Viewpoint: Meaningful Holocaust education needed to combat politically motivated racism

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Karen Rubin, Columnist

Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. That’s the message of state legislators gathered at Long Island’s Holocaust Memorial Tolerance Center, calling for legislation to require the state education department assess whether mandated Holocaust education is meaningfully being taught.

At a press conference held at the Long Island’s Holocaust Memorial Tolerance Center during Genocide Awareness Month, state Sen. Anna Kaplan pointed to shocking statistics: 58 percent of New Yorkers aged 18 to 39 cannot name a single concentration camp, 19 percent believe Jews caused the Holocaust and 28 percent believe the Holocaust is a myth or has been exaggerated.

In fact, New York scored the worst of any state despite having the largest population of Jews in the country (1,772,470) and the largest number of Holocaust survivors and descendants.

“When we talk about the Holocaust, we say ‘never forget’ – but in order to forget something, you need to learn about it in the first place,” Kaplan said. “We’re doing a terrible job of teaching our kids about the atrocities of the Holocaust and the 6 million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. In a time when disinformation is exploding and anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence are on the rise, it’s never been more important to teach the lessons of the Holocaust to the next generation.”

Holocaust education helps answer this question: how does harnessing hate and fomenting fear translate into political opportunism?

Surely there have been genocides and atrocities over time – the Native Americans most despicably on our own continent – but Hitler unleashed a genocide such as had never been seen before, in the depraved depth and breadth of its cruelty and the industrial scale of killing as official government policy.

One important lesson as you are greeted at the entrance to the Holocaust Center, just after a “family album” of photos of Long Islanders who were victims and survivors of the Holocaust, is how the process of “other-izing” and ‘dehumanizing” Jews took place, in order to make it acceptable to shove them into cattle cars and into gas chambers and slave labor camps.

In 2018, a gunman shot up the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11; in 2019, a 19-year old shot up a synagogue in Poway, California. What made them think Jews did not deserve to live?

Just recently, Setauket Elementary School’s playground equipment was vandalized anti-Semitic graffiti. There were antisemitic attacks in Riverdale, in Queens, a Confederate flag tied to the door of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

Frequently these are “youth” exhibiting “youthful punkiness” and claim not to understand why the swastika is such a hurtful symbol, after all, it was appropriated by Nazis from a Hindu symbol for peace.

But as you go through the Center (where many of these “hooligans” are brought so they understand what the symbol actually represents), you see unfold before you the process of hate-mongering and dehumanization, even innocuously through everyday culture: a beer stein with antisemitic slogans, political cartoons, a children’s book filled with propaganda.

Here’s a historical fact to consider: Jews had lived in Germany for 1000 years before Hitler rose to power in an ostensibly democratic election in 1933; it took him just 10 years to implement the Final Solution.

And here’s our historical fact: The United States’ founding documents may have declared “all men are created equal,” but that was never the reality of a nation built on ethnic cleansing, genocide, chattel slavery and which deprived women of all rights.

Americans’ ignorance of history, even American history, is breathtaking, as demonstrated by former Sen. Rick Santorum, basically sounding the anthem for White Supremacy, declaring to a conference of young conservatives, “We came here and created a blank slate. We [white European Christian colonists/imperialists] birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans, but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”

Indeed, that would erase the US constitution, which draws upon “the political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the constitution itself,” the US Senate acknowledged in a 1988 resolution.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell protested a proposed Biden administration rule promoting education programs that address systemic racism and the legacy of American slavery, calling it “divisive nonsense.”

And Sen. Tim Scott, in a truly Orwellian Republican response to Biden’s state of the union speech, asserted, “this is not a racist country,” even as he is trying to come up with police reform legislation that Republicans will accept.

Trump, who banned sensitivity training among government employees, was so furious that the Pulitzer-prize winning 1619 Project might be taught in public schools, claiming that teachers’ focus on slavery “has taught children to hate their country,” he created a national “1776” commission to promote “patriotic” education – in other words, to quite literally whitewash American history.

They would revise American history to strip away what contradicts “American Exceptionalism” – from the Trail of Tears to the Chinese Exclusion Act, to the Palmer Raids, to the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow, to the fascist American First movement, to present-day metastasis of white supremacy and domestic terrorism, harnessed by Trump and what is remains of the Republican party to energize a “populist” power base.

What happens when those responsible for the Justice Department, Homeland Security and law enforcement are enforcers for that neo-Nazi ideology, rebranded perversely as “populism” and mock “tolerance” and respect for diversity and inclusion as “political correctness”?

We can see what happens at the Holocaust center. And that’s the purpose of Holocaust education.

So yes, we need a history lesson. We need to see the horrific photos, hear the oral histories, see the child’s shoe that is all that is left of that short life, to be reminded about what happens when “good people” stay silent and do nothing. We need to be reminded of the consequences when intolerance, bigotry, racism are allowed to go unchecked.

We need to be reminded that even an ostensibly “civilized” humanity could still have undercurrents of savagery and that even a minority of evil people can overwhelm a society with sheer ruthless brutality. And most significantly, we need to be reminded what happens when those in power, our own government, makes brutality official policy.

State Assemblymember Charles Lavine, whose entire European family was murdered by the Nazis, declared, “We are voice for the children, the millions subjected to ritualized slaughter by the strongest armed force in the world.”

Not so far away or long ago. Or impossible to be repeated.

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