When It Comes to Holocaust Awareness, We Need to Raise the Bar

The events of this week have made it clear: It’s time to bring genocide and Holocaust awareness lessons back into the spotlight.

April is Genocide Awareness Month. It’s also testing month, prom month and the lead-up to the last month of school in many parts of the country. As a result, the critical learning opportunities afforded by Genocide Awareness Month can be overlooked—but it’s time to bring these lessons back into the spotlight. As the events of this week have shown, the need to deeply engage this topic with students is more acute than ever.

We’ve written before about hateful acts of anti-Jewish bigotry being on the rise. News of bomb threats, vandalism, even desecration of Jewish cemeteries is reported daily. Just yesterday, near Washington, D.C., a Jewish Community Center was tagged with swastikas and the phrase “Hitler was right.” The incident was all the more painful as it occurred on the first full day of the Jewish holy week of Passover.

Also in the news yesterday was White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Spicer made what many listeners interpreted as a borderline-anti-Semitic gaff while speaking about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons: He stated that Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”

Spicer has since apologized for his choice of words and acknowledged the seriousness of his misstep. But some bells you just can’t un-ring, and this is one of them.

Words uttered by the spokesperson for the country’s commander-in-chief inherently hold meaning. One possible meaning is that Spicer actually doesn’t think that Hitler used toxic gas to kill millions of Jews during the Holocaust. That position brushes up against Holocaust denial and has the power to embolden anti-Semites who insist—in the face of clear evidence—that concentrations camps did not exist.   

Given the voracity of his apologies, the more likely meaning is that Spicer has a hazy understanding of the Holocaust, which led him to unthinkingly make remarks that were grossly insensitive and historically inaccurate. Here’s another example from yesterday: “[Hitler] was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing," Spicer said when he tried to clarify his earlier remarks. This statement is, again, ahistorical as it suggests that many Jews weren’t German, and it displays a propensity to “otherize” Jewish people.

A hazy understanding of the Holocaust is still a huge problem. It implies that it’s OK to be sloppy and cavalier when speaking about one of history’s greatest human rights atrocities. It also indicates that Spicer wasn’t savvy enough to realize that downplaying Hitler’s actions to make a political point (during Passover!) was offensive in the extreme.

In other words, when it comes to being able to speak accurately and intelligently about a mark on history that is fundamentally necessary for everyone to study and understand, the bar is set far too low.

Vandalizing a synagogue and saying something insensitive on national television are not the same thing—but they both indicate something disturbing about our national understanding about the Holocaust and genocide. People who think the Holocaust was “an atrocity” but don’t understand the nuances have a looser grip on their position than they think they do. And they have a much looser grip on their position than people who think “Hitler was right.”


TT’s blog Commemorating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

TT’s free film One Survivor Remembers and teacher’s guide

Perspectives for a Diverse America texts “Out of Auschwitz,” “About Feeling Jewish,” “Danger on My Doorstep,” “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport” and “What Is Talmud?” (Use the advanced filter to search. Free registration required.)

Facing History and Ourselves’ anti-Semitism and religious intolerance resources

A new classroom activity from the ADL titled Anti-Semitic Incidents: Being an Ally, Advocate and Activist

The United States Holocaust Museum’s tools and resources 

van der Valk is the deputy director of Teaching Tolerance.

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