September 24, 2020
IntelBrief: Lack of Education Contributing to Worldwide Rise in Anti-Semitism
A recent study commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) revealed an astonishing lack of awareness about the Holocaust among young adults in the United States. The study included adults between the ages of 18 and 39 (spanning so-called Gen Z and millennials) and found that nearly one-quarter of respondents said that they believed the Holocaust was a myth, was overstated, or they were not sure. That one of the most significant historical events of the past century could be so poorly understood is appalling, and speaks in part to a lack of education. And, with rising anti-Semitism throughout the United States and Europe, it has never been more critical for people, especially young people, to understand the horrors of the Holocaust so that the world can stay true the phrase ‘Never Again.’
In the United States, white nationalist, white supremacist, and neo-Nazi groups are all enjoying significant momentum, gaining prominence since the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017. Anti-Semitic propaganda and racist content are ubiquitous online. The Claims Conference survey found that more than half of the respondents interviewed said they had seen Nazi symbols on the social media platforms they frequented, while nearly half had seen posts or claims about Holocaust denial or other historical distortions of the event. The lack of digital literacy is a major concern, especially for children, adolescents, and even adults who struggle to discern objective facts from clear falsehoods, obscured by disinformation and racist tropes disguised as real news and analysis. After all, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In this case, it seems to be less about remembering than it is about learning about history in the first place, a job best left to teachers and educators, not memes and message boards.
Especially with so many young people at home and online during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to monitor what children are consuming on the Internet. Another complicating factor during quarantine is that many parents are home-schooling their children and may be either deliberately or inadvertently passing on distorted information about historical events in a way that perpetuates racist stereotypes. Furthermore, because parents are busy either working from home or tending to younger children, teenagers are often left to their own devices—in this case literally—and are spending an inordinate amount of time online, with little supervision. The spreading of anti-Semitic and racist memes is an attempted soft-pedaling of hate. Because disinformation and blatantly hateful messages are being spread through cartoons, jokes, and posts claiming to be ironic, those pedaling and consuming these messages are seeking a sense of plausible deniability if questioned. A common refrain is that, ‘it’s only a meme.’ But in 2020, some young people are being introduced to a historical event or topic for the first time through memes.
The disturbing lack of awareness and ignorance about the Holocaust is occurring against a backdrop of spiking anti-Semitic incidents throughout the world, especially in the United States and Europe. In the United States, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported a record number of anti-Semitic incidents in 2019, increasing by 12% from the previous year. In Europe, there have been numerous high-profile anti-Semitic incidents in France, Germany, Belgium, and the United Kingdom. Headstones in Jewish cemeteries have repeatedly been vandalized, and Jews in Germany have said that they no longer feel safe wearing the traditional kippah skullcap in public. Given the results of the recent Claims Conference survey, as well as one from the Pew Research Center taken earlier this year which found that fewer than half of Americans know how many Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, it is clear that schools in the United States need to prioritize teaching students about the scale and scope of this tragedy. Education is a critical component to a broader strategy to combat deliberately false information and raise awareness of discrimination against racial, ethnic, and religious minorities.