The Dark Side of Holocaust Education

Ruth R. Wisse

Fall 2020

In January 2019 Carolyn Maloney, Democratic representative from New York, introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to support Holocaust education in the United States. Called the "Never Again Education Act," it was passed almost unanimously by the House and the Senate and signed into law by President Donald Trump on May 29, 2020. It authorized the expenditure of $2 million annually, for the next five years, to be distributed at the discretion of the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The stated purpose of the act was to remind us of the enormity of the Holocaust and to further education about the Nazi Final Solution:

As intolerance, antisemitism, and bigotry are promoted by hate groups, Holocaust education provides a context in which to learn about the danger of what can happen when hate goes unchallenged and there is indifference in the face of the oppression of others; learning how and why the Holocaust happened is an important component of the education of citizens of the United States.

This reasoning — that hate groups promote hate and that studying the Holocaust will prevent hate — prompted the establishment of the Holocaust Museum in 1980 and continues to undergird Holocaust education in all its facets. To this has been added the need for resistance to Holocaust denial that proliferates on social media. Currently, 12 states require schools to teach students about the Holocaust, but the new law extends resources to many more schools and teachers, "including those in underserved communities," to deliver "quality Holocaust education."

The motivation for the law is by now so widely accepted that its introduction raised almost no objections and only praise from Jewish organizations, like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), that are charged with combatting anti-Semitism. The ADL echoed the sentiments of Congress when it said that, through study of the Holocaust, "students can grow as responsible citizens in a democratic society and develop critical thinking, empathy, and social justice skills for the future." Both cited the spike in anti-Semitism as reason to increase support for Holocaust education.

It's easy to see why there is so much support for such a project. But is there any evidence that Holocaust education decreases hatred of the Jews among those Americans who are susceptible to it? In reality, anti-Semitism in the United States has spread in tandem with increased teaching about the Holocaust. And there is really no sound theoretical underpinning for this expanding educational initiative. Societies that concentrate on their self-improvement generally rely on positive instruction and reinforcement. Jews teach the Torah and the Talmud as a means of encouraging behavior within those guidelines. The Bible, the Constitution, and Poor Richard's Almanack were traditional American sources of moral education, good citizenship, and democratic values. A pedagogical fixation on hate, by contrast, has been associated with societies like fascist Germany and Soviet Russia that wish to direct blame and hate against designated alien or undesirable groups. How did teaching about hate to prevent hate become an American priority?

Already 30 years ago, in a Commentary Magazine article titled "How They Teach the Holocaust," noted historian and intellectual Lucy Dawidowicz raised serious concerns about the distorted curricula and questionable outcomes of Holocaust-related projects like Facing History and Ourselves. Consulted as an authority on what she called the "war against the Jews," Dawidowicz undertook a thorough study of these materials, leading her to question the wisdom of encouraging "oppression studies" in the absence of any robust teaching of history. Essential reading for anyone approaching this subject, her study identified problems ranging from the failure to suggest that anti-Semitism had any history before Hitler to teaching American children raised in unprecedented freedom and permissiveness that "obedience to the law is not necessarily the determinant of a moral person." What's more, Holocaust education is routinely appropriated for activist agendas.

Things have gotten far worse in the intervening three decades. We are required to ask the more basic question of what Holocaust education was intended to do and whether it distorts by definition. This means understanding how this idea and project developed.


The big American story following the Second World War was the Allied victory, spearheaded by the United States, over Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. The big Jewish story was the exodus of refugees from Europe and the re-establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Newsreels at the time showed unimaginably shocking scenes of what had been done to the Jews, followed by scenes of the cruel British blockade of ships crammed with refugees trying to reach Palestine. Arab attacks against the badly outnumbered Jews of Palestine aligned with images of the recently annihilated Jews of Europe, and Jews raising the Israeli flag evoked the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima. One could better sympathize with the survivors knowing that the ingathering of Jews in Israel meant that other democracies would not have to absorb too many of them.

The decisive Allied victory made right-wing anti-Semitism so out of fashion in America that villainy has been portrayed in Nazi uniform ever since. Americans did not fight so hard against fascists in Europe just to have them resurface in their midst. In books and films like Gentleman's Agreement and Focus (the latter an almost forgotten novel by Arthur Miller), American Gentiles who are mistaken for Jews — as an experiment in one case and inadvertently in the other — experience discrimination and intimidation that expose the evils of local prejudice. In this post-war climate, anti-Jewish quotas were lifted. Anne Frank's Diary became a classic. The idea of Protestant, Catholic, and Jew came into fashion as the ecumenical model of religion in America.

The popular positive image of Israel in those years found its clearest expression in the 1958 novel Exodus by Leon Uris, which, at the time, was the biggest bestseller in the United States since Gone with the Wind (1936) and was turned into a blockbuster movie starring Paul Newman as the heroic Ari Ben Canaan. The heroine of Exodus is nurse and war widow Kitty Fremont — "one of those great American traditions like Mom's apple pie" — who accepts a posting in Palestine. Initially, she doesn't like Jews and feels much closer to their British overseers, but the novel traces her change of heart as she is drawn to two versions of the Jewish experience: Karen Hansen, a young refugee from Denmark whom Kitty wants to take with her back to America, and male hero Ari, the ideal Israeli — tough as nails on the outside but soft and gentle on the inside. Amid many subplots, the main one follows this slightly anti-Jewish American as she falls in love with heroic Israel and wants to adopt the Holocaust survivor.

Pitiable refugee and admirable Israeli were two sides of the liberal image of the Jews that prevailed for the quarter-century after the Second World War. America had come to the rescue of what was known as the Free World and, in simplest terms, had defeated evil and liberated the good. Jews were the emblem of those it had rescued, yet at the same time — here was the happy surprise — they were no longer in need of rescuing because they were doing it themselves in a spunky way reminiscent of the founding of the United States. The Arabs were cast as the evil forces — multiple countries declaring war against the smallest among them, almost half a billion Muslims raging against 6 million fewer Jews than the world's 16.5 million before the war. The asymmetry was overwhelming, yet the transformed Jews were holding out like their archetypal David against Goliath. Their liberation was easy to appreciate as a great liberal cause.

Even more important from the liberal perspective, for the first time since the dawn of Emancipation, anti-Jewish politics was now also out of favor on the political left. Inherent in the teachings of Marx and all their offshoots was opposition to the Jewish amalgam of peoplehood and religious civilization. Bolshevism outlawed these manifestations of Judaism in Hebrew and Zionism. The Soviet Union hailed the Arab attacks against the Jews of pre-state Palestine as the start of an Arab revolution and turned anti-Zionism into a Soviet cause. Among its passionate adherents were Jewish internationalists in the communist cells of New York and Hollywood who claimed that only communism could defeat the fascists. These trends penetrated American elite circles in the 1930s and '40s but then subsided with revelations of Stalin's crimes, the Gulag prison system in Russia, and Soviet spying abroad. Thus, the decline of Soviet communism, even more than the defeat of Nazism, rehabilitated the reputation of Jews and Israel among liberals. Once the Communist Party became inactive, it took several decades before the New Left once again injected anti-Zionism into American culture.

This compressed summary of a much more layered process begins to explain why the Jews and Israel were popular among liberals. So-called "realists" of the American State Department, who weighed competing economic and political benefits in the Middle East, had almost always tilted toward the Arabs, but the Cold War against the Soviet Union also tipped Congress favorably toward the Jews. Jewish and liberal politics merged most firmly in the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, introduced in 1972 and passed two years later, denying normal trade relations to countries with non-market economies that restricted freedom of emigration. It put human rights at the forefront of American foreign policy, but it was also specifically targeted at the Soviet Union for denying Jews the right to emigrate to Israel. This was the high point of a liberal alignment between an anti-communist, human-rights-oriented American foreign policy, an anti-communist culture in America, and a movement to free the Jews by allowing them to emigrate to the thriving state of Israel.

Jews in particular might wish to understand that moment and savor it, because it will not come again until the same opposition to radical leftism re-asserts itself in American politics. The Jackson-Vanik approach represented a hard liberalism that could stand against communist political repression. Hard liberalism generally sides with the Jews against their enemies, who are always simultaneously the enemies of liberal democracy. All enemies of liberalism may not be anti-Jewish, but all anti-Semites and anti-Zionists are anti-liberal. This political axiom means that hard liberalism will stand against a hostile left as resolutely as it does against a belligerent right. One could say that defense of the Jews — whether in their dispersion or in their homeland — is the surest test of liberal resolve; when that resolve collapses, we get the rise of anti-Jewish politics. And it is just then, too, that we find the rise of Holocaust education.

The change from that robust Exodus view of the Jews to the split between the bad Zionists of Israel and the good Jews of Auschwitz occurred in the same country — America — under the same system of government with more or less the same institutions. The change is part of a larger tectonic shift with certain specific features.


Edward Said introduced anti-Zionism into higher education. Said was a professor of literature at Columbia University, a colleague and eventual successor of Lionel Trilling — regarded by some as the most influential American critic of his generation — who had claimed that in the America of the 1950s, liberalism was "not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition." By "liberalism," Trilling meant a loosely defined political centrism between the conservatism he dismissed and the Stalinism he opposed. One of a cadre of New York intellectuals, Trilling was famously ambivalent about his Jewishness — never denying it, which would have been impossible, but clearly downplaying its value relative to his lifelong commitment to preserving and teaching the best aspects of Western civilization.

Said greatly surpassed Trilling in influence, but he did so in large part by distancing himself from Western civilization. His 1978 book Orientalism theorized that Western scholarship about "the East" was essentially a product of the prejudices of the imperialist, colonialist societies that produced it. He included Jewish scholars in Western civilization and Israel as part of Western colonizing culture that kept the Arabs as subjugated subalterns. As a political activist, his primary examples of subjugated subalterns were the Palestinians — among whom Said included himself. "Port Said" became the point of entry through which anti-Western ideology, headed by anti-Zionism, penetrated and came to dominate theory in the humanities and social sciences. Middle East scholar Martin Kramer describes how Said turned Middle East studies into a "subsidized, thousand-man lobby for Arab, Islamic, and Palestinian causes." In the Humanities Seminar Room of Harvard's Mahindra Humanities Center, Said's portrait hangs with Nietzsche's.

Said's impact on critical theory coincided with the rise of the left in American higher education and the culture it promoted in the media and the arts. The growing number of tenured radicals in the universities coincided with a rapid shift from a civil-rights ideal of equal opportunity to the affirmative-action ideal of equal outcome. Whereas equal opportunity that admitted individuals based on merit allowed Jews to advance according to how well they could prove themselves, equal outcome counted Jews in proportion to their tiny percentage in the general population and so effectively reduced their numbers.

As the theoretical basis for socialism collapsed with the fall of the Soviet Union and its communist satellites, the theories of Orientalism and anti-Zionism replaced it, attacking capitalist democracy for perceived discrimination based on racial, gender, and minority status. The politics of grievance surged among disaffected groups, calling liberal democracy a sham — a cover-up for the subjugation of blacks, Latinos, and women. Anti-Semitism had flourished in Europe because Jews were an easy, time-honored, and visible mark, and the same has proven true in America, where Jews and the Jewish state stand in for capitalists, imperialists, whites, and the patriarchy.

Not coincidentally, since the 1970s, Arab and Muslim groups, academic and political Arabists, Islamists, and a portion of American Muslims raised on anti-Zionism have revved up the war against Israel in America. When Stephen Walt of Harvard's Kennedy School and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago published The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy in 2007, its function was not just to imply that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was improperly manipulating American foreign policy, but to conceal the dramatic increase of Arab efforts in the opposite camp. Mitchell Bard's 2010 book The Arab Lobby exposed what Walt and Mearsheimer had hidden from view — namely, the Arab lobby's far better funded "petrodiplomatic complex" in Washington and buy-in at American universities. Bard's chart of funding shows the many millions that Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Arab countries strategically pump into several dozen American universities like Georgetown, the University of Virginia, and George Washington University — more than $40 million to Harvard alone. This funding seeps down into curricula of high schools, like the ones in Newton, Massachusetts, that use the anti-Israel materials these universities produce.

These developments, in time, transformed the post-war images of the Jew from victim-turned-hero to exploiter and villain. Holocaust education of the time fit anti-Zionism like the protective sheath of a sword.

Of course, commemoration of the Shoah among Jews began as something quite different. In 1944, when I was in the third grade of a Jewish day school, our principal called a school assembly to explain what was happening in Europe. He said to the several hundred of us: If each of you now took one of your notebooks and wrote on every line of every page the name of a Jewish child, and if I were then to collect all your notebooks, it would still not equal the number of Jewish children who have just been killed in Europe. This conferred a lifetime of responsibility on us to commemorate our counterparts and to compensate for their loss. Community-wide memorial gatherings began the following year, and commemorative texts were inserted into the prayer books. Given that Jews still actively mourn the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and to the Romans in 70 C.E., they are in little danger of neglecting the slaughtered communities of Europe before the end of time.

Once survivors of the war had regained their footing and perhaps started new lives, many felt duty bound to tell their story. Elie Wiesel led the attempt to ensure that their memorialization remains a chapter in the continuing history of the Jewish people. The Nazis' attempt to destroy the evidence of their atrocities and evade retribution made it all the more important to secure the record, even if one could not bring the perpetrators to justice. Yad Vashem in Israel and other institutions around the world continue this vital task. Establishing all the facts and fighting Holocaust denial remain imperatives.

Nothing I am saying here questions the obligations of commemorating the dead and establishing every detail of the historical record. Rather, the potential for corruption begins with the impulse to make the Holocaust a universal symbol of evil, Nazism synonymous with "hatred," and Holocaust education a redemptive American pursuit.


Journalist Judith Miller, then reporting for the New York Times, described how the idea of a national Holocaust Memorial was initially promoted by Jewish officials in the Carter administration. Relations between Jimmy Carter and the Jewish community at the time had plummeted. Carter had angered American Jewish leaders by endorsing a Palestinian state. He had also defied the pro-Israel lobby in approving the sale of F-15 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia. People were therefore surprised when Carter changed his earlier opposition to the memorial project and supported the construction of the Holocaust Museum on the National Mall. But it was no surprise: One should have appreciated the leverage this gave him to steer its mission in the universalizing direction he preferred.

The phrase associated with the Holocaust memorial project, "Never Again," left unspecified the agents and means of deterrence, and even the goal itself. The Never Again Act defines "the Holocaust" as "the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of 6,000,000 Jews by the Nazi regime and its allies and collaborators" and applies it equally to other classes of people that were targeted because of their perceived "‘racial inferiority,' such as Roma, the disabled, Slavs," and groups that were "persecuted on political, ideological, and behavioral grounds, among them Communists, Socialists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and homosexuals."

But these included categories are not compatible. The anti-Semitism that originated in Germany and percolated in other European countries was an ideology, a movement, and a strategy that organized politics explicitly against the Jews. In countries as different as France, Austria, Russia, and Poland, candidates and parties ran on platforms of anti-Semitism, explaining social crises as the fault of the Jews. The Nuremburg Laws and the Final Solution were unambiguously directed at the Jews. In fact, some of the groups included among the Nazi targets collaborated with Nazis in the extermination of the Jews, and some produced their own versions of anti-Jewish politics. By mischaracterizing a historical process, the inclusive formulation ensured that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum would neither address anti-Semitism nor confront its current practitioners. To put it bluntly: The museum depoliticized, de-historicized, and universalized a political and historical process to prevent teaching anti-Semitism or the war against the Jews.

On a visit to the museum shop in the 1990s, expecting to purchase a standard work on anti-Semitism, I was told that the shop did not carry "political material" or anything related to history after 1945. But this policy was disingenuous, since the museum also selectively eliminated information about that period. For example, there was no discussion of the decision of Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, mufti of Jerusalem, to coordinate his efforts in Palestine with those of Hitler in Europe. Al-Husseini's collaboration with Hitler included organizing Muslims in Europe to fight with the Nazis and urging the inclusion of Jewish children in the Final Solution. No less relevant was the haven Arab countries offered Nazis after the war in aligned efforts to spread anti-Semitism throughout the Muslim world. In direct contrast to the assumptions of Holocaust education, anti-Semitism served some Arab and Muslim leaders as a positive model of what can be done to the Jews. And yet this most consequential aspect of the period is erased, lest it interfere with the museum's laundered idea of "hatred."

In the early years of planning the museum project, Wiesel was defeated in his attempt to keep the focus on anti-Semitism. He eventually quit the Holocaust Museum commission, but without going public about his scruples. He tried to split the difference by saying the "universality of the Holocaust lies in its uniqueness: The Event is essentially Jewish, yet its interpretation is universal." This sounds like a liberal version of the Crucifixion. The term "holocaust" means a burnt offering — a sacrifice by fire — and the sacrificed Jews became the secular-liberal version of martyred Jesus who died for the betterment of humankind. Christians believe that the martyrdom and resurrection of Christ are redemptive, but they also erected a religious structure that makes certain demands on its adherents. Liberals imagine the immolation of the Jews as a similar teaching on a larger scale, but as an article of faith with no specific application.


The present conception and application of Holocaust education is not only flawed but harmful to the Jews and America alike.

First, the destruction of European Jewry was not about hate. The mass murder of 6 million Jews began as part of an electoral process in which a party came to power by organizing politics against the Jews. The politics of grievance and blame may indeed foment hatred, distrust, envy, rage, fear, and violence, but it is primarily a political instrument for gaining, wielding, and extending power. Anti-Semitism draws on centuries of anti-Jewish teaching and opposition, but it assumes greater political potency when leaders need to win the allegiance of voters and followers. Hitler ran on this platform and used it in the conquest of other nations, inviting their citizens to join in the killing and plundering of the Jews. Some people organized against Jews without hating them. Whereas the analysis of anti-Semitism in fascist, nationalist, communist, Islamist, and other forms of government is indispensable for the understanding of anti-liberal politics, the homogenization of anti-Jewish politics into social psychology misdirects analysis, prevents understanding, and distorts the subject it pretends to teach. Fighting political evil takes political will, which requires political perception.

Second, Holocaust education distorts by equating evil with Nazism. The Second World War began with the pact between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia to divide Eastern Europe between them, and the parallels between the two totalitarian regimes included opposition to the Jews, albeit on different grounds. The Soviets in their Gulag and forced famine in Ukraine killed more than the Nazis did in their death camps, and the two systems went head to head in their war on liberals and Jews.

The Jewish partisan from Vilna, Shmerke Kaczerginski, entered the Vilna ghetto as a communist and found himself under communist rule after the war. As soon as he was able to leave for Western Europe, even as he described his experience as an underground fighter, he felt obliged to disclose what he knew about the murderous essence of the Soviet regime. As a responsible witness who had once believed that communism would liberate all peoples, he compared its evil with Nazism, including in its attempt to eliminate Jewishness and Jewish leadership. He did anecdotally what Hannah Arendt attempted analytically in her 1951 study of totalitarianism in its fascist and communist varieties.

Weaponizing the Holocaust against Nazism detracts attention from other ongoing anti-Jewish and anti-Western forces. It thus becomes an instrument of politics under the pretense of avoiding politics. Demonizing the right minimizes anti-liberal forces of the left and conceals the record of applied socialism as well as that of Middle Eastern varieties of anti-Jewish politics. Facing history would require the kind of analysis that science undertakes when it isolates the variables to learn the exact causes of a disease as a means of seeking cure and prevention. The prevention of anti-Jewish politics begins with studying of all of its kinds, asking, cui bono — whom does it benefit? We would not get far in fighting Covid-19 if we understood ourselves merely to be fighting sickness writ large.

Third, Holocaust education as currently defined introduces Jews at their lowest point in history — as victims, humiliated, suffering, starved, pursued, despised, and turned to ashes. Nazi energy and ingenuity destroyed a third of the Jewish people, with the cooperation of others, transforming them into the burnt sacrifice of the liberal imagination. Who gave liberals the right to keep using the image of the Jews in this distorted way?

When I began teaching at Harvard in 1993, I was told that at least half the entering class had not taken a history course beyond the ninth grade. Yet even the best of students — the ones accepted to places like Harvard — are being forced to learn about the Jews first and foremost as victims of the Nazis. Among those being introduced to Jews in this form are many American Jews who have no other Jewish education, and certainly none as dramatic as this federally supported curriculum.

Historically speaking, Jews are demonstrably the opposite of victims — they are builders, creators, innovators, facilitators, perpetually adaptive, the model of entrepreneurial resilience under circumstances beyond imagining. By the time Hitler came to power, the Jews had found their own solution by creating through Zionism the infrastructure for their recovered homeland. Once they realized the time was ripe, they applied their energies to doing what had been considered impossible and resurrected their sovereign country. Any true "Never Again" project would trace this unprecedented historical example of self-emancipation. Instead, it tells half the story and distorts the half that it tells. It does violence to the Jewish people and to moral education, which must include the assumption of responsibility for self-protection.

Finally, yet by no means least, education that centers on the Holocaust violates the spirit of America, which is about the attainment and protection of freedom and a constant drive for self-improvement. Americans and Jews won their freedom in wars of independence. America fought a civil war against slavery and to remain united. Nazism and communism would rule the world had it not been for American military resistance. Israelis fight for their existence every day of their lives and suffer great losses whenever they relax their vigilance. Now as ever, only the will to fight for the good can defeat the forces of evil, and a peace-loving people that does not train for self-defense will suffer the fate of the Jews of Europe. The perversity of teaching about the Holocaust rather than American and Jewish struggles for freedom extracts the wrong lesson from a horrifying precedent.


Representative Maloney doubtless meant well when she introduced the "Never Again Education Act," but her timing replicated President Carter's calculated support for the Holocaust Museum as a cover for anti-Zionism. Just three months after the bill was introduced, the Democratic Party refused to censure Representative Ilhan Omar for overtly anti-Semitic pronouncements. Instead, Democrats in Congress cobbled together a resolution condemning anti-Semitism — along with anti-Muslim discrimination and bigotry against a handful of other minorities — and shoved it onto the president's desk. Yet anti-Zionism flourishes in the party's ranks, to the point that its presidential candidates scorn the gatherings of AIPAC and support anti-Israel legislation in the party platform. Support for Holocaust education was presumably intended to show opposition to anti-Semitism, but intentionally or not, this "opposition to hate" feeds the hideous ideology it pretends to resist.

Unlike other anti-Jewish ventures that are powered by their declared enemies, this one has the backing of many Jews and well-intentioned liberals, who are often one and the same. When there is so much apparent unanimity on a subject, it may seem perverse to oppose it. The fact that supporters of Nazism are also opposed to Holocaust teaching may wrongly suggest that opponents in general are encouraging the Nazi cause. Many docents, teachers, and others involved in this project obviously trust that Holocaust education will protect Jews — and "other threatened minorities" — from harm.

Yet doubts about the Holocaust project were raised from the outset, and — if one needs reminding — consensus does not guarantee the good. The best intentions left untested can have the most damaging results. The decline of formal religion may have created a serious deficiency in moral education, but the Holocaust dare not serve as a lever of conscience. The liberal conscription of the Holocaust as a moral exemplum was misguided from the start, and as presently conceived, it conceals rather than confronts anti-Jewish aggression, falsifies both the nature of anti-Jewish politics and the nature of the Jewish people, advances political causes under false pretenses, and cultivates identification with victims rather than with the soldiers who protect and, if necessary, liberate the victims.

Dawidowicz concluded her study of Holocaust materials by citing the Sixth Commandment: "Thou shalt not murder." This, she wrote, was "the primary lesson of the Holocaust," and if invoking a biblical commandment would violate the doctrine of the separation of church and state, "something is clearly wrong with both our system of education and our standards of morality." I would add to that lesson as it concerns actual or would-be perpetrators a second lesson also — from the side of the victims. As the biblical story of the Exodus has inspired other oppressed peoples to gain their freedom by demanding, "[l]et my people go," the passage of the Jews from Holocaust to Homeland can teach how a people wins and maintains its freedom.

This is the education we need — an education whose meaning is universal. It will take time to revise thinking on this, so we had better begin now.

Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Comparative Literature Emerita at Harvard University and senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund.


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