Abigail R. Esman
It’s official: anti-Semitism in America has reached its highest level since 1979, when the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) first started keeping count. Worldwide, too, incidents in 2019 increased 18 percent over 2018, which in turn witnessed 13 percent more anti-Semitic incidents than 2017.
While Muslims were responsible for the majority of the anti-Semitic violence in Europe, far left and far right groups account for most attacks in America. In fact, members of the far left are more likely than are far right nationalists to attack or harass a Jewish person, especially, and increasingly, on college campuses in Europe and the United States.
Campuses on both continents have become the hotbeds of anti-Jewish activity, with anti-Semitism rising among students, and even from kindergarten through high school and university – an ominous portent for the future.
Simultaneously, recent studies have exposed a shocking lack of knowledge about Jewish history, particularly regarding the Holocaust. In a 2018 study by Claims Conference, an organization providing support to Holocaust survivors, 66 percent of American millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) did not know what Auschwitz was, and 22 percent either “had not heard of, or were unfamiliar with the Holocaust.” Nearly half of all Americans (45 percent) could not name a single concentration camp or ghetto, and the percentage was even higher among millennials.
This ignorance isn’t just in the United States. A 2018 CNN poll found that one in 20 Europeans had never heard of the Holocaust, while a third said they knew “little or nothing at all” about it. In Germany, the Tel-Aviv based Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry found last year that “40 percent of Germans between the ages 18 to 40 know little or have even heard about” the Holocaust, while “Israel-related anti-Semitism, mainly originating from Muslim students and staff, is already becoming normalized among school students and teachers.”
In Austria, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, 58 percent of millennials and the following generation, known as Generation Z, were unaware that 6 million Jews were killed during the Shoah; 30 percent guessed the number at “one million or lower.” And in a 2009 UK poll of 2,000 schoolchildren between the ages of 9 and 15, one in 20 identified the Holocaust as “the celebration at the end of the war.” An equal number identified Hitler as a German soccer coach. And to the question “What is Auschwitz,” one in six students responded “an amusement park.”
Closer to home, Canada – which last year saw a 62.8 percent spike in anti-Semitic incidents in Ontario and a 12.3 percent increase in Quebec – fares no better. B’nai Brith Canada’s Annual Audit of Antisemitic Incidents for 2019 notes that “nearly 57 percent of Canadians care less about the Holocaust than they had in the past, with 15 percent of Canadian adults, and over one in five Canadians under 34 stating that they had not or were unsure of whether they had heard of the Holocaust,” while 49 percent could not name a concentration camp.
Coupled with this, an ADL examination found anti-Semitic incidents at American K-12 schools quadrupled between 2015 and 2017. In fact, according to a Frontline report, “school grounds surpassed other public spaces, such as parks and streets, to have the highest number of reported anti-Semitic incidents in 2017.”
And so the question arises: is there a connection between ignorance of the Holocaust and susceptibility to anti-Semitism?
Whether knowledge of the Holocaust can prevent anti-Semitism is an old debate, according to University of Indiana Jewish Studies Professor Gunther Jikeli.
“My experience from hundreds of interviews (in Europe) is that knowledge is not a decisive factor,” he said in a recent e-mail. “I think it’s even often the other way around. How people think about Jews affects how they think about the Holocaust and what they do with their knowledge about the Holocaust (whatever they know about details).”
Further, many European teachers are finding the subject increasingly difficult to teach. In the Netherlands, for instance, students with Turkish or Moroccan background frequently insist that these lessons do not reflect them or their own history and refuse to take part. Some have threatened teachers who attempt to teach the subject. And Holocaust survivors who previously visited schools to tell their stories have stopped doing so lately in the face of increasing anti-Semitism. “If the teacher says ‘Jews,’ the students say ‘Gaza.’ If the teacher says ‘Holocaust,’ the students say ‘total bullshit,'” one Dutch schoolteacher told Algemene Dagblad in 2015.
Moreover, Dutch Muslim students frequently skip school on days when the class is scheduled to make a field trip to visit a synagogue or other Jewish site, one teacher from Rotterdam reported in 2017. In Germany that year, Muslim students staged a protest against an International Holocaust Remembrance Day event with the support of their high school’s administration.
“And if Muslim students get away with that, other students get emboldened, too,” Jikeli said.
In the face of these trends, it is little wonder that more than half of all cases of anti-Semitic violence in Europe were perpetrated by “someone with a Muslim extremist view.
The ADL found that “Muslim acceptance of anti-Semitic stereotypes was substantially higher than among the national populations — on average almost three times as high — in the six countries tested: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the U.K.”
And yet the ADL has noted that European Muslims are less likely to have anti-Semitic ideas than do their Middle Eastern or North African counterparts, “possibly reflecting the impact of Holocaust education, exposure to Jews, and societal values of acceptance and tolerance.”
In other words, it may be that how one thinks about Jews, as Jikeli said, affects one’s knowledge of the Holocaust, but knowledge of the Holocaust may in turn affect how people think about Jews.
This linkage seems to be playing out in the United States. American Jews are targeted more frequently by members of the far right and, increasingly, members of the far left, many of whom partner with Muslim student groups to support the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel – a movement that is becoming increasingly prevalent on American college and university campuses. Indeed, BDS supporters – despite also being raised with “societal values of acceptance and tolerance”– were responsible for the majority of attacks on Jews at universities in recent years.
“There is a statistical relationship; schools with high BDS and other anti-Zionist activity are three times more likely to have incidents of anti-Jewish hostility,” Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of the Amcha Initiative, which studies anti-Semitism in higher education, said in a recent phone interview.
The BDS movement was established in 2005 by Palestinian Omar Barghouti. It has been accused of having links to Palestinian terror groups. On campuses across the United States, BDS-tied organizations – particularly the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) – flood students with propaganda that accuses Israel of apartheid and murder. “SJP encourages chaos, conflict, and violence on campuses. The group’s members violently disrupt pro-Israel events and regularly bully and ostracize Jewish students,” Israeli-American Council Chairman Alan Milstein has written.
SJP and similar groups are heavily funded by organizations such as the as American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), which has deep ties to a defunct Hamas-support network. Their outreach is loud, provocative, and vehement. What’s more, while right wing neo-Nazi groups promote the idea that Jews are actively working with other minority groups to destroy and replace the world’s white majority, progressive, left-wing youth tend to view Muslims as “people of color,” or the oppressed, while perceiving Jews (about whose history they know little) as white oppressors.
Consequently, though BDS began as a Muslim organization, with identity politics and intersectionalist ideologies that condemn “imperialism” and “colonialism” increasingly in vogue, non-Muslim youth are easily attracted to campus BDS groups. “If students view themselves as progressive supporters of social justice, they are more than likely to swallow the entirety of the social justice platform, which increasingly includes an anti-Israel position,” Rabbi Ilan Haber, the Orthodox Union’s national director of Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU-JLIC) told Jewish Action. “It will become part of their breathing, their DNA, not necessarily because they care about Middle Eastern politics but because they hear about Israel’s ‘occupation’ and its engaging in ‘genocide.'”
“A student who’s fighting for LGBTQ rights,” he added, “is primarily interested in fighting for that cause; but since a number of these groups have created alliances with Palestinian groups, the student’s exposure to information about Israel will be colored to some extent by those alliances.”
Alyza Lewin, director of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, agrees.
“The haters will always hate, and no amount of education will change that,” she said.
“However, there is a big middle part of the population that really just doesn’t know. And that’s a big part of the problem. They’re not hostile. They’re not angry. They’re not haters. They really just don’t know. And they want to support what they believe are society’s underdog, and feel a need to be able to point the finger at the cause for any misfortune in today’s world. And without Holocaust education, this community really has no clue.”
This, Lewin believes, is especially true in the United States.
“It’s not part of their American history,” she pointed out. “They think it didn’t happen here. So they are really clueless.”
Hence, George Washington University sophomore Blake Flayton noted in a New York Times op-ed last fall, “At many American universities, mine included, it is now normal for student organizations to freely call Israel an imperialist power and an outpost of white colonialism with little pushback or discussion…. The word ‘apartheid’ is thrown around without hesitation. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is repeatedly dragged into discussions ranging anywhere from LGBTQ equality (where to mention Israel’s vastly better record on gay rights compared with that of any other country in the Middle East is branded ‘pinkwashing’), to health care to criminal justice reform.”
Flayton also points to the term “baby-killer,” an epithet directed at him after last year’s Israeli election. It’s another commonly-heard insult hurled at Jews that in part reflects the classic blood libel, the lie that Jews drink the blood of Christian babies. It is also often used to malign Israel as a killer of Palestinian children; in London last year, for instance, posters appeared on bus stops and other outdoor sites that read: “Israel’s killing children again. Enjoy your weekend.”
Some, however, believe that the “baby-killer” invective is specifically used to connect Israel to the Nazis. That view is based on the widespread falsehood oft-referred to as the “al-Durah myth” promoted by extremist pro-Palestinian groups, said historian Richard Landes in a recent e-mail.
The al-Durah story centers on the Sept. 30, 2000 killing of 12-year-old Palestinian Mohammed al-Dura, allegedly by Israeli forces, as his father pleaded with them to stop. Videos of the scene taken by French TV at the time spread quickly, leading to a rash of anti-Jewish violence across Europe and the Arab world. The story continues to fuel anti-Jewish sentiment and violence even today, Landes maintains. “The gut hatred of Israel that BDS feeds on, the pariah status that they can assume … goes back to al Durah, which established powerfully the principle that Israel deliberately kills Palestinian kids,” he says.
Yet later investigations, including an exhaustive review by James Fallows of the Atlantic, found little indication that the boy was shot by Israeli fire, and more likely had been killed by Palestinians. But the incident has remained a propaganda jewel for anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activists. Israel – and so, Zionists – are evil. And if Israel is evil, if Zionists are evil, then anyone who supports the existence of Israel, which means the vast majority of the world’s Jews, is evil, and must be stopped, at all cost.
“After Al Durah Israel was the Nazis,” says Landes, who serves on the board of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME). “Any invocation of Holocaust just made things worse.”
In addition, public figures popular among progressive youth, such as Minnesota U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, frequently add fuel to the conflict. Last year, in her efforts to introduce a pro-BDS bill, Omar compared Israel with Nazi Germany – a trope common among BDS-ers. And anti-Israel activist and former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney posted to her 43,000 followers on Twitter last month that “it wasn’t six million [Jews killed in the Holocaust] after all.”
It is impossible to know whether all this also reflects the millennial and Gen-Z ignorance about the Holocaust. But it is interesting to note that the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) reported a higher incidence of anti-Semitic attacks and harassment among European Jews ages 16-34, all of whom cited colleagues and classmates as the perpetrator. And in America last semester, Jikeli says, his students were surprised to learn that anti-Jewish hate crimes far surpassed the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes, both in the United States and globally.
Consequently, and in response to the rise in campus anti-Semitism, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., in 2018 introduced a bipartisan bill to fund and promote Holocaust education at the K-12 level. The “Never Again Education Act” passed in a unanimous vote last month and was signed into law May 29. In a March essay for The Forward, Maloney cited the Claims Conference survey and Americans’ lack of knowledge about the Holocaust.
“I believe that this lack of knowledge is a danger to combatting anti-Semitism and in fact may be a contributing factor to the alarming rise in anti-Semitism that we are seeing here in the United States,” she wrote.
Holocaust education alone is not enough to save the Jews from further violence. Such a notion would be pure folly. But if the ADL is right that learning about the Shoah has made European Muslims less anti-Semitic than those in their countries of origin, it could well be a start. As Maloney affirmed in a recent e-mail: “Children are not born with hate in their hearts, and it is up to us to make sure they never learn it. By providing quality, thorough, and accessible Holocaust education, we can teach students about the dangers of anti-Semitism and bigotry – and through that, the importance of acceptance and embracing our differences.”
Abigail R. Esman is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. She is the author of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010). Her next book, Rage: Narcissism, Patriarchy, and the Culture of Terrorism, will be published by Potomac Books in October, 2020. Follow her at @radicalstates.