Among other awakenings last week, many Americans received a crash course about the Holocaust in the aftermath of the terrible events at the Capitol.
Given recent studies showing Americans’ lack of knowledge about the Holocaust — along with slogans on display among last week’s mob in Washington, DC, including “Camp Auschwitz” and “Work Brings Freedom,” (a translation of arbeit macht frei from the gates of Auschwitz) — many media outlets admirably utilized this moment as an opportunity to teach about the tragedy and enormity of the Shoah.
Yet, it is vital that Jewish leaders and educators shed light on some of the flaws in these comparisons. These leaders and educators must not fall into the trap of perpetuating faulty analogies without adding proper context, lest they be accused of manipulating the current events to advance their own agendas.
Since January 6th, there have been analogies drawn between the insurrection at the Capitol and the burning of Germany’s Reichstag in 1933; Donald Trump’s pre-rally speech and Adolf Hitler’s firebrand speeches that frequently fueled his Nazi followers; and the role of partial media outlets in fomenting lies in a similar fashion to Joseph Goebbels’ Nazi propaganda apparatus. Descriptions of the events at The Capitol as a “pogrom” have also appeared in many outlets.
And then over the weekend former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger released an almost eight minute video that went viral, in which he compares the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol to Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass), the nightlong destruction of Jewish-owned businesses and institutions by the Nazis on November 9, 1938. The video is particularly emotional and powerful as Schwarzenegger, clearly grappling with his own father’s connections to the Nazis, makes a strong analogy between his native Austria and the rioters in Washington.
Undoubtedly, the events in Washington, D.C., last week were despicable and unpatriotic. It is also incontrovertible that antisemitic motivations played a role in some, if not many, of the rioters’ actions. But it is also essential to acknowledge that, despite the resonances, few would argue that we are experiencing precursors to a mass, government-sponsored genocide — Jewish or otherwise — in America today. Despite the deeply troubling rise of antisemitism, racism, hate-mongering, and other like trends in America of late, this is not 1933 Germany all over again, for Jews or anyone.
Analogies between the Holocaust and present events are not new, but the key educational questions are worth revisiting.
“What are the purposes of these analogies? What lessons can we learn from our past, so that we are not “condemned to repeat it,” to paraphrase philosopher George Santayana?
It is apparent that the analogies to the Holocaust intended to draw attention to the severity — and even danger — of contemporary events (including by many well-meaning Jewish leaders and educators. But they have contributed to the desensitization of much of the public to the enormity and uniqueness of the Shoah.
With that in mind, the Jewish community must also be more nuanced and sophisticated in the connections it makes to the Shoah. We also must recognize that not every reference to Anne Frank is an insensitive violation of her legacy. Based on years of studying American teenagers, I have come to accept that, albeit reprehensible, sometimes antisemitic acts, such as some graffiti, are not always indicative of one’s virulent, deep-seeded views. They are instead, sometimes, caused by a combination of ignorance, misinformation, and a series of lies that offer often disenfranchised youth an explanation for challenges or shortcomings in their lives.
For Jewish leaders and educators, the use and misuse of the Holocaust does not abdicate our responsibility to teach more about the events that befell our people and others during the Second World War. If anything, it emboldens us further to re-ignite Holocaust education in our Jewish settings and in the broader society. If we do not teach about the Shoah, then our youth are being taught about it by others (if they are taught it at all). We must take responsibility for Holocaust education.
By all means, share Schwarzenegger’s video and publicly condemn the antisemitic apparel of the mob at the Capitol, but Jewish educators should do so in context and with historical facts to help interpret these events. As some of my mentors have reminded me this week, always pause and ask why you feel a need to share such material with your students – and then do so with integrity, curiosity and a desire to allow your students to understand why their history and their legacy matters so much now, and always.
David Bryfman is CEO of The Jewish Education Project. Check out The Jewish Educator Portal for resources and opportunities to create transformative Jewish experiences.