Fighting an Epidemic of Ignorance

The absurd belief that history didn’t happen afflicts not only news organizations that avoid acknowledging that the Har Habayis is where the Batei Mikdash stood, but also irrational people who assert that Churban Europa — which took place within the lifetime of survivors still among us — is a myth.

“Holocaust denial,” to be sure, is nothing new. A more pernicious problem, though, may lie in something that, while more innocent, is becoming more prevalent: “Holocaust ignorance.”

Not that the anti-Semitic deniers are disappearing, to be sure. A BBC documentary crew recently filmed members of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama claiming that World War II concentration camps were actually “summer camps” for Jewish people.

“These death camps,” one Klansman asserted, “they gave the so-called people that were being killed cigarettes, there was coffee, there was a movie theater, a library, even a swimming pool in Auschwitz.”

The imaginative fellow went on to explain that, when they weren’t swimming, Jews in the camps were being helped by the Third Reich, which was “trying to teach them to work, trying to rehabilitate them, if you will.”

When the interviewer asked “Where did you hear this?” the Klan member responded, “It’s all history.”

And in the Islamic world, of course, denial of European Jewry’s destruction is famously rampant. Adel Bin Ahmad, the preacher at the main mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, recently called the Jews a people that “disseminate everywhere the lie of the Holocaust and claim that Hitler killed six million Jews in gas chambers. Although pure falsehood, they have made it part of their history.” It’s clearly not part of his.

The ultimate ruler of Iran, Ali Khamenei, is more measured, if not more sane. “Observe,” he sagely noted not long ago, “that no one in Europe dares to speak about the Holocaust even though it’s not clear what the reality is about it, whether it even has a reality…”

What may be less shocking but perhaps of greater concern, though, is what was evident in a Chicago news program that presented a pre-Yom Kippur segment about the holiest day of the Jewish year, against the backdrop of a yellow star patch.

The producers of the program — whose stock in trade, it should be remembered, is information — were apparently unaware of the provenance of the patch.

There was no ill will or insult intended.  When the station realized its error, its news director quickly apologized that those in charge had “failed to recognize that the artwork we chose to accompany the story contained an offensive symbol.”

Yet the fact remains: The newspeople “failed to recognize” the import of a yellow star.

It would be an almost amusing gaffe, were it not part of an emerging pattern. A candidate in Canada’s federal elections, Alex Johnstone, recently apologized for a personal media posting of a photograph of part of the electrified fence at Auschwitz, accompanied by an attempt at humor.

“Well, I didn’t know what Auschwitz was, or I didn’t up until today,” explained Ms. Johnstone, who serves as vice chair of a school board and as regional vice chair of the Ontario Public School Board Association. She “never intend[ed] any malice,” she explained, and offered her “unreserved apology.”

No one reading these words needs any reminder that Hitler and his helpers murdered nearly two out of every three European Jews.  But that horrific fact, apparently, is lost on many.

According to an ADL 2014 Survey, 35 percent of those surveyed in 100 countries said they had never heard of the Holocaust and 32 percent believe it is a myth or has been greatly exaggerated.

It would be unrealistic to imagine that those percentages will go down in the future.

This is important because, over the decades immediately following Churban Europa, direct knowledge of the Jewish catastrophe prevented many who would otherwise attack Jews and Jewish ventures from acting on their evil impulses. Undisguised Jew-hatred was seen as uncouth, if not repugnant. Even today, anti-Semitism is not often expressed in a straightforward manner, but rather dressed in ill-fitting political or social costumes.

So there is a place for “Holocaust education” in public schools, and for monuments and museums that have the potential of keeping at least some people informed about recent Jewish history.

And, most important, a place of prominence for efforts which not only document Holocaust experiences and present educational resources but bring into focus the spiritual, ethical, and intellectual responses of Holocaust survivors and victims.

There will, unfortunately, always be hateful history deniers. But we can do our part to fight a future epidemic of ignorance.