07 November 2018

Combating Holocaust Denial and Antisemitism in the School Setting

Intro Copy

This is the final in a series of posts on how to mindfully approach Holocaust education in the classroom. You can read our other three posts here: Ten Considerations for Teaching About the Holocaust, Three Subject-Based Approaches to Holocaust Studies and How to Teach About the Holocaust Through Technology Michael Gray’s book, “Teaching the Holocaust: Practical approaches for ages 11-18” offers various ways to incorporate Holocaust education in the classroom. This post focuses on chapters 11 and 12, combating antisemitism and dealing with Holocaust denial and distortion respectively.

Defining Antisemitism

In chapter 11, antisemitism is defined as “hatred, discrimination or prejudice which is directed towards Jews on account of their religion, culture or heritage.” Antisemitism has existed well before the Holocaust and continues to exist today. Knowing how to address and combat antisemitism in schools is something that should be tackled early on, but educators can only do this when they know how to identify the ways in which antisemitism develops. Three types of antisemitism are outlined below.
Ignorant antisemitism: Due to perceived stereotypes and terminology exchanged by students in school settings about being Jewish (i.e. associating frugalness with being Jewish), ignorant antisemitism spreads easily. Oftentimes the Jewish stereotypes seen in television and movies reinforce negative perceptions students may have learned prior to studying the Holocaust. Targeted antisemitism: Maliciously alienating or seeking to single out Jewish students on the basis of hate are forms of targeted antisemitism. New antisemitism: Expressing prejudice against Israel on the premise of it being a "Jewish state" and comparing Israel’s actions to those of the Nazis is a form of new antisemitism.
While all three of these types of antisemitism can exist in schools, the most common form dealt with is ignorant antisemitism. This is why educating students about the Holocaust and combating misinformation is so important in addressing antisemitism, Holocaust denial and distortion. Holocaust education is not a magic formula for removing antisemitism and prejudice. There must be an understanding among teachers and students that these prejudices are wrong and the ability to explain why. In Gray’s book, the following tips on what and what not to do when teaching about the Holocaust are as follows:

Things Not to Do When Teaching About the Holocaust

  1. Don't reinforce antisemitic stereotypes
  2. Don't use Nazi propaganda without considering the effects and putting it into context to highlight its inaccuracies and prejudices
  3. Don't present Jews solely as victims
  4. Don't dehumanize Jews or ignore antisemitism
  5. Don't ignore the Jewish resistance
  6. Don't define Jewish identity solely in terms of the Holocaust
  7. Don't get side-tracked onto Middle Eastern politics

Things to Do When Teaching About the Holocaust

  1. Explain who Jews are -- Show positive moments in their history and provide information on the Jewish religion, history and culture.
  2. Challenge stereotypes and misconceptions -- Present antisemitism as something which should be challenged and rejected. If antisemitism manifests itself in your classroom and you ignore it, your action implies that the behavior is acceptable.
  3. Demonstrate the positive aspects of Jewish history -- When discussing the Holocaust, highlight the Jewish resistance to demonstrate the bravery and courage of Jews.
  4. Use individual examples and case studies -- Providing diverse examples of Jewish individuals and families helps challenge stereotypes and misconceptions.
  5. Always exercise caution when showing graphic images of the Holocaust -- Such images can cause students to dehumanize Jews if not deconstructed.

Defining Holocaust Denial and Distortion

In chapter 12, Holocaust denial and distortion is defined as extreme antisemitism “motivated by hatred of Jews.” In this motivation, Holocaust denial is an attempt to undermine and distort facts pertaining to the Holocaust. Hate speech, antisemitism and Holocaust denial have become all too common on the Internet due to the ease of spreading misinformation there. There is no one reason this hatred toward Jews exists, but Gray offers helpful insight into this growing problem. Some of these insights include the desire to reduce sympathy for Jews and the need to defend “extreme political ideologies.” Whether or not to address Holocaust denial and distortion in the classroom is a controversial issue that brings both advantages and disadvantages. Both conditions are outlined below based on the chapter:

The Advantages of Addressing Holocaust Denial and Distortion

  1. The truth will prevail – Study of the Holocaust is best approached through “evidence-based knowledge.” This is the best defense against misinformation and hate.
  2. Most students will come across the subject anyway – It is better for students to learn about the Holocaust in the classroom versus online without guidance where Holocaust denial websites thrive and could influence perspective.
  3. It shows there are answers to the arguments of Holocaust deniers – These arguments should be addressed specifically as well as the refutes to these claims.
  4. It reduces the appeal of the Holocaust denial movement – Educators should raise the issue of Holocaust denial and distortion before students do.
  5. It helps diminish the ability of Holocaust deniers to find new supporters – Educating students about the Holocaust and the Holocaust denial movement reduces the likelihood that they will want to support such a movement.

The Disadvantages of Addressing Holocaust Denial and Distortion

  1. It can legitimize Holocaust denial and distortion – Care and wisdom are needed to scrutinize the arguments of Holocaust deniers. Historical evidence and case studies help in this.
  2. It can raise awareness of the movement – While raising awareness can pose risks, dispelling ignorance through education can have a positive impact.
  3. It may generate curiosity to visit Holocaust denial websites – As long as educators address the issues of Holocaust denial and distortion clearly in the classroom, students will be able to look at a Holocaust denial website with a critical eye and recognize it as a form of propaganda.
Confronting Holocaust denial and distortion allows students to examine historical evidence and see the flaws in certain arguments held by Holocaust deniers. The more analytical skills students have to make these conclusions, the easier it will be to identify discrimination and combat it.

A Personal Account

Senior Content Editor Ilana Cohen shares memories of her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. I have known about the Holocaust as early as I can remember. My maternal grandfather Jack Mucha was a survivor. He was in various concentration camps for at least 6 years. I knew at an early age that he had numbers tattooed on his arm and why they were there. He was one of 10 children but most of his family was killed and only he and his brother made it out of the camps. He had a thick Polish accent and was a bit scary to me when I was a child. I realize now as an adult that he very likely suffered from some PTSD. He ate his meals in minutes because in the camps they took away food. He was often quiet and stared off into the distance. He was unsure of his exact birthday because his birth certificate had been lost or destroyed. But in America he married my lovely grandmother and had three children. They owned a small business in New York and eventually retired to Florida. When he passed away in 1992, a Holocaust survivor emblem was engraved on his headstone, so it serves as a reminder for what had happened and that people survived. -- Subscribe via email to Share This and never miss a post. Teaching the Holocaust: Practical Approaches for ages 11-18 is available on ProQuest Ebook Central or wherever books are sold. ProQuest Guided Research products have more resources to help teach about the Holocaust. Free trials are available.