Holocaust Commemorations 2019: The Future of the Past

The job of those who educate about the Holocaust is to teach students to identify and understand the dangers of 'us vs. them'

Just around the corner from my synagogue is an orange-blossom lined avenue. The fragrance of early spring flowers along with the gentle New York breeze make my stroll to and from Shabbat services one of the more enjoyable exercises of my week. On this Saturday night, the first three stars radiated against a blackening sky signaling another ending to a peaceful Sabbath.

In the dozen years that I have moved here to New York City from Chicago, I have felt safe and secure. Not once have I been uneasy or uncomfortable as an observant Jew. On the Upper West Side it seems so easy…

On this recent Saturday eve, strolling in the opposite direction a bearded young man in a Streimel—the black, fur-trimmed hat worn by Hasidic Jews–approached. He was probably going home from the Hasidic synagogue a few doors from my apartment. We acknowledged each other and paused for just one moment to exchange the “shavuah tov” or “have a good week” greeting that is traditionally shared at that time of day.

However, at that same moment, the blast of a horn startled both of us as a car whirled past. In a split second, the passenger rolled down the window and screamed at us. I jumped, feeling my heart race, until I heard the completely benign question. “Do either of you know how to get to Amsterdam Ave?”

No big deal, not much of a story, you say. Yet, for a Jew in the United States in 2019, it was panic inducing. I think about other stories and events that transpired in split seconds, stories that did not end like mine.

Saturday’s shooting in San Diego’s Chabad of Poway in only a moment rendered a tragic ending to the celebration of Passover. The horrific violence at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh is still haunting. The New York Times just apologized for running an anti-Semitic cartoon. Almost daily, we hear of our Jewish students coming face to face with acts of hate. A 2017 World Jewish Congress report describes campuses in the United States as “a hotbed of anti-Semitism.” A 2018 report by the Anti-Defamation League found that anti-Semitic incidents at non-Jewish elementary, middle and high schools totaled 235 last year – a 106 percent jump from the previous year.

Where does all of this leave the educators in our schools? How does an educator, particularly someone who is a professor of history and Holocaust Studies, deal with episodes where Jews are targeted, whether pranks, as the recent “eviction” notices at Emory College earlier this month, to vandalism, arson and even physical attacks?

To start with, Jewish educators need to call for an end to the smug complacency that Jews in America have generally experienced since the Second World War. Students need to learn that public attitudes toward Jews can shift; that safety and security is ephemeral. Finally, Jews must take a proactive role in assuring a zero tolerance policy on intolerance and bigotry everywhere.

Both Jewish and non-Jewish educators can draw on the historical circumstances leading up to the Holocaust. Before 1933, Jews in Germany also felt secure and safe. They had proudly displayed the medals and honors they won for their loyalty to Germany in the First World War. Yet, within months of Hitler’s takeover, Jews became pariahs in society.

The book burnings, boycotts, economic and legal restrictions targeting German Jews did not occur in a vacuum. Opposition by the German population was rare. The “us vs. them” strategy that the Nazis exploited to drive their rise to power provides an excellent framework for discussing peer pressure and mass conformity.

For Holocaust Commemoration Day 2019, unity is the message we learn from the past. The entire community in Pittsburgh learned that lesson and showed it through their solidarity with their targeted Jewish neighbors. It is vital that we continue the process. Our job as educators is to make sure our students learn and appreciate the things that unite all Americans, as well as those that allow for unique differences. In the words of African American Senator Scott, ”We must stand together against racism and bigotry by ensuring that justice is served against those who seek to divide us.”

About the Author
Dr. Karen Sutton is associate professor of history at the Lander College for Women, a division of Touro College, in New York City.
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