip Hollywood magazine founded by Andy Warhol. You rarely see something like that these days. Antisemitism is at a record high, and most news stories about Jews are negative, highlighting any trouble or challenges they face. The irony is that my school was the then home of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Standing outside a Holocaust museum, the boys, some of them descendants of Holocaust survivors, were photographed for being proudly different. Their uniqueness and individuality were being lauded, a testament to the diversity and acceptance that the great country of America offered. Antisemitism in America is on the rise. Holocaust education teaches us the lessons of history, to ourselves, to those who hate us, and most importantly, to those who are ignorant of us.