Avishay Artsy: Welcome to “Adventures in Jewish Studies,” the podcast of the Association for Jewish Studies. In every episode, we take you on an entertaining and intellectual journey about Jewish life, history and culture, with the help of some of the world’s leading Jewish studies scholars. I’m your host for this episode, Avishay Artsy.
The Holocaust took place eighty years ago, yet, survey after survey shows an alarming lack of understanding among the general public and school-age children in particular about what took place.
KSAT: A recent study shows 66 percent of millennials don't know what Auschwitz was; 41 percent believed that two million or fewer Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, when really over six million were killed; and 52 percent of all Americans believe Hitler came to power through force.
Avishay Artsy: There are lots of good reasons to learn about the rise of the ultranationalist far-right in Germany and how it led to one of the most defining crimes of the twentieth century, one for which the term “genocide” needed to be coined.
PBS: A new report by the Anti-Defamation League reveals antisemitic incidents increased 36 percent in 2022, reaching the highest level recorded in history since 1979. The report comes as the FBI and human rights groups warn about the growing number of hate crimes in the U.S.
Avishay Artsy: Are these two facts connected? Rising antisemitism, and growing ignorance of the basic details of the Holocaust? Many argue yes. Kids aren’t learning enough about the Holocaust. And they’re growing up to say and do antisemitic things, or become less vigilant and more permissive as others say or do antisemitic things.
That’s why, even as we’re seeing a rise in legislation around the country that is limiting the teaching of topics including slavery, racial inequality, and LGBTQ history, we’re seeing a big push in the U.S., at the state and federal level, to make Holocaust education mandatory. Laws vary by state, but they generally require that students be taught what the Holocaust was and what caused it.
While Holocaust educators are happy it’s being taught, some take issue with how it’s being taught. Jody Spiegel heads an organization that publishes Holocaust memoirs.
Jody Spiegel: The Holocaust is really taught as the lessons from the Holocaust. I don't think teachers and classrooms are digging into what the Holocaust was as much as they used to. As we get further away from it, the Holocaust becomes this case study to explore issues related to prejudice, racism, fascism, even bullying, which is super troubling to me.
Avishay Artsy: These moral lessons, she says, take away from the history lessons.
Jody Spiegel: So often it gets reduced down to platitudes, right? Be a better person. Don't hate. Really think about how you can stand up to others.
Avishay Artsy: Historian and educator Sarah Ellen Zarrow has noticed that the Holocaust is taught with a simple narrative: Hatred leads to mass murder.
Sarah Zarrow: There's this idea that the epitome of antisemitism is the Holocaust. Ergo, that if you bring someone to learn about the Holocaust – I'm not sure what learning about it means there, maybe just how bad it was, or look, this is the natural outcome of your negative actions against Jews – but that somehow that will be inoculating. And I just, I don't see any evidence for that.
Avishay Artsy: In this episode of Adventures in Jewish Studies, we’ll look at their arguments for why we’re teaching the Holocaust wrong and how we could be teaching it better. They argue that when we reduce the Holocaust to a lesson on how to be a good person or to stand up to bullies, our students miss out on the real meaning and significance of the Holocaust.
Sarah Ellen Zarrow is an endowed professor of Jewish history and an associate professor in the history department at Western Washington University. Her research focuses on European Jewish history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including the Holocaust.
Sarah Zarrow: We have a number of students who want to go on to be high school social studies teachers. We train quite a number of the social studies teachers in Washington state. And since Holocaust studies, Holocaust education, is a suggested or strongly encouraged topic in the social studies curriculum in Washington State, many students who aren't necessarily interested in Jewish history per se or even European history do take the history of the Holocaust course and sometimes also some of the more specialized courses.
Avishay Artsy: Zarrow says that even as her students are enthusiastic about the topic, they often come in knowing very little about the Holocaust itself.
Sarah Zarrow: Students come with two opposing ideas about their prior education in terms of the Holocaust. One is that they understand that they don't know much, that it's very big and that they only got a slice, and some of them express some dismay at their prior education. It's so important; they didn't learn enough. And then other times, sometimes those same students feel that the Holocaust is maybe a little bit over taught.
Avishay Artsy: Over taught because they feel like other groups, like Washington’s Indigenous communities, deserve more attention. Similarly, while African slavery caused the deaths of what is believed to be approximately 12.5 million people, twice the number of Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, a push has been made to focus on the latter more than the former.
Sarah Zarrow: But many times, you know, they've come in and they have a decent sense of Jewish legal exclusion in Nazi Germany. But they usually do not have a sense of the Holocaust beyond Germany. Which is not super surprising. Eastern Europe does not usually form a huge part of high school social studies curricula. And I want to say here also that I really do not fault high school social studies teachers. They have so much to do. They have so many standards to meet, and they have to do everything without necessarily specific training. So I don't want this to become a screed against high school teachers.
Avishay Artsy: Resources do exist for teachers. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for example, leads workshops and has sample lessons and resources. But many teachers lack the time to take advantage of those resources. In Washington state, where Zarrow teaches, a law passed in 2019 that “strongly encourages” teaching the Holocaust in all public schools from grade 6 and up. It’s not a mandate. But the law does include a list of “best practices and guidelines” with lesson plans and other resources for teachers. The law also lays out the goal of teaching the Holocaust: “In addition to this study being a reaffirmation to never again permit such occurrences, studying this material is intended to examine the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and intolerance and prepare students to be responsible citizens in a pluralistic democracy.” Those are all noteworthy aims, but Jody Spiegel says that’s not why we should teach about the Holocaust.
Jody Spiegel: When we start talking about generalizations and universal lessons, we really turn something that was part of the 20th century's complete disruption of civilization. We turn this into a metaphor, we turn it into a lesson, and we really water down the impact it had on society and on the entire Jewish people.
Avishay Artsy: Spiegel is the director of the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program at the Azrieli Foundation. They collect and publish memoirs and diaries of survivors who moved to Canada. They help bring survivors in as guest speakers, and help to incorporate survivors’ testimonies in their Holocaust curriculum. She’s also produced teaching recommendations for the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, as the outgoing chair of its Education Working Group.
Jody Spiegel: We're not sharing the whole story. We're not looking at the pieces. We're not looking at what Jewish life was like before the war and how it had to be pulled back together after. So, you know, we have to really be thoughtful when we make our choices because, you know, learning about this stuff when you're young is really often the only time when they do, which is also troubling.
Avishay Artsy: Zarrow says educators also tend to oversimplify the Holocaust by focusing on hate as the primary motivating factor, when there were other things that led to the Nazi rise to power and the “final solution.” People collaborated with the Nazi regime for personal or monetary gain. There was a sense of bitterness over Germany having to disarm, give up territory, and pay reparations after the First World War. And there was a fear of Jews gaining outsized political power.
Sarah Zarrow: I just want to stay away from this idea that teaching about the Holocaust will somehow be this inoculation against antisemitism or hate or any other type of ideology. I'm not sure – I say this generally as a historian, not just even thinking about the Holocaust – I'm not sure how much ideology drives human action. I think material circumstances can be a much, much more important driver. And I think when we only want to talk about ideology because that's what suits our aims in the present, we're really doing a disservice to most historical topics. I don't think that we're driven by ideology.
Avishay Artsy: Spiegel also wonders why Holocaust education is seen as a way to combat antisemitism, when we don’t treat other types of racism and prejudice that way.
Jody Spiegel: When there's an act of hate that exists, you can't just say, well, you know, there was a lot of anti-Asian hate during COVID. People didn't turn around and say, you know what, we need to learn more about this one historical incident that happened 80 years ago. It's about understanding Asian culture. It was about understanding people in the community. There were so many different factors that were at play when they were attempting to understand this. And the same thing happens in anti-Black racism. We're doing this in Canada with First Nations. You learn about culture, you learn about people, and you learn about commonalities before you can talk about how we're different.
Avishay Artsy: Zarrow agrees - the Holocaust is taught in schools primarily to impart a lesson about how to behave, instead of focusing on the actual history.
Sarah Zarrow: It's used for students' moral development, which I think is kind of a disservice to the actual history, the events, the victims especially. It seems wildly unfair to ask a topic to do all of that work that goes so beyond the topic itself. I can't think of another topic in like a social studies curriculum that we want to do all of that extra labor.
Avishay Artsy: This is not how we treat the study of other genocides, Spiegel adds.
Jody Spiegel: Why do we learn about the Rwandan genocide? Why do we learn about what happened in Cambodia? Are we turning around and going, you know, it's really important for us to understand what happened to the Indigenous people of our country because I promise not to bully? It's ludicrous to say that, but it's what's being done in Holocaust education.
Avishay Artsy: Spiegel sees this happening outside of the classroom as well. The Holocaust is used as a way to address antisemitism in the workplace, or as a way to include Jews in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
Jody Spiegel: In the corporate spaces, when there's antisemitism or there's something that's happening, don't just invite, you know, a Holocaust commemoration event and that's going to check the Jewish box. We really want to make sure that we're educating about the current situation that we're in. So whether it's the community that this is happening in or the corporation that it's happening or in the office or whatever it is, it really needs to be particular. Because if we talk in these huge platitudes, it's really easy to walk around it and go, yeah, but that's not what I was doing.
Avishay Artsy: The memory of the Holocaust has been continuously invoked since the October 7th attack in Israel. Hamas fighters brutally attacked Israeli villages and a dance festival outside the Gaza Strip, killing some 1200 Israelis and migrant workers and taking about 240 hostages. The attacks have widely been referred to as “the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.” Israel’s siege and bombardment of Gaza have killed thousands of Palestinians. Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu compared Israel’s counter-attack to the Allied response to the Nazis in the 1940s.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: Hamas are the new Nazis. They’re the new ISIS. And we have to fight them together just as the world, the civilized world, united to fight the Nazis and united to fight Hamas.
Avishay Artsy: Israel’s far-right finance minister Bezalel Smotrich extended the metaphor to all Palestinians, stating that there are, quote, “two million Nazis in the West Bank.” And Israel’s ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan addressed the UN Security Council with a yellow Star of David pinned to his lapel.
Israel’s ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan: This war did not start on its own on October 8th. It started on the 7th of October with a deliberate and planned massacre, the likes of which the Jewish people has not suffered since the Holocaust.
Avishay Artsy: An Israeli government spokesman has also argued that there was a “Holocaust denial-like phenomenon” about the scale of atrocities on October 7th. In response, the New York Review of Books recently published an open letter on “the misuse of Holocaust memory.” Scholars of the Holocaust and antisemitism argued that, quote, “appealing to the memory of the Holocaust obscures our understanding of the antisemitism Jews face today, and dangerously misrepresents the causes of violence in Israel-Palestine.” Zarrow says that the memory of the Holocaust is often appropriated for political purposes. Zarrow and her students read through Holocaust curricula from Israel, the US, Germany, and the Soviet Union - and they found a common theme.
Sarah Zarrow: The Holocaust has always been used to address contemporary aims, political aims, societal aims, that this is not something new. What those aims are changes and there's variety over space and time, but that the Holocaust has been instrumentalized in education from the get go. This is a very, very common theme that my students and I found when we kind of delved into the literature.
Avishay Artsy: Those aims, she says, are often to promote the agenda of whoever's in charge.
Sarah Zarrow: One of the things that we found that was kind of a common thread is that teaching the Holocaust from a national perspective, whatever that nation is, was often used to shore up national identity and patriotism. The idea that other countries did this, we were the good guys, whether because of what side we served on or, for example, thinking about East Germany as this idea of kind of a non-inheritor of the Nazi past, or other countries, and that this was actually really a commonality and that this disappears in education in the US about the Holocaust, too. The idea that the US comes in and wins the war for the rest of Europe, I don't think this is how it is taught anymore, but this is certainly an aspect of the way that the Holocaust has been taught in the past. And this, like, the sense of being the good guys, thus not having to talk about parallels we might see in societies to Nazi Germany, to other fascist governments, etc. But that does seem to be a common thread, the use of the Holocaust to develop positive national feeling.
Avishay Artsy: What we consider age-appropriate for Holocaust lessons has changed over time as well, Spiegel adds.
Jody Spiegel: Back in the 1980s, it was an idea to show graphic images and talk about it. We've learned that that's not the right approach. It's shocking and traumatic. Images don't necessarily teach. They scare.
Avishay Artsy: How we teach has also changed as scholars developed a deeper understanding of the causes and consequences of the Holocaust.
Jody Spiegel: We know that in the beginning there was even survivor testimony that was being used very early on. You know, some people say, oh, you know, they didn't want to talk about it, but actually people did want to talk about it. Many people maybe didn't want to listen to it. Understanding that the Nazis kept a lot of records. And so the use of those records, while they’re perpetrator records, did show, you know, without question what happened, and how things happened, and the enormity of what happened. The Holocaust was once something that was discussed as part of modern memory. There were survivors. There were people who were learning about it as it was unfolding. It's now sort of moved into recent history, right? We're in a really particular place between memory and history as we learn about the Holocaust. You know, in a number of years, there won't be any memory. There will be only the history books and the stories around it.
Avishay Artsy: And for those few survivors left, it’s increasingly hard for them to connect with young audiences.
Jody Spiegel: Survivors who are still well enough to speak to students struggle to reach the audience in front of them because there's a massive age gap in front of them. Students who don't have the opportunity to meet or engage with a Holocaust survivor. See, this is something that happened, you know, 70, 80 years ago. So to them, it might as well be the French Revolution. Right? To a student, Facebook is old. So nobody is going to be looking at an event that happened in the lifetime of their parents and grandparents and say, wow, that happened recently. It was a long time ago.
Avishay Artsy: Students may be aware of the Holocaust, but they’re often not learning about it in schools.
CityNews: An Ontario study released this week found 40 percent of the 3,600 Canadian and American teens who participated say they only learned about the Holocaust on social media.
Avishay Artsy: Ontario is the first Canadian province to make Holocaust education mandatory at the elementary level, starting in September 2023. It is already covered in tenth grade, but now will be covered in sixth grade as well. Spiegel says there’s rampant misinformation and disinformation about the Holocaust on social media and in popular culture.
Jody Spiegel: Students are still learning about the Holocaust or hearing about the words and imagery around the Holocaust, whether it's through video games or in media. It exists. We see it a lot. We see it referenced in movies and on TikTok. And so it's there. But what the meaning behind those images or symbols or words are sometimes lost.
Avishay Artsy: As a new generation grows up learning in a digital environment, technology is also being used to help relay the lessons of the Holocaust. The USC Shoah Foundation’s “Dimensions in Testimony” project, for example, allows people to have a virtual conversation with a survivor. Someone asks a question, and the program uses AI to figure out which answer to play out of hundreds of pre-recorded answers.
Elex Michaelson: Hi my name is Elex, what's your name?
Pinchas Gutter: Hello, my name is Pinchas Gutter and I will be only too happy to listen to your question.
Elex Michaelson: I'm having an actual conversation with a virtual version of Pinchas Gutter.
Elex Michaelson: How does it feel to be a hologram?
Pinchas Gutter: It feels a little strange when I watch myself.
Avishay Artsy: In another museum installation, “The Journey Back,” visitors put on VR headsets to travel to concentration camps with survivors. In this scene, 93-year-old George Brent recounts the train ride to Auschwitz.
George Brent: “The doors were shut and the train started moving. The people started crying. They wondered, “where are we going? What’s happening to us?”
Avishay Artsy: Spiegel says it’s too soon to say whether these experiments can approximate the immediate connection of speaking directly with a survivor, or reading their first-hand testimonies.
Jody Spiegel: As we find new technology to teach something, we try it out in our classroom, which shifted from a graphic image – which we would never do, we would never show something terrible, we'd never show a pile of dead bodies to a classroom of 12 year olds – but then there's like an idea of a VR experience, which we're putting people in a certain situation, maybe not as graphic, but you know, what does that mean? So I think even technology is something that in a number of years from now, we're going to go back and say, well, was that an appropriate approach?
Avishay Artsy: This discussion is unfolding just as statehouses across the country are embroiled in discussions about what is appropriate content for young people to learn in school. Parts of Black and LGBTQ history are being removed from school curricula in conservative states, and library books are being removed that contain references to gender and sexuality. But lawmakers hold up the Holocaust as something incontrovertible and uncontroversial. Zarrow says that fails to account for real historical questions.
Sarah Zarrow: It's uncontroversial insofar as we can say, okay, the Nazis were bad. But this is not what scholars of the Holocaust, people who teach the Holocaust, this isn't the lesson that we are trying to impart to our students, right. We're thinking in a more nuanced way. And there is, of course, lots of scholarly debate about particular aspects of the Holocaust, which I think it's interesting for the students to understand, right, that there's scholarly debate that's not about Hitler, good or bad, which is sometimes what students think the historical controversies are, but rather about specific factors that lead to violence in a specific place or experiences of one subgroup versus another subgroup, that this is where the historical controversy lies. And the way that this is presented sometimes in statehouses across the U.S. is, I think, also a little bit damaging to the study of the Holocaust because, again, it's used as this kind of unifying thing. We all agree on the Holocaust and we can use it to teach about the natural outcomes of of unchecked hatred, which have nothing to do with us because we are not perpetrating genocide at this moment. And therefore, we don't need to worry about things like right wing politics or any other aspect of the Holocaust that we might see in contemporary life.
Avishay Artsy: Zarrow mentioned statehouses across the U.S. passing Holocaust education mandates. I live in California, the first state to add the Holocaust to its education code, back in 1985. After California came Illinois, then New Jersey, Florida, and New York. Until 2014, those five were the only states requiring that the Holocaust be taught in public schools. Since then another eighteen states have made it a requirement. Zarrow says those are generally very loose requirements.
Sarah Zarrow: My understanding is it means the Holocaust has to appear in some curriculum in high school. It could be in literature. It often appears, it seems, in reading Diary of Anne Frank, although many, many of my students have read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, for example, or other novels or this can appear in an English class or language arts class. Sometimes it appears in a history class, but it depends.
Avishay Artsy: These mandates, she says, are very clearly coming in response to rising antisemitism.
Sarah Zarrow: At the end of the day, different states adopt these mandates or suggestions, not because they think that the study of the Holocaust is important in and of itself, but because it can do something for us.
Avishay Artsy: Spiegel has also seen Holocaust education brought in as a solution to a specific antisemitic incident.
Jody Spiegel: We have really amazing educators who reach out to us to order memoirs. Wonderful. And then we'll get a call. And it was happening more and more. “We had an incident in our school and a swastika was drawn on the playground. Can you help us? Can you send us a survivor? If not a survivor, can you send us a book?” And of course, we'll send some, you know, we can help with resources. If you want to take the time to talk about what happened during the Holocaust, then we can help you. But it does not address what happened in the playground. When kids or whoever did this terrible thing, drew a swastika. Do they know what it means? Do they know what it means in context of the Holocaust? Why are they doing it? Is it an act of rebellion? Did they see it somewhere? Do they know it's going to just make people angry but they don't know why? Is it related to something else, somewhere else? It becomes a knee jerk response that, oh, they must not know about the Holocaust. There's also a ridiculous assumption that creating that connection is going to happen. Okay. Yeah, great. I heard from this survivor. I read this memoir and now I see that the Nazis were bad and what happened was terrible. But that has nothing to do with why I threw pennies at this Jewish boy, which has also happened. We've gotten calls about that. That is like deep rooted antisemitism.
Avishay Artsy: Teaching about the Holocaust, Spiegel says, is not some kind of magic bullet that stops antisemitism, and yet it’s treated that way. Her organization, the Azrieli Foundation, surveyed teachers across Canada in 2020 and learned that the Holocaust is taught as a case study of racism and antisemitism 68 percent of the time, and only 27 percent of educators teach about pre-war Jewish life.
Jody Spiegel: If you want to teach about antisemitism, you have to teach about the Jews, and Judaism, and why there's antisemitism, and how it's biblical and how it's been around forever… I also think there needs to be an understanding that there's a lot of propaganda and conspiracy theory behind a lot of antisemitism. And talking to that and addressing that piece, talking about conspiracy theories and imagery and how this stuff has evolved over time. And, you know, when we're talking about a student having pennies thrown at them, well, where did that come from? Why money? Why is there an association there?
Avishay Artsy: The idea of using the Holocaust to combat antisemitism has led to this idea that people who say or do antisemitic things can be cured of their antisemitism by visiting a Holocaust museum.
For example, back in the spring of 2021, as violence flared between Israel and Palestinians…
CBC: Gaza burned and billowed as Israeli airstrikes hit cars, factories and homes in the Palestinian territory. In return hundreds of rockets fired by Palestinian Hamas militants streaked out toward Israel.
Avishay Artsy: Thousands of miles away, a caravan of cars drove through a Jewish neighborhood in West Los Angeles, honking their horns while waving Palestinian flags. A group of men jumped out of the cars and attacked people sitting outside a restaurant.
KCAL: The attack happened a few hours after a very large protest in support of Palestinian rights. A group of protesters confronted diners outside Sushi Fumi, across the street from us here on La Cienega Boulevard, and the chaos was caught on camera. [sound of the attack] Cell phone video shows a group of people from the cars throwing punches and insults, asking diners if they were Jewish.
Avishay Artsy: Two men were charged with felony assault and a hate crime. The prosecution pushed for a prison sentence. But in June of 2023, the judge instead gave them two years of probation, eighty hours of bias and cultural sensitivity counseling, and the two men were ordered to spend eight hours at the Museum of Tolerance, an LA museum dedicated to the history of the Holocaust and other genocides.
Sarah Zarrow: My understanding from those crimes specifically is that the crimes had nothing to do with the Holocaust. They didn't have anything to do with minimizing the Holocaust or wishing for a second Holocaust, but rather that the perpetrator held negative views of Jews as a group because of the actions of Israel against Palestinians.
Avishay Artsy: Spiegel says teaching about the Holocaust doesn’t address the causes of antisemitism today.
Jody Spiegel: Antisemitism did not begin in the 30s and did not end after the Holocaust. When we talk about visiting a Holocaust museum or teaching the Holocaust as a response to an antisemitic attack, it really talks about the Holocaust. And it doesn't talk about all the other issues at play in the thousands of years that led up to the Holocaust and in the years since the Holocaust. The Holocaust has become this metaphor for all things bad. But anti-Semitism is unlike any other bigotry, because it's also a conspiracy theory. It appeals to people who want a simple explanation for some sort of complicated problem. Antisemitism is shapeshifting. It sort of changes depending on what's happening in society. So what happened in society that led to the Holocaust, that hatred, that antisemitism, is not what is happening today. And so we have to be really careful when we say use the Holocaust as an education tool to address contemporary antisemitism.
Avishay Artsy: The decision to send the two West LA attackers to a Holocaust museum echoed high-profile events in late 2022, when two Black celebrities – the rapper Kanye West, now known as Ye, and NBA player Kyrie Irving – posted tweets that were viewed as antisemitic. Ye lost partnerships with Adidas and other brands. Irving was suspended from the Brooklyn Nets. Ye turned down an invitation to tour The Holocaust Museum of Los Angeles.
ABC7: Illinois Holocaust Museum Senior VP Kelley Szany works to combat antisemitism with education.
Kelley Szany: “What I would have loved to see is if Mr. West had heard from our survivors, to understand the impact that his antisemitism, that his words, ultimately has.
Avishay Artsy: Zarrow, again, questions whether Holocaust education is the way to build empathy.
Sarah Zarrow: Looking at Jews, first of all, solely in kind of a Holocaust context is unfortunate, you know, for those of us who want to teach a vast and diverse Jewish experience in different places at different times, but also, I don't know that seeing a group solely as a victim group is going to help develop empathy for contemporary Jews.
Avishay Artsy: As states continue to pass Holocaust education mandates, Zarrow, Spiegel and others hope that the educational value of teaching about the Holocaust is made more clear. Because while there are lessons to be learned from studying what happened during the Holocaust, turning it into a lesson about bullying does a disservice to the victims, to the survivors, and to the study of history itself.
“Adventures in Jewish Studies” is made possible with generous support from The Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Foundation and the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation. The executive producer of the podcast is Warren Hoffman. I’m the lead producer for this episode.
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Sarah Ellen Zarrow
Executive Producer: Warren Hoffman, PhD