. . . and its moral pitfalls.
Jan 3, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 16 • By SAM SCHULMAN
The aim was lofty, and like so many ideas that germinated after the end of the Cold War, it seemed attractive because it didn’t demand much effort or expense. In Britain, Tony Blair’s government enthusiastically instituted a Holocaust Memorial Day in 2001. Remembering the Holocaust as a nation would, he said, “reaffirm the triumph of good” over evil. Home Secretary Jack Straw was confident that remembering the Holocaust suffered by the Jews would benefit all: “The universal lessons of the Holocaust make this commemoration day relevant to everyone in our society. We all have a shared responsibility to fight against discrimination and to help foster a truly multicultural Britain.” Starting in the ’90s, many European nations (France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and a dozen others) unhampered by common-law traditions of free speech began to do their bit on the punitive side, initiating laws that forbade Holocaust-denial.
Holocaust remembrance and education is one of those ideas which really has been tried. If students learn any history at all, it is the history of the Holocaust. Genocide Studies has become an academic specialty and a fundraising bonanza, with professional organizations and prizes. Great books have been written and beautiful museums have been built—all in the conviction that they will prevent the production of future mass murderers and their willing executioners. Of course, people are only human and thus have produced versions of Holocaust study that are vulgar, distorted, oversimplified, inhumane, and unintentionally comic and undignified. But even shallow and trashy expressions of “Holocaust awareness” are not lacking in genuine piety and concern, and share the belief that they are engaged in a virtuous struggle against hate.
The Jews and the state of Israel were not much of a concern for the movement’s founders. It did not occur to anyone that anti-Semitism would reemerge, except among a few Holocaust-deniers. And as for Israel, its future was to be secured by the Oslo peace process, which was put on track by the same president who opened the U.S. Holocaust Museum in the same year of 1993, and shared some of the easy confidence of that decade.
The theory of Holocaust education, I think all except Jennifer Peto will agree, has been one of the great failures of our time. But it’s important to know how it has failed—and even more, to understand that our sentimental attachment to Holocaust memorialization can fail us with greater consequence in the future, as can our sentimental horror at those villains who deny the reality of the Holocaust. What happened as we learned about the Holocaust? Generally, nothing at all. Those politicians who speechified at the Holocaust Museum in the ’90s looked the other way, just as their predecessors in the 1930s did, as mass murders continued to take place. On the anti-Semitism front, the Maginot line of Holocaust education, human nature has not only refused to improve, but seems to have gotten worse. In one European country after another, observers—non-Jewish observers—remark levels of anti-Semitism unprecedented since 1945, despite Europe’s generous application of the Holocaust-memorial carrots and Holocaust-denial sticks. Jewish populations in Sweden are leaving entire cities; the retired chief of Holland’s major conservative party last month advised Jews who are “identifiably Jewish” to leave the country, because the Dutch state cannot protect them from anti-Semitic violence. It’s not Holocaust-deniers who commit attacks on individual Jews in Dutch cities; far from it. The Amsterdammers who jostle and taunt Rabbi Raphael Evers on streetcars are well informed, shouting “Joden aan het gas”—Jews to the gas chambers.
Holocaust education may have done more than fail. It might also have produced an unintended, but measurable effect that is even worse. One thinks of the little girl who objected to being taught the Ten Commandments in Sunday School: “They don’t tell me what I should do and they just give me ideas.” The current generation of university students—Holocaust-educated from the nursery on—have been given ideas. And on campuses around the world, not just in Protestant Europe, it is fair to say that the more the current student generation have been taught about the evil of the Holocaust, the more Israel seems to them to resemble Nazi Germany rather than itself. Even if we resist the false suggestion that Israel is conducting a genocide of Palestinians, our Holocaust-instruction has left us all with an equally false notion: that Israel was created by Europeans in the Middle East in order to make amends to European Jews for a European Holocaust.