columnHolocaust & Holocaust Survivors

Yom Hashoah after Oct. 7: How Holocaust education failed

A generation of young Americans was taught to universalize the Nazi war on the Jews, leaving them vulnerable to being seduced by antisemitism and woke lies about Israel.

A burning candle on the background of the Israeli flag on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Credit: Melnikov Dmitriy/Shutterstock.
A burning candle on the background of the Israeli flag on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Credit: Melnikov Dmitriy/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

For decades, American Jewry has marked Yom Hashoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day—with the same rituals and rhetoric. They heard from survivors, whose numbers continue to dwindle and who bore witness about their horrific experiences. They also heard from scholars, who were part of what had become a growth industry centering on Holocaust studies, which to many Jews and non-Jews became the sum total of their knowledge of the history of the Jewish people. And they also heard from politicians and community leaders, who mouthed empty rhetoric about “never again” letting such an awful thing happen.

It was a necessary exercise because, not without reason, Jews feared that without the ceremonies, memorials and museums that proliferated in the last few decades, the memory of the destruction of European Jewry at the hands of the German Nazis and their collaborators would be lost or erased. Preserving that memory will require continued work from Jews today and our successors.

But after Oct. 7, 2023—and all that has happened since then—we cannot continue conducting these same rituals in the same manner as before.

Instead, we must begin to integrate our necessary commemorations of the Holocaust into the broader context of Jewish history and the struggle for Jewish survival throughout the ages and into the present-day war against Israel.

Just as important, we must reassess our approach to Holocaust education in light of the horrifying reactions to the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust and the surge in antisemitism that has occurred throughout the world and, most particularly, on North American college campuses.

Defenseless no more

In the last eight decades since the Holocaust and then the birth of modern-day Israel in 1948, the world has remained a generally dangerous place for Jews. But the generations who grew up since these epochal events, particularly in the United States, thought of antisemitism and attempts at Jewish genocide as something that was relegated to the distant past. But after the horror of that Black Shabbat and Simchat Torah—when residents of 22 Israeli communities and hundreds of attendees at a music festival were attacked by Hamas and their Palestinian allies in an orgy of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping and wanton destruction—that complacency is no longer viable.

Though much lip service has been paid to memorializing the Holocaust and promises made about not forgetting it, after Oct. 7, the usual routine of drawing lessons from the events of the past won’t wash anymore. Despite Jews being subjected to unspeakable atrocities by vicious enemies who are, once again, bent on their extermination, the international community has turned on them.

While much of the world looks on with indifference and disinterest—or actually cheers on the murderers—the events of the Holocaust are no longer so remote from our contemporary experience. The difference, of course, is that the Jewish people are no longer defenseless. In the era from 1939 to 1945, the Jews had little or no ability to either defend themselves or find safe haven from a genocidal foe where they would be welcomed. Now the full force of international opinion and intellectual fashion is arrayed against the State of Israel, whose existence is the one true memorial to the 6 million men, women and children slain by the Nazis. It alone ensures that two millennia of Jews being persecuted and/or slaughtered with impunity have come to an end.

Having suffered the fate of powerless victims at the hands of the Nazis, in the wake of Oct. 7, the Jews are now demonized by those who think that they have no right to defend themselves against Hamas and other terror groups that wish to destroy Israel and slaughter its Jewish population. Despite being the party that was attacked and, according to objective military observers, using more care in avoiding civilian casualties in the course of conducting urban combat than any other contemporary army, Israel’s subsequent military campaign to eliminate Hamas is routinely smeared as a “genocide.”

Indeed, the entire apparatus of international human-rights advocacy and aid that was created in the wake of the Holocaust is now weaponized against the Jewish victims of Islamist attacks.

How is that possible?

As much as the conflict between Israel and its foes has always been a complex problem, the post-Oct. 7 surge in antisemitism has nothing to do with the actual events of the current war with Hamas. It needs to be repeated that Gaza wasn’t occupied on Oct. 6 and that the failure to create a Palestinian Arab state (aside from the one that existed in Gaza in all but name since Israel’s 2005 withdrawal) is the result of repeated refusals from both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to make peace or accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders might be drawn.

Old/new woke antisemitic propaganda

If Israel is now routinely and falsely accused of being an “apartheid state” or committing “genocide,” it is due to the success of a leftist/Islamist propaganda campaign that has convinced a considerable portion of young Americans, as well as those elsewhere that it has no right to exist. Those who chant for its destruction or cheer on the prospect of more terrorism against Jews on college campuses have been indoctrinated in the toxic myths of critical race theory and intersectionality that analogize the war to destroy the one Jewish state on the planet to the struggle for civil rights in the United States.

During the Holocaust, a Nazi movement steeped in racism convinced the citizens of the most educated nation on earth to see Jews as subhuman. Now, many of the most educated elements of American society have been seduced by a movement that dubs itself “anti-racist” but that is predicated on the notion that we are all locked in a perpetual race war between white oppressors and victims who are people of color. Like all variants of Marxism, this woke ideology targets Jews and classifies them as “white” oppressors, even though the conflict with the Palestinians has nothing to do with race and the majority of Israeli Jews are themselves people of color since they trace their origins to the Middle East and North Africa.

Jews suffering from a wave of antisemitism since Oct. 7 is the result of the success that “progressives” have had in making this new secular religion the orthodoxy that prevails throughout academia and many other sectors of American society. As historian Niall Ferguson noted in his seminal Free Press essay, “The Treason of the Intellectuals,” much like the way the demonization of Jews was enabled by the educated classes prior to the Holocaust, contemporary elites have embraced this old/new faith that also legitimizes Jew-hatred.

The woke lies have not gone unanswered, and the open advocacy for violence against Jews and the excesses of the student protests have shocked many Americans. But they are still repeated every day in much of the corporate liberal media and by leading political figures. Leading news outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post, and broadcasters like MSNBC and CNN, consider them ideas to be debated and which reasonable people should agree to disagree about, rather than antisemitic and racist falsehoods to be condemned.

How then should we remember the Shoah at a time when Jews are once again under siege?

The perils of universalizing the Holocaust

We must start by no longer trying to isolate the Holocaust from the rest of Jewish history or contemporary struggles. The Shoah was a unique historical event that should not be treated—as it is by many Americans as simply a metaphor for something very bad—as merely just a particularly egregious example of man’s inhumanity to man. But it must also be seen as part of the narrative of Jewish history that stretches back to the destruction of the Jewish commonwealth by the Romans to today.

Sadly, many, if not most, of those involved in the spread of Holocaust education have sought to make its lessons palatable to non-Jews by universalizing its lessons. As a result, rather than being understood as an example of how antisemitism is hatred used for specific political purposes, it became merely seen as stemming from ordinary prejudice.

That was mistaken, in and of itself. But it also made it less likely that even those who had undergone some sort of rudimentary Holocaust education—as is true of many if not most of today’s college students—would be unable to understand how current woke ideas grant a permission slip to antisemitism. Indeed, the language of Holocaust education is now used against Israel and the Jews with their enemies no longer using the vulgar dehumanizing terms employed by the Nazis but instead libelously accusing them of being genocidal racists.

This means that as we honor the memory of the Holocaust, we must now do so without ever forgetting that Jews are once again under siege today. And we must do so without losing sight of the critical fact that the only difference between then and now is that the Jewish people are not as vulnerable as they were in the world that existed without Jewish sovereignty and military power.

We keep being told that many of those who demonstrate in favor of an end to the current war that would leave Hamas alive and well—and able to make good on its promises to repeat the horrors of Oct. 7 again and again—are well-meaning and simply sympathetic to the suffering of Palestinians. But the objective of the movement these supposedly well-meaning people support is to strip the Jews of Israel—and Jews everywhere, for that matter—of the ability to defend themselves against Islamists for whom Oct. 7 is just a trailer for what they wish to do to every Jew on this planet.

Simply put, if you are demonstrating for Hamas’s survival, you are on the side of a group that wishes to repeat the Holocaust. No matter how well-intentioned you may claim to be, that makes you no different from those who viewed the Nazis, who had their own narrative of grievance, with equanimity.

The German people suffered terribly as a result of the war that they launched, yet today, those who claim to speak for humanitarian values believe that there can be no consequences for those who commit or condone (as is true for the overwhelming majority of Palestinians) the mass murder of Jews and that Jews who defend themselves against genocide are the Nazis. Would those who demonstrate against Jewish self-defense apply the same lessons to the Allies who, in order to liberate the Nazi death camps had to kill many people, including civilians?

By the same token, those who wish for universities and other institutions to engage in discriminatory commercial conduct that would divest from anything to do with Israel are not criticizing Israel’s policies or leaders, but supporting a contemporary version of Nazi boycotts of Jews.

It is also just as clear that the leftist/Islamist attack on Israel is also aimed at the West and the United States. This debate over the war against Hamas is not one about whether Israel or its government and military are perfect but about a struggle for the future of the West, much as was true of the war against the German Nazis. The Jews are, as they were during the Holocaust, the canaries in the coal mine, warning humanity of the dangers of tolerating genocidal hate.

As we remember the Shoah, rather than stick to our usual routine of memorialization, it’s time for decent people of all backgrounds and faiths to understand that the war on the Jews didn’t end with the defeat of the Nazis. It continues to this day under new slogans, flags and worse, with many of those who claim to stand for enlightened thought allowing the enablers of Jew-hatred to pose as advocates for human rights and the oppressed. Those lies must not be allowed to stand.

There should be no Holocaust Memorial Day observance without it being made clear that there can be no proper honor given to the Six Million slain by the Nazis without linking that struggle to those against the antisemites of our time. We must not tolerate those who shed crocodile tears for Jews murdered in the past while tolerating or even supporting policies that enable antisemitism in the present, envisioning Israel’s destruction and the continued slaughter of Jews. If we cannot understand that, then invocations to remember what happened or ensure that it is “never again” allowed in this world are nothing more than pointless and counterproductive virtue-signaling.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war.

JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you.

The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support?

Every contribution, big or small, helps JNS.org remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Topics
Comments
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates