Christian educators have a moral duty to teach about the Holocaust
I work for an Evangelical non-profit organization attempting to change the growing antisemitic narrative on Evangelical college campuses. An Evangelical liberal arts university recently permitted us to interview students about their understanding of the Holocaust.
Prior to the interviews, I met with administrators and faculty from the university a total of five times over six months to explain the importance of Holocaust education and the alarming decline of support for Israel among US Evangelical Millennials ages 18-29 (a May 2021 survey administered by the Barna Group and commissioned by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke shows that between 2018 and 2021 favorable support for Israel has been cut in half). In the five conversations I had with university officials, the concern was raised that the issue of Israel was hot-sided. They wanted to ensure our organization would not create controversy in a time of a shifting Evangelical worldview among Millennials concerning Jews and the state of Israel.
We conducted the interview questions upon receiving clearance, and the answers were troubling. To the first question, “What was the Holocaust?” half of the students did not know. To the second question, “Who was Adolph Hitler?” again, only half of the students had enough knowledge to connect him to the Jewish genocide. In the remaining questions, we found a surprising – breathtaking, really — lack of historical understanding of the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust. This example is indicative of a much larger problem: the study of the Holocaust is not prioritized in Christian primary, secondary, and higher education. Thankfully, some schools include Holocaust studies in their curriculum, but there is so much more we can do.
In September 2020, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany released the US Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey — a 50-state survey examining holocaust awareness among Millennials and Gen-Z — the first of its kind. Here are a few of the findings:
- 63% do not know that six million Jews were murdered.
- 59% of those surveyed believe another Holocaust is possible.
- 48% could not name one of the 40,000 concentration camps or ghettos developed in the Holocaust.
- 58% could not define the meaning of the name Auschwitz-Birkenau.
- 11% overall believe Jews were responsible for causing the Holocaust (In New York State, for example, 19% believe Jews caused the Holocaust).
- 49% have viewed Holocaust denial posts on social media.
- 30% of those surveyed described seeing Nazi propaganda on social media or in their community (In Nevada, the score was 70%, and in New York State, it was 67%).
A hopeful finding in the survey found that 80% of the respondents believe Holocaust education must be prioritized to prevent another Holocaust from happening. There are many reasons why Christian educators should add Holocaust studies to their curriculum. Here are three:
1. Baptized Christians were complicit in the murder of six million Jews.
We must investigate the theology and antisemitic attitudes in the churches of Germany prior to and during the Holocaust — issues that led German Christians to justify genocide. Without a reckoning with history, Christianity can return to the lethality of its past.
2. Christianity is presently facing a tipping point.
On the Christian left in the US, for example, an anti-Israel movement is rising. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Christian antisemitism was driven by race and religion. Today, it is flourishing under the cover of human rights. Christian accusations against Jews are numerous: Israel is abusing its neighbors and must be condemned; Israel is an apartheid state; Jews are illegally occupying the land of others. As this rhetoric becomes more intense, the Christian left could eventually cross the tipping point into more violent methods of protesting against Jews.
On the US Christian right, a dangerous nationalism is on the rise. Adherents to Christian nationalism are Americans first and Christians second. To fulfill their aims, they enthusiastically embrace a leader who is breaking all moral norms by calling for violence and division – think January 6th. Studying how German Christians willingly embraced Nazi ideology- even turning their Jewish neighbors over to the S.S. and eventually pouring the gas into the gas chambers should, at the very least, cause one to realize the point where nationalistic fervor mixed with Christian piety crosses over into violence may be closer than we think.
3. Christians have an individual and collective responsibility to prevent another genocide.
Studying the Holocaust and Christianity’s involvement in genocide raises the issue of personal responsibility to challenge dangerous societal beliefs that, if allowed to go unchallenged, will cause significant harm to communities within society and the larger society as well. If Christian educators teach church history from merely a religious or theological perspective, leaving out Christianity’s 1,900-year-old history of brutality toward Jews, violence that culminated in the death of six million Jews during the Holocaust as well as the murder of millions of others, including gypsies, homosexuals, people with disabilities, and political opponents — we shield the next generation from the truth and guarantee there will be little to no opposition to a future genocidal ideologue. Genocides don’t happen spontaneously – they evolve over time but are not inevitable. The greatest threat to their ripening is education.
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, in his remarks at the opening of the Holocaust History Museum, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, gave his reason why Holocaust education is necessary:
“And so we go through the museum, and what should we do? Weep? No. My good friends, we never try to tell the tale to make people weep. It’s too easy. We didn’t want pity. If we decided to tell the tale, it is because we wanted the world to be a better world – just a better world. And learn, and remember.”