Is Holocaust education making antisemitism worse?

By Dara Horn. Photographs by Evan Jenkins

When the 40-something reader in the kippah at my book event in Michigan approached the signing table, I already knew what he was going to say, if not the humiliating specifics. Readers like him always tell me these things. He hovered until most people had dispersed, and then described his supermarket trip that morning. Another shopper had rammed him with a cart, hard. Maybe it had been an accident, except the shopper had shouted, “The kosher bagels are in the next aisle!” He’d considered saying something to the store manager, but to what end? Besides, it wasn’t much worse than the baseballgame the day before, when other fans had thrown popcorn at him and his kids.

The recent rise in American antisemitism is well documented. I could fill pages with FBI hate-crime statistics, or with a list of violent attacks from the past six years or even the past six months, or with the growing gallery of American public figures saying vile things about Jews. Or I could share stories you probably haven’t heard, such as one about a threatened attack on a Jewish school in Ohio in March 2022, where the would-be perpetrator was the school’s own security guard. But none of that would capture the vague sense of dread one encounters these days in the Jewish community, a dread unprecedented in my lifetime.

I published a book in late 2021 about exploitations of Jewish history, with the deliberately provocative title People Love Dead Jews. The antisemitic hate mail arrived on cue. What I didn’t expect was the torrent of private stories I received from American Jews, online, in letters, but mostly in person, in places where I’ve spoken across America.

These people talked about bosses and colleagues who repeatedly ridiculed them with antisemitic “jokes,” friends who turned on them when they mentioned a son’s bar mitzvah or a trip to Israel, romantic partners who openly mocked their traditions, classmates who defaced their dorm rooms and pilloried them online, teachers and neighbors who parroted conspiratorial lies. I was surprised to learn how many people were getting pennies thrown at them in 21st-century America, an antisemitic taunt that I thought had died around 1952. These casual stories sickened me in their volume and their similarity, a catalog of small degradations. At a time when many people in other minority groups have become bold in publicizing the tiniest of slights, these American Jews instead expressed deep shame in sharing these stories with me, feeling that they had no right to complain. After all, as many of them told me, it wasn’t the Holocaust.

But well-meaning people everywhere from statehouses to your local middle school have responded to this surging antisemitism by doubling down on Holocaust education. Before 2016, only seven states required Holocaust education in schools. In the past seven years, 18 more have passed Holocaust-education mandates. Public figures who make antisemitic statements are invited to tour Holocaust museums; schools respond to antisemitic incidents by hosting Holocaust speakers and implementing Holocaust lesson plans.

The bedrock assumption that has endured for nearly half a century is that learning about the Holocaust inoculates people against antisemitism. But it doesn’t.

Holocaust education remains essential for teaching historical facts in the face of denial and distortions. Yet over the past year, as I’ve visited Holocaust museums and spoken with educators around the country, I have come to the disturbing conclusion that Holocaust education is incapable of addressing contemporary antisemitism. In fact, in the total absence of any education about Jews alive today, teaching about the Holocaust might even be making antisemitism worse.

I. The Museum Makers

You could divide the story of Skokie, Illinois, “into two periods,” Howard Reich told me: “Before the attempted Nazi march and after.” Reich grew up in Skokie and is a former Chicago Tribune writer. His parents survived the Holocaust. When Reich was a kid in the Chicago suburb in the 1960s, they discussed their experiences only with other survivors, which back then was typical. “They didn’t want to burden us children,” Reich explained. “They didn’t want to relive the worst part of their life.” But the pain was ever present. Skokie’s Jewish community included a large survivor population; Reich remembers one neighbor whose recurring nightmares about Nazi dogs led him to kick a wall so hard that he broke his toe.

In 1977, the National Socialist Party of America wanted to march in uniform in Skokie. When the town attempted to block the march, the Nazis, represented by a Jewish ACLU lawyer committed to free speech, went to court. The case reached the Supreme Court; in the end, the law favored the Nazis, although, perhaps because they were sufficiently spooked by the public backlash, they didn’t march in Skokie at all.

Replicas of anti-Nazi posters from local 1970s protests hang at the Skokie, Illinois, museum. (Evan Jenkins for The Atlantic )© Provided by The Atlantic

The incident inspired many Skokie survivors to speak out about their experiences. They created a Holocaust museum in a small storefront and later successfully lobbied the state for one of America’s earliest Holocaust-education mandates. If American law couldn’t directly protect people from antisemitism, they hoped education could.

Last year, I met Skokie’s mayor, George Van Dusen, and a retired Skokie village manager named Al Rigoni in Van Dusen’s office. Both men were involved in local politics during the Nazi incident.

Like most people I spoke with who remembered that time, the men saw the outcome of the threatened march as positive. “The priests and rabbis, they never met and talked to each other until this happened,” Van Dusen said. “Out of that came our interfaith council.” Rigoni described how the town created a Human Relations Commission, investing money in police sensitivity training long before that was popular. Today Skokie holds an annual festival celebrating the 100 or so national origins of its residents. The storefront museum has been replaced with the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, which opened in 2009 as one of the largest Holocaust museums in the country. The old storefront is now a mosque. “Only in Skokie,” Van Dusen said, laughing.

It all seemed like a happy American story, hatred vanquished, multiculturalism triumphant. But Van Dusen and Rigoni had no answers for me when I asked why we were seeing rising antisemitism, despite decades of Holocaust education. Not long before I visited Skokie, antisemitic flyers blaming Jews for the pandemic had been left on people’s lawns there and in surrounding towns. The adjacent Chicago neighborhood of West Rogers Park, home to a large Orthodox Jewish community, saw a spree of antisemitic attacks in 2022 in which multiple synagogues and kosher businesses were vandalized and a congregant’s car window was smashed. A few weeks after my visit, a gunman would kill seven people and wound dozens more at a parade in the nearby town of Highland Park, which has a large Jewish population. Although authorities have said there is no indication that the suspect was motivated by racism or religious hate, antisemitic and racist comments had reportedly been posted under a username believed to be associated with him, including one suggesting that Jews be used as “fire retardant” and another questioning whether the Holocaust happened. The suspect was allegedly thrown out of a local synagogue months before the shooting.

“There’s a tremor in the country. People are unsettled,” Van Dusen admitted. He stirred uncomfortably in his seat. “We ask ourselves, ‘Has all of this work that we’ve all done to educate people, has it gotten through? If it hasn’t, why?’ ”

The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center is a victim of its own success. When I arrived on a weekday morning to join a field trip from a local Catholic middle school, the museum was having a light day, with only 160 students visiting (typically, closer to 400 students visit the museum daily, alongside others). It was still so packed that the students strained to see the displays. The crowding also meant that most school groups did not explore the museum in chronological order; ours was assigned to start in the gallery describing the liberation of the concentration camps, making the history hard to follow.

“Tell me what we call a person who just watches something going on,” our docent, a local volunteer, prompted.

The students were slouchy and disengaged. But the docent pushed, and someone finally answered.

“A bystander,” a boy said.

“What would be the opposite of a bystander?” the docent asked.

The kids looked puzzled. “Activist?” one tried.

“Here at the museum, we call that person an ‘upstander,’ ” the docent said, using a term that has become ubiquitous in Holocaust education. “That’s what we’re hoping your generation will become.”

She introduced the word propaganda, prompting the kids to define it. In the 1930s, she asked, “was it possible to watch the news?”

The students all shook their head no.

“Okay,” she said with a sigh. “Have you ever heard the words movie theater ?”

With a few more pointed questions, the docent established that the ’30s featured media beyond town criers, and that one-party control over such media helped spread propaganda. “If radio’s controlled by a certain party, you have to question that,” she said. “Back then, they didn’t.”

As we wandered through the post-liberation galleries, I wondered about that premise. Historians have pointed out that it doesn’t make sense to assume that people in previous eras were simply stupider than we are, and I doubted that 2020s Americans could outsmart 1930s Germans in detecting media bias. Propaganda has been used to incite violent antisemitism since ancient times, and only rarely because of one-party control. After the invention of the printing press, a rash of books appeared in Italy and Germany about Jews butchering a Christian child named Simon of Trent, an example of the lie known as the blood libel, which would later be repurposed as a key part of the QAnon conspiracy theory. This craze wasn’t caused by one-party control over printing presses, but by the lie’s popularity. I was starting to see how isolating the Holocaust from the rest of Jewish history made it hard for even the best educators to upload this irrational reality into seventh-grade brains.

We finally moved to the museum’s opening gallery, featuring pictures of smiling prewar Jews. Here the docent began by saying, “Let’s establish facts. Is Judaism a religion or a nationality?”

My stomach sank. The question betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of Jewish identity, Jews predate the concepts of both religion and nationality. Jews are members of a type of social group that was common in the ancient Near East but is uncommon in the West today: a joinable tribal group with a shared history, homeland, and culture, of which a nonuniversalizing religion is but one feature. Millions of Jews identify as secular, which would be illogical if Judaism were merely a religion. But every non-Jewish society has tried to force Jews into whatever identity boxes it knows best, which is itself a quiet act of domination.

“A religion,” one kid answered.

“Religion, right,” the docent affirmed. (Later, in the gallery about Kristallnacht, she pointed out how Jews had been persecuted for having the “wrong religion,” which would have surprised the many Jewish converts to Christianity who wound up murdered. I know the docent knew this; she later told me she had abbreviated things to hustle our group to the museum’s boxcar.)

The docent motioned toward the prewar gallery’s photos showing Jewish school groups and family outings, and asked how the students would describe their subjects’ lives, based on the pictures.

“Normal,” a girl said.

“Normal, perfect,” the docent said. “They paid taxes, they fought in the wars, all of a sudden, things changed.”

All of a sudden, things changed. Kelley Szany, the museum’s senior vice president of education and exhibitions, had told me that the museum had made a conscious decision not to focus on the long history of antisemitism that preceded the Holocaust, and made it possible. To be fair, adequately covering this topic would have required an additional museum. But the idea of sudden change, referring to not merely the Nazi takeover, but the shift from a welcoming society to an unwelcoming one, was also reinforced by survivors in videos around the museum. No wonder: Survivors who had lived long enough to tell their stories to contemporary audiences were young before the war, many of them younger than the middle schoolers in my tour group. They did not have a lifetime of memories of antisemitic harassment and social isolation prior to the Holocaust. For 6-year-olds who saw their synagogue burn, unlike their parents and grandparents, who might have survived various pogroms, or endured pre-Nazi antisemitic boycotts and other campaigns that ostracized Jews politically and socially, everything really did “suddenly” change.

Kelley Szany, the Skokie museum’s senior vice president of education and exhibitions, says that the museum has made a conscious decision not to focus on the long history of antisemitism that preceded the Holocaust. (Evan Jenkins for The Atlantic )© Provided by The Atlantic

Then there was the word normal. More than 80 percent of Jewish Holocaust victims spoke Yiddish, a 1,000-year-old European Jewish language spoken around the world, with its own schools, books, newspapers, theaters, political organizations, advertising, and film industry. On a continent where language was tightly tied to territory, this was hardly “normal.” Traditional Jewish practices, which include extremely detailed rules governing food and clothing and 100 gratitude blessings recited each day, were not “normal” either.

The Nazi project was about murdering Jews, but also about erasing Jewish civilization. The museum’s valiant effort to teach students that Jews were “just like everyone else,” after Jews have spent 3,000 years deliberately not being like everyone else, felt like another erasure. Teaching children that one shouldn’t hate Jews, because Jews are “normal,” only underlines the problem: If someone doesn’t meet your version of “normal,” then it’s fine to hate them. This framing perhaps explains why many victims of today’s American antisemitic street violence are visibly religious Jews, as were many Holocaust victims.

Like most Holocaust educators I encountered across the country, Szany is not Jewish. And also like most Holocaust educators I encountered, she is exactly the sort of person everyone should want educating their children: intelligent, intentional, empathetic.

When I asked about worst practices in Holocaust education, Szany had many to share, which turned out to be widely agreed-upon among American Holocaust educators. First on the list: “simulations.” Apparently some teachers need to be told not to make students role-play Nazis versus Jews in class, or not to put masking tape on the floor in the exact dimensions of a boxcar in order to cram 200 students into it. Like many educators I spoke with, Szany also condemned Holocaust fiction such as the international best seller The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, an exceedingly popular work of ahistorical Christian-savior schlock. She didn’t feel that Anne Frank’s diary was a good choice either, because it’s “not a story of the Holocaust”, it offers little information about most Jews’ experiences of persecution, and ends before the author’s capture and murder.

Other officially failed techniques include showing students gruesome images, and prompting self-flattery by asking “What would you have done?” Yet another bad idea is counting objects. This was the conceit of a widely viewed 2004 documentary called Paper Clips, in which non-Jewish Tennessee schoolchildren, struggling to grasp the magnitude of 6 million murdered Jews, represented those Jews by collecting millions of paper clips. The film won numerous awards and an Emmy nomination before anyone noticed that it is demeaning to represent Jewish people as office supplies.

Best practices, Szany explained, are the opposite: focusing on individual stories, hearing from survivors and victims in their own words. The Illinois museum tries to “rescue the individuals from the violence,” Szany said, “to remind people that this happened to everyday people.” This is why survivors have long been a fixture of museum education programs. But survivors are aging. Soon, none will be left. To address this looming reality, the museum went big: It sent survivors to Los Angeles to become holograms.

Aaron Elster and Fritzie Fritzshall were among the Skokie survivors inspired by the 1970s Nazi incident to share their stories; both spoke frequently at the museum. In 2015, at the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation, a Holocaust-testimony archive and resource center founded by Steven Spielberg, they and a handful of others were each filmed for 40 hours in order to be turned into holograms. Now, in Skokie, keyword-driven artificial intelligence allows the holograms to respond to questions from the audience in a 60-seat theater. As Szany ran a private demo of the technology for me, I asked how visitors react to it. “They’re more comfortable with the holograms than the real survivors,” Szany said. “Because they know they won’t be judged.”

Left : Aaron Elster and his sister Irene in New York in 1947. Right : Fritzie Fritzshall in Chicago after the war. (Courtesy of Illinois Holocaust Repository & Education Center)© Provided by The Atlantic

We watched a brief film about Elster’s life in Nazi-occupied Poland: how his family starved in a ghetto from which he eventually escaped; how his mother found a Catholic woman to shelter his older sister; how that woman initially rejected him, then finally hid him in her barn’s attic; how he didn’t leave the attic for two years. Then Szany summoned the holographic Elster (the real Elster died in 2018). He spoke from a red armchair, perky and animated as he answered a softball question she asked about how he’d entertained himself while hiding alone: “I was able to take myself away, to pretend. I drew things in my mind. I wrote whole novels in my mind.”

I asked him why the woman who took in his sister had hesitated to hide him too.

He looked startled. “I really don’t know why Irene wasn’t with me.”

I tried rephrasing my question, then simplifying it. Elster, with a warm smile, said something irrelevant. Soon I felt as I often had with actual Holocaust survivors I’d known when I was younger: frustrated as they answered questions I hadn’t asked, and vaguely insulted as they treated me like an annoyance to be managed. (I bridged this divide once I learned Yiddish in my 20s, and came to share with them a vast vocabulary of not only words, but people, places, stories, ideas, a way of thinking and being that contained not a few horrific years but centuries of hard-won vitality and resilience.)

Szany at last explained to me what the dead Elster couldn’t: The woman who sheltered his sister took only girls because it was too easy for people to confirm that the boys were Jews.

I realized that I wouldn’t have wanted to hear this answer from Elster. I did not want to make this thoughtful man sit onstage and discuss his own circumcision with an audience of non-Jewish teenagers. The idea felt just as dehumanizing as pulling down a boy’s pants to reveal a reality of embodied Judaism that, both here and in that barn, had been drained of any meaning beyond persecution. I looked at the dead man smiling in front of me and felt a wave of nauseating relief. At least the real Elster didn’t have to deal with these stupid questions anymore.

The holograms weren’t the only elaborate attempt to capture the past. In an equally uncomfortable mashup of cool tech and dead Jews, the museum offers virtual-reality tours of Auschwitz, which have also been piloted in three schools. Fritzie Fritzshall, who died in 2021, was my guide from beyond the grave.

In a small room, I put on a headset. Soon I was outside Fritzshall’s grandparents’ home, in Hungary (now Ukraine), and then I was in a boxcar bound for Auschwitz, with silhouetted animated figures dropped in around me and a soundtrack of babies screaming as Fritzshall described how her grandfather had died during the suffocating trip.

Here I am in a boxcar, I thought, and tried to make it feel real. I spun my head to take in the immersive scene, which swung around me as though I were on a rocking ship. I felt dizzy and disoriented, purely physical feelings that distracted me. Did this not count as a simulation?

I regained my bearings and joined Fritzshall beside the train tracks at Auschwitz, Here I am at Auschwitz, I thought, and later followed her to the exterior of the camp’s remaining crematorium, where she described the last time she saw her mother, and then into the gas chamber. I spun my head around again. Here I am in a gas chamber.

I had visited Auschwitz in actual reality, years ago. With my headset on, I tried to summon the emotional intensity I remembered feeling then. But I couldn’t, because all of the things that had made it powerful were missing. When I was there, I was touching things, smelling things, sifting soil between my fingers that the guide said contained human bone ash, feeling comforted as I recited the mourner’s prayer, the kaddish, with others, the ancient words an undertow of paradox and praise: May the great Name be blessed, forever and ever and ever. Now I was just watching a movie that stretched around to the back of my head. It felt less like reality than like a sophisticated video game.

Ironically, the program’s most moving moment was when the VR gave way to a two-dimensional, animated version of one of Fritzshall’s memories. She was the youngest person forced to do slave labor in a factory packed with 600 women. When the other women realized how young she was, they collected crumbs of their bread ration for her, which she rolled into a nub no bigger than a tooth. They gave her these specks on the condition that, if she survived, she would remember them and share their stories.

The moment stayed with me. Only later did I notice that the program had told me absolutely nothing about these other women. The artistic animation rendered them as black-and-white forms with indistinct faces, a revealing choice. I knew how this faceless crowd had suffered and died. But did that count as remembering them?

Students at the Skokie museum can visit an area called the Take a Stand Center, which opens with a bright display of modern and contemporary “upstanders,” including activists such as the Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai and the athlete Carli Lloyd. Szany had told me that educators “wanted more resources” to connect “the history of the Holocaust to lessons of today.” (I heard this again and again elsewhere too.) As far as I could discern, almost nobody in this gallery was Jewish.

In the language I often encountered in Holocaust-education resources, people who lived through the Holocaust were neatly categorized as “perpetrators,” “victims,” “bystanders,” or “upstanders.” Jewish resisters, though, were rarely classified as “upstanders.” (Zivia Lubetkin, a Jewish resistance leader who was mentioned in the Take a Stand Center, was a notable exception.) But the post-Holocaust activists featured in this gallery were nearly all people who had stood up for their own group. Only Jews, the unspoken assumption went, were not supposed to stand up for themselves.

Visitors were asked to “take the pledge” by posting notes on a wall (“I pledge to protect the Earth!” “I pledge to be KIND!”). Screens near the exit provided me with a menu of “action plans” to email myself to help fulfill my pledge: how to fundraise, how to contact my representatives, how to start an organization. It was all so earnest that for the first time since entering the museum, I felt something like hope. Then I noticed it: “Steps for Organizing a Demonstration.” The Nazis in Skokie, like their predecessors, had known how to organize a demonstration. They hadn’t been afraid to be unpopular. They’d taken a stand.

The term upstander has become ubiquitous in Holocaust education—but it rarely gets applied to Jews who stand up for themselves. (Evan Jenkins for The Atlantic )© Provided by The Atlantic

I left the museum haunted by the uncomfortable truth that the structures of a democratic society could not really prevent, and could even empower, dangerous, irrational rage. Something of that rage haunted me too.

The effort to transform the Holocaust into a lesson, coupled with the imperative to “connect it to today,” had at first seemed straightforward and obvious. After all, why learn about these horrible events if they aren’t relevant now? But the more I thought about it, the less obvious it seemed. What were students being taught to “take a stand” for? How could anyone, especially young people with little sense of proportion, connect the murder of 6 million Jews to today without landing in a swamp of Holocaust trivialization, like the COVID-protocol protesters who’d pinned Jewish stars to their shirt and carried posters of Anne Frank? Despite the protesters’ clear antisemitism (because, yes, it is antisemitic to use the mass murder of Jews as a prop), weren’t they and others like them doing exactly what Holocaust educators claimed they wanted people to do?

II. The Curriculum Creators

In May 2022, I traveled to Seattle to give a paid lecture at the Holocaust Center for Humanity about my work on Jewish memory. There I met Paul Regelbrugge, the center’s director of education; Ilana Cone Kennedy, its chief operating officer; and Richard Greene, its museum and technology director. They eagerly agreed to give me an inside look at their work, no matter what I might say about it.

The Seattle center is far more typical of American Holocaust museums than the Skokie one is. Its exhibition is barely more than a storefront, “the Holocaust in 1,400 square feet,” Greene joked, with a display built around artifacts from local survivors. The center mainly focuses on outside programming, running a speakers’ bureau of local survivors and “legacy speakers” (mostly survivors’ children and grandchildren), inviting guest lecturers like me, and supplying schools with “teaching trunks” filled with classroom materials. Since 2019, when Washington passed a law recommending (though not mandating) Holocaust education, the center has built its own curriculum and trained teachers across the state.

The 2019 law was inspired by a changing reality in Washington and around the country. In recent years, Kennedy said, she’s received more and more messages about antisemitic vandalism and harassment in schools. For example, she told me, “someone calls and says, ‘There’s a swastika drawn in the bathroom.’ ”

Can she fix it? I asked. By teaching about the Holocaust? (It seemed to me that the kid who drew the swastika had heard about the Holocaust.)

Maybe not, Kennedy admitted. “What frightens me is that small acts of antisemitism are becoming very normalized,” she said. “We’re getting used to it. That keeps me up at night.”

“Sadly, I don’t think we can fix this,” Regelbrugge said. “But we’re gonna die trying.”

What disturbed me most about this comment was that Kennedy almost did die trying.

On July 28, 2006, Kennedy, who is Jewish, was seven months pregnant and in her third year of working at the Holocaust Center, which at the time was in an office one floor below the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, a nonprofit serving Jewish and community needs. That day, a man held the 14-year-old niece of a Federation employee at gunpoint and forced her to buzz him into the building. (The Federation’s doors, like those of most Jewish institutions in America, are perpetually locked for exactly this reason.) Once inside, he ranted about Israel and began shooting people at their desks. He murdered 58-year-old Pamela Waechter and wounded five others. After injuring Dayna Klein, 37 years old and four months pregnant, he held her hostage with a gun to her head as Klein persuaded him to speak with a 911 dispatcher. He eventually surrendered. Kennedy had stopped by the Federation’s office moments before the attack. After hearing gunshots, she placed one of the incident’s first 911 calls, and later saw a woman she’d just spoken with drenched in blood. Her 911 call made her a witness at the attacker’s trial, at which point she was pregnant with her second child. The irony of experiencing this attack while working at a Holocaust-education center was not lost on Kennedy. “There were Holocaust survivors calling me to see if I was okay!” she said.

Talking with Kennedy, I realized, with a jolt of unexpected horror, that there was an entirely unplanned pattern in my Holocaust tour across America. Almost every city where I spoke with Holocaust-museum educators, whether by phone or in person, had also been the site of a violent antisemitic attack in the years since these museums had opened: a murdered museum guard in Washington, D.C.; a synagogue hostage-taking in a Dallas-area suburb; young children shot at a Jewish summer camp in Los Angeles. I was struck by how minimally these attacks were discussed in the educational materials shared by the museums.

The Skokie museum was built because of a Nazi march that never happened. But this more recent, actual antisemitic violence, which happened near or even inside these museums, rarely came up in my conversations with educators about the Holocaust’s contemporary relevance. In fact, with the exception of Kennedy and Regelbrugge, no one I spoke with mentioned these antisemitic attacks at all.

The failure to address contemporary antisemitism in most of American Holocaust education is, in a sense, by design. In his article “The Origins of Holocaust Education in American Public Schools,” the education historian Thomas D. Fallace recounts the story of the (mostly non-Jewish) teachers in Massachusetts and New Jersey who created the country’s first Holocaust curricula, in the ’70s. The point was to teach morality in a secular society. “Everyone in education, regardless of ethnicity, could agree that Nazism was evil and that the Jews were innocent victims,” Fallace wrote, explaining the topic’s appeal. “Thus, teachers used the Holocaust to activate the moral reasoning of their students”, to teach them to be good people.

The idea that Holocaust education can somehow serve as a stand-in for public moral education has not left us. And because of its obviously laudable goals, objecting to it feels like clubbing a baby seal. Who wouldn’t want to teach kids to be empathetic? And by this logic, shouldn’t Holocaust education, because of its moral content alone, automatically inoculate people against antisemitism?

Apparently not. “Essentially the moral lessons that the Holocaust is often used to teach reflect much the same values that were being taught in schools before the Holocaust,” the British Holocaust educator Paul Salmons has written. (Germans in the ’30s, after all, were familiar with the Torah’s commandment, repeated in the Christian Bible, to love their neighbors.) This fact undermines nearly everything Holocaust education is trying to accomplish, and reveals the roots of its failure.

One problem with using the Holocaust as a morality play is exactly its appeal: It flatters everyone. We can all congratulate ourselves for not committing mass murder. This approach excuses current antisemitism by defining antisemitism as genocide in the past. When antisemitism is reduced to the Holocaust, anything short of murdering 6 million Jews, like, say, ramming somebody with a shopping cart, or taunting kids at school, or shooting up a Jewish nonprofit, or hounding Jews out of entire countries, seems minor by comparison.

But a larger problem emerges when we ignore the realities of how antisemitism works. If we teach that the Holocaust happened because people weren’t nice enough, that they failed to appreciate that humans are all the same, for instance, or to build a just society, we create the self-congratulatory space where antisemitism grows. One can believe that humans are all the same while being virulently antisemitic, because according to antisemites, Jews, with their millennia-old insistence on being different from their neighbors, are the obstacle to humans all being the same. One can believe in creating a just society while being virulently antisemitic, because according to antisemites, Jews, with their imagined power and privilege, are the obstacle to a just society. To inoculate people against the myth that humans have to erase their differences in order to get along, and the related myth that Jews, because they have refused to erase their differences, are supervillains, one would have to acknowledge that these myths exist. To really shatter them, one would have to actually explain the content of Jewish identity, instead of lazily claiming that Jews are just like everyone else.

Many Holocaust educators have begun to notice this problem. Jen Goss, who taught high-school history for 19 years and is now the program manager for Echoes & Reflections, one of several major Holocaust-curriculum providers, told me about the “terrible Jew jokes” she’d heard from her own students in Virginia. “They don’t necessarily know where they come from or even really why they’re saying them,” Goss said. “Many kids understand not to say the N-word, but they would say, ‘Don’t be such a Jew.’ ”

“There’s a decline in history education at the same time that there’s a rise in social media,” Gretchen Skidmore, the director of education initiatives at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C., told me. “We’ve done studies with our partners at Holocaust centers that show that students are coming in with questions about whether the Holocaust was an actual event. That wasn’t true 20 years ago.”

Goss believes that one of the reasons for the lack of stigma around antisemitic conspiracy theories and jokes is baked into the universal-morality approach to Holocaust education. “The Holocaust is not a good way to teach about ‘bullying,’ ” Goss told me, with obvious frustration.

Echoes & Reflections’ lesson plans do address newer versions of antisemitism, including the contemporary demonization of Israel’s existence, as opposed to criticism of Israeli policies, and its manifestation in aggression against Jews. Other Holocaust-curriculum providers also have material on contemporary antisemitism. The Museum of Tolerance, in Los Angeles, whose core exhibition is about Holocaust history, recently opened a new gallery on this topic. Still, these providers rarely explain or explore who Jews are today, and their raison d’être remains Holocaust education.

“I worked as an administrator of a college Holocaust-resource center, and I can’t tell you how many kids would come in and be like, ‘I love the Holocaust!’ ” Goss said.

This observation reminded me of what I’d heard from other educators. Many teachers had told me that their classrooms “come alive” when they teach about the Holocaust. Some had attributed students’ interest to the subject matter itself: Its titillating gruesomeness makes students feel sophisticated for tackling a “difficult” topic, and superior for seeing the evil that their predecessors apparently ignored. But one underappreciated reason for Holocaust education’s classroom “success” is that after decades of development, Holocaust-education materials are just plain better than those on most other historical topics. All of the major Holocaust-education providers offer lessons that teachers can easily adapt for different grade levels and subject areas. Instead of lecturing and memorization, they use participation-based methods such as group work, hands-on activities, and “learner driven” projects.

But is there any evidence that Holocaust education reduces antisemitism, other than fending off Holocaust denial? A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found a correlation between “warm” feelings about Jews and knowledge about the Holocaust, but the respondents who said they knew a Jewish person also tended to be more knowledgeable about the Holocaust, providing a more obvious source for their feelings. In 2020, Echoes & Reflections published a commissioned study of 1,500 college students, comparing students who had been exposed to Holocaust education in high school with those who hadn’t. The published summary shows that those who had studied the Holocaust were more likely to tolerate diverse viewpoints, and more likely to privately support victims of bullying scenarios, which is undoubtedly good news. It did not, however, show a significant difference in respondents’ willingness to defend victims publicly, and students who’d received Holocaust education were less likely to be civically engaged, in other words, to be an “upstander.”

These studies puzzled me. As Goss told me, the Holocaust was not about bullying, so why was the Echoes study measuring that? More important, why were none of these studies examining awareness of antisemitism, whether past or present?

One major study addressing this topic was conducted in England, where a national Holocaust-education mandate has been in place for more than 20 years. In 2016, researchers at University College London’s Centre for Holocaust Education published a survey of more than 8,000 English secondary-school students, including 244 whom they interviewed at length. The study’s most disturbing finding was that even among those who studied the Holocaust, there was “a very common struggle among many students to credibly explain why Jews were targeted” in the Holocaust, that is, to cite antisemitism. When researchers interviewed students to press this question, “many students appeared to regard [Jews’] existence as problematic and a key cause of Nazi victimisation.” In other words, students blamed the Holocaust on the Jews. (This result resembles that of a large 2020 survey of American Millennials and Gen Zers, in which 11 percent of respondents believed that Jews caused the Holocaust. The state with the highest percentage of respondents believing this, an eye-popping 19 percent, was New York, which has mandated Holocaust education since the 1990s.)

Worse, in the English study, “a significant number of students appeared to tacitly accept some of the egregious claims once circulated by Nazi propaganda,” instead of recognizing them as antisemitic myths. One typical student told researchers, “Is it because like they were kind of rich, so maybe they thought that that was kind of in some way evil, like the money didn’t belong to them[;] it belonged to the Germans and the Jewish people had kind of taken that away from them?” Another was even more blunt: “The Germans, when they saw the Jews were better off than them, kind of, I don’t know, it kind of pissed them off a bit.” Hitler’s speeches were more eloquent in making similar points.

III. The Teachers

The Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, which opened in 2019, takes up an entire city block in the downtown historic district. I was there to attend the annual Candy Brown Holocaust and Human Rights Educator Conference, where more than 60 teachers from Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma gathered for professional-development workshops last July. The “upstander” branding I’d encountered in Skokie and elsewhere was even more intense in Dallas. The museum’s lobby featured a giant red wall painted with the word UPSTANDER. Each teacher at the conference received a tote bag labeled UPSTANDER, a wristband emblazoned with UPSTANDER, and a book titled The Upstander.

One of the teachers I met was Benjamin Vollmer, a veteran conference participant who has spent years building his school’s Holocaust-education program. He teaches eighth-grade English in Venus, Texas, a rural community with 5,700 residents; his school is majority Hispanic, and most students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. When I asked him why he focuses on the Holocaust, his initial answer was simple: “It meets the TEKS.”

The TEKS are the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, an elaborate list of state educational requirements that drive standardized testing. But as I spoke more with Vollmer, it became apparent that Holocaust education was something much bigger for his students: a rare access point to a wider world. Venus is about 30 miles from Dallas, but Vollmer’s annual Holocaust-museum field trip is the first time that many of his students ever leave their town.

“It’s become part of the school culture,” Vollmer said. “In eighth grade, they walk in, and the first thing they ask is, ‘When are we going to learn about the Holocaust?’ ”

Vollmer is not Jewish, and, as is common for Holocaust educators, he has never had a Jewish student. (Jews are 2.4 percent of the U.S. adult population, according to a 2020 Pew survey.) Why not focus on something more relevant to his students, I asked him, like the history of immigration or the civil-rights movement?

I hadn’t yet appreciated that the absence of Jews was precisely the appeal.

“Some topics have been so politicized that it’s too hard to teach them,” Vollmer told me. “Making it more historical takes away some of the barriers to talking about it.”

Wouldn’t the civil-rights movement, I asked, be just as historical for his students?

He paused, thinking it through. “You have to build a level of rapport in your class before you have the trust to explore your own history,” he finally said.

Another Texas teacher, who wouldn’t share her name, put it more bluntly. “The Holocaust happened long ago, and we’re not responsible for it,” she said. “Anything happening in our world today, the wool comes down over our eyes.” Her colleague attending the conference with her, a high-school teacher who also wouldn’t share her name, had tried to take her mostly Hispanic students to a virtual-reality experience called Carne y Arena, which follows migrants attempting to illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Her administrators refused, claiming that it would traumatize students. But they still learn about the Holocaust.

Student discomfort has been a legal issue in Texas. The state’s House Bill 3979, passed in 2021, is one of many “anti-critical-race-theory” laws that conservative state legislators have introduced since 2020. The bill forbade teachers from causing students “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex,” and also demanded that teachers introduce “diverse and contending perspectives” when teaching “controversial” topics, “without giving deference to any one perspective.” (The “discomfort” language was removed in later legislation; the modified law now requires teaching “currently controversial” topics “objectively” and forbids schools from teaching that any student “bears responsibility, blame, or guilt for actions committed by other members of the same race or sex.”)

These vaguely worded laws stand awkwardly beside a 2019 state law mandating Holocaust education for Texas students at all grade levels during an annual Holocaust Remembrance Week. In October 2021, a school administrator in Southlake, Texas, made national news after clumsily suggesting that teachers might need to present “other perspectives” on the Holocaust. (The district quickly apologized, but the remarks brought public attention to the chilling effect these kinds of bills can have on teaching about bigotry of any kind.)

Texas teachers are also legally required to excuse students from reading assignments if the students’ parents object to them. The Dallas museum’s president and CEO, Mary Pat Higgins, told me that the administrator who’d made the viral remarks in Southlake is a strong proponent of Holocaust education, but was acknowledging a reality in that school district. Every year, the administrator had told Higgins, some parents in her district object to their children reading the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night, because it isn’t their “belief” that the Holocaust happened.

In one model lesson at the conference, participants examined a speech by the Nazi official Heinrich Himmler about the need to murder Jews, alongside a speech by the Hebrew poet and ghetto fighter Abba Kovner encouraging a ghetto uprising. I only later realized that this lesson plan quite elegantly satisfied the House bill’s requirement of providing “contending perspectives.”

The next day, I asked the instructor if that was an unspoken goal of her lesson plan. With visible hesitation, she said that teaching in Texas can be like “walking the tightrope.” This way, she added, “you’re basing your perspectives on primary texts and not debating with Holocaust deniers.” Less than an hour later, a senior museum employee pulled me aside to tell me that I wasn’t allowed to interview the staff.

Many of the visiting educators at the conference declined to talk with me, even anonymously; nearly all who did spoke guardedly. The teachers I met, most of whom were white Christian women, did not seem to be of any uniform political bent. But virtually all of them were frustrated by what administrators and parents were demanding of them.

Two local middle-school teachers told me that many parents insist on seeing reading lists. Parents “wanting to keep their kid in a bubble,” one of them said, has been “the huge stumbling block.” Choosing her words carefully as she described teaching the Holocaust, her colleague said, “It is healthy to begin this study by talking about antisemitism, humanizing the victims, sticking to primary sources, and remaining as neutral as possible.”

I glanced down at my conference-issued wristband. Wasn’t “remaining as neutral as possible” exactly the opposite of being an upstander?

In trying to remain neutral, some teachers seemed to want to seek out the Holocaust’s bright side, and ask dead Jews about it. In the museum, the teachers and I met another hologram, the Dallas resident Max Glauben, who had died several months earlier. We watched a brief introduction about Glauben’s childhood and early adolescence in the Warsaw Ghetto and in numerous camps. When the dead man appeared, one teacher asked, “Was there any joy or happiness in this ordeal? Moments of joy in the camps?”

Holographic Glauben shifted uncomfortably in his armchair. “In the Warsaw Ghetto in the early days,” he said, “there was theater, there was plays, dancing shows. There were musicians at the beginning, but as food became scarce, many disappeared.” This did not answer the teacher’s question about joy in the camps.

Later I read The Upstander, Glauben’s biography, the book the museum distributed to conference participants. (This was another of the few instances I encountered of someone Jewish being called an “upstander.”) Glauben’s experiences during the Holocaust included watching Nazis disembowel Jewish prisoners. He saw one German officer torture Jews by riding over them with his motorcycle. The Upstander also mentions a room in one camp where Jewish boys were routinely raped. Glauben’s memory, he told his biographer, had blocked what happened to him when a Nazi took him to that room. But after learning decades later about what went on there, he says in the book, “I think he abused me.” These experiences, hardly unusual for Jewish victims, were not the work of a faceless killing machine. Instead they reveal a gleeful and imaginative sadism. For perpetrators, this was fun. Asking this dead man about “joy” seemed like a fundamental misunderstanding of the Holocaust. There was plenty of joy, just on the Nazi side.

In the educational resources I explored, I did not encounter any discussions of sadism, the joy derived from humiliating people, the dopamine hit from landing a laugh at someone else’s expense, the self-righteous high from blaming one’s problems on others, even though this, rather than the fragility of democracy or the passivity of bystanders, is a major origin point of all antisemitism. To anyone who has spent 10 seconds online, that sadism is familiar, and its source is familiar too: the fear of being small, and the desire to feel big by making others feel small instead.

The countless Holocaust educational materials I’d perused generally presented Nazis as joylessly efficient. But it is highly inefficient to interrupt mass murder by, say, forcing Jews to dance naked with Torah scrolls, as the Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever testified about at the Nuremberg trials, or forcing Jews to make pornographic films, as the educator Chaim A. Kaplan documented in his Warsaw Ghetto diary. Nazis were, among other things, edgelords, in it for the laughs. So, for that matter, were the rest of history’s antisemites, then and now. For Americans today, isn’t this the most relevant insight of all?

“People say we’ve learned from the Holocaust. No, we didn’t learn a damn thing,” Kim Klett told me one evening during the conference, over bright-blue margaritas. Klett is a longtime teacher in Mesa, Arizona, and a facilitator for Echoes & Reflections. An instructor at the Dallas conference, she also trains Holocaust educators across the U.S.

“People glom on to this idea of the upstander,” she said. “Kids walk away with the sense that there were a lot of upstanders, and they think, Yes, I can do it too.” The problem with presenting the less inspiring reality, she suggested, is how parents or administrators might react. “If you teach historical antisemitism, you have to teach contemporary antisemitism. A lot of teachers are fearful, because if you try to connect it to today, parents are going to call, or administrators are going to call, and say you’re pushing an agenda.”

But weren’t teachers supposed to “push an agenda” to stop hatred? Wasn’t that the entire hope of those survivors who built museums and lobbied for mandates and turned themselves into holograms?

I asked Klett why no one seemed to be teaching anything about Jewish culture. If the whole point of Holocaust education is to “humanize” those who were “dehumanized,” why do most teachers introduce students to Jews only when Jews are headed for a mass grave? “There’s a real fear of teaching about Judaism,” she confided. “Especially if the teacher is Jewish.”

I was baffled. Teachers who taught about industrialized mass murder were scared of teaching about … Judaism? Why?

“Because the teachers are afraid that the parents are going to say that they’re pushing their religion on the kids.”

But Jews don’t do that, I said. Judaism isn’t a proselytizing religion like Christianity or Islam; Jews don’t believe that anyone needs to become Jewish in order to be a good person, or to enjoy an afterlife, or to be “saved.” This seemed to be yet another basic fact of Jewish identity that no one had bothered to teach or learn.

Klett shrugged. “Survivors have told me, ‘Thank you for teaching this. They’ll listen to you because you’re not Jewish,’ ” she said. “Which is weird.”

“Weird” is one way to put it. Another might be “enraging,” or “devastating,” or perhaps we could be honest and just say “There is no point in teaching any of this”, because antisemitism is so ingrained in our world that even when discussing the murders of 6 million Jews, it would be “pushing an agenda” to tell people not to hate them, or to tell anyone what it actually means to be Jewish. Better to keep the VR headset on and stay on the track. Jews have one job in this story, which is to die.

This made me, in the language of Texas House Bill 3979, uncomfortable.

Visitors leaving the Skokie museum are invited to “take the pledge” by posting notes on a wall. (Evan Jenkins for The Atlantic ) © Provided by The Atlantic

The Dallas Museum was the only one I visited that opened with an explanation of who Jews are. Its exhibition began with brief videos about Abraham and Moses, limiting Jewish identity to a “religion” familiar to non-Jews, but it was better than nothing. The museum also debunked the false charge that the Jews, rather than the Romans, killed Jesus, and explained the Jews’ refusal to convert to other faiths. It even had a panel or two about contemporary Dallas Jewish life. Even so, a docent there told me that one question students ask is “Are any Jews still alive today?”

I couldn’t blame the kids for asking. American Holocaust education, in this museum and nearly everywhere else, never ends with Jews alive today. Instead it ends by segueing to other genocides, or to other minorities’ suffering. (In Dallas, these subjects took up most of two museum wings.) This erasure feels completely normal. Better than normal, even: noble, humane.

But when one reaches the end of the exhibition on American slavery at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C., one does not then enter an exhibition highlighting the enslavement of other groups throughout world history, or a room full of interactive touchscreens about human trafficking today, asking that visitors become “upstanders” in fighting it. That approach would be an insult to Black history, ignoring Black people’s current experiences while turning their past oppression into nothing but a symbol for something else, something that actually matters. It is dehumanizing to be treated as a symbol. It is even more dehumanizing to be treated as a warning.

IV. A Way Forward

How should we teach children about antisemitism? Listening to Charlotte Decoster, the Dallas museum’s director of education, I glimpsed a possible path. Decoster began her conference workshop by introducing “vocabulary must-knows.” At the top of her list: antisemitism.

“If you don’t explain the ism,” she cautioned the teachers in the room, “you will need to explain to the kids ‘Why the Jews?’ Students are going to see Nazis as aliens who bring with them antisemitism when they come to power in ’33, and they take it back away at the end of the Holocaust in 1945.”

She asked the teachers, “What’s the first example of the persecution of the Jews in history?”

The teachers looked at her blankly until one raised a hand. “I once read something about Jews getting blamed and killed for the Black Death,” the teacher said. “That was a big eye-opener for me.”

Decoster looked unimpressed. “Can you think of anything earlier than that?”

More blank stares. Finally, one woman said, “Are you talking about the Old Testament?”

“Think ancient Egypt,” Decoster said. “Does this sound familiar to any of you?”

“They’re enslaved by the Egyptian pharaoh,” a teacher said.

I wasn’t sure that the biblical Exodus narrative exactly qualified as “history,” but it quickly became clear that wasn’t Decoster’s point. “Why does the pharaoh pick on the Jews?” she asked. “Because they had one God.”

I was stunned. Rarely in my journey through American Holocaust education did I hear anyone mention a Jewish belief.

“The Jews worship one God, and that’s their moral structure. Egyptian society has multiple gods whose authority goes to the pharaoh. When things go wrong, you can see how Jews as outsiders were perceived by the pharaoh as the threat.”

This unexpected understanding of Jewish belief revealed a profound insight about Judaism: Its rejection of idolatry is identical to its rejection of tyranny. I could see how that might make people uncomfortable.

Decoster moved on to a snazzy infographic of a wheel divided in thirds, each explaining a component of antisemitism: “Racial Antisemitism = False belief that Jews are a race and a threat to other races,” then “Anti-Judaism = Hatred of Jews as a religious group,” and then “Anti-Jewish Conspiracy Theory = False belief that Jews want to control and overtake the world.” The third part, the conspiracy theory, was what distinguished antisemitism from other bigotries. It allowed closed-minded people to congratulate themselves for being open-minded, for “doing their own research,” for “punching up,” for “speaking truth to power,” while actually just spreading lies.

This, she announced, “aligns with the TEKS.”

The teachers wrote down the information.

The next day, the teachers listened in silence to J. E. Wolfson of the Texas Holocaust, Genocide, and Antisemitism Advisory Commission as he walked them through a history of antisemitism in excruciating detail, sharing medieval propaganda images of Jews eating pig feces and draining blood from Christian children. Wolfson clarified for his audience what this centuries-long demonization of Jews actually means, citing the scholar David Patterson, who has written: “In the end, the antisemite’s claim is not that all Jews are evil, but rather that all evil is Jewish.”

Wolfson told the teachers that it was important that “antisemitism should not be your students’ first introduction to Jews and Judaism.” He said this almost as an aside, just before presenting the pig-excrement image. “If you’re teaching about antisemitism before you teach about the content of Jewish identity, you’re doing it wrong.”

I thought about the caring, devoted educators in the room, all committed to stamping out bigotry, and knew from my conversations with them that this, introducing students to Judaism by way of antisemitism, was exactly what they were doing. The same could be said, I realized, for nearly all of American Holocaust education.

The Holocaust educators I met across America were all obsessed with building empathy, a quality that relies on finding commonalities between ourselves and others. But I wondered if a more effective way to address antisemitism might lie in cultivating a completely different quality, one that happens to be the key to education itself: curiosity. Why use Jews as a means to teach people that we’re all the same, when the demand that Jews be just like their neighbors is exactly what embedded the mental virus of antisemitism in the Western mind in the first place? Why not instead encourage inquiry about the diversity, to borrow a de rigueur word, of the human experience?

Back at home, I thought again about the Holocaust holograms and the Auschwitz VR, and realized what I wanted. I want a VR experience of the Strashun Library in Vilna, the now-destroyed research center full of Yiddish writers and historians documenting centuries of Jewish life. I want a VR of a night at the Yiddish theater in Warsaw, and a VR of a Yiddish theater in New York. I want holograms of the modern writers and scholars who revived the Hebrew language from the dead, and I definitely want an AI component, so I can ask them how they did it. I want a VR of the writing of a Torah scroll in 2023, and then of people chanting aloud from it through the year, until the year is out and it’s read all over again, because the book never changes, but its readers do. I want a VR about Jewish literacy: the letters, the languages, the paradoxical stories, the methods of education, the encouragement of questions. I want a VR tour of Jerusalem, and another of Tel Aviv. I want holograms of Hebrew poets and Ladino singers and Israeli artists and American Jewish chefs. I want a VR for the conclusion of Daf Yomi, the massive worldwide celebration for those who study a page a day of the Talmud and finally finish it after seven and a half years. I want a VR of Sabbath dinners. I want a VR of bar mitzvah kids in synagogues being showered with candy, and a VR of weddings with flying circles of dancers, and a VR of mourning rituals for Jews who died natural deaths, the washing and guarding of the dead, the requisite comforting of the living. I want a hologram of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks telling people about what he called “the dignity of difference.”

I want to mandate this for every student in this fractured and siloed America, even if it makes them much, much more uncomfortable than seeing piles of dead Jews does. There is no empathy without curiosity, no respect without knowledge, no other way to learn what Jews first taught the world: love your neighbor. Until then, we will remain trapped in our sealed virtual boxcars, following unseen tracks into the future.

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