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September 17, 2020 6:15 am

The Holocaust Meets American Ignorance, Antisemitism, and ‘Alternative Facts’

avatar by Avi Benlolo

Opinion

The entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

As the memory of the Holocaust fades — and after the world recently commemorated the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II — there is growing concern among Holocaust survivors about who will remember them. One survivor recently asked me, “Who will remember us when we are gone?”

Now, a national survey on the Holocaust knowledge of American Millennials and Gen Z reveals shocking results. The survey, conducted for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference), says it is the first ever 50-state survey of its kind. In all, it found that 63% of all national respondents do not know that six million Jews were murdered.

Just as surprising, 36% thought that “two million or fewer Jews” were killed during the Holocaust. Even though there were 40,000 camps and ghettos in Europe, it is astounding to learn that 48% of national survey respondents could not name a single one.

Millennials are generally considered those born between 1980 and 2000 — and have born witness to many social events, including having prolific access to Holocaust survivors and more opportunities to learn about this unparalleled genocide. For Generation Z — generally born after 1996 — this group is supposedly the most educated and knowledgeable in history, given their superb access to digital information.

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Most concerning, given the iconic standing of the most notorious death camp in human history, 56% of US Millennials and Gen Z respondents were unable to identify Auschwitz-Birkenau and “there was virtually no awareness of concentration camps and ghettos overall,” according to the survey. In some states like Arkansas, Delaware, and Arizona, the ignorance level hovered over 67%.

Sadly, the survey advises that some 11% of US Millennials and Gen Z respondents believe Jews caused the Holocaust. In New York, a state that contains a city with the most number of Jews who reside there, the survey reveals that 19% of respondents believe Jews caused the Holocaust.

Even while some 59% of respondents indicate they believe something like the Holocaust could happen, perhaps the way we are teaching the Holocaust needs to be re-evaluated. In my experience, we need studies conducted on effective methodologies that teach about the Holocaust — especially as Holocaust survivors are unfortunately passing away.

The rise of digital media has also planted conspiracy theories and false information about the Holocaust. The fomentation of antisemitism and Holocaust denial on social media has created false narratives and ideologies concerning the Holocaust. In fact, many Holocaust deniers plant information that is misleading — and this impacts the knowledge level of new generations.

It is no coincidence that the survey found that 49% of US Millennials and Gen Z have seen Holocaust denial or distortion posts on social media or elsewhere. Similarly, 50% indicated that they had seen Nazi symbols on their social media platforms. For this reason, as I have written elsewhere, social networking platforms like TikTok and Facebook are ramping up their hate speech policies.

Still, there is little comfort in this survey’s results. Some would argue more education is needed. The question is — how can we make Holocaust education more effective for millions of students to digest and understand? Our traditional means may no longer be relevant, and new concepts and platforms need to be developed.

Avi Benlolo is a Canadian human rights activist, and the former president and CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center. A version of this article appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

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