By Kenneth L. Marcus
Over the last few weeks, the Holocaust has appeared surprisingly often in the news. In most cases, the reason has been the surprising degree of ignorance or denial that so many people have about this cataclysmic event. The most disheartening reports have addressed the role of educators in spreading misinformation. Worse, they have illustrated that Holocaust denial is not just an ordinary form of ignorance but rather a modern cloak for the return of old-fashioned anti-Semitism.
The Anti-Defamation League’s much-heralded ADL Global 100 survey showed that 35% of adults worldwide have never heard of the Holocaust. Of those who have heard of it, 21% think it was a myth or exaggeration. One may quibble about the ADL survey’s methodology, but this study presents the best available evidence that we have about global attitudes. This revelation has been accompanied by three disturbing recent stories over the last few weeks.
First came news that the Rialto California school district had assigned 2,000 eighth-graders at five middle schools in the Rialto Unified School District east of Los Angeles to compose an essay on whether or not they believe the Holocaust was “an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme.” The district thought this to be an appropriate assignment to teach “critical thinking” skills.
Although the district has subsequently apologized, its apology reflects little understanding of why the assignment was so obscenely inappropriate. People who debate the Holocaust are not merely foolish or ignorant, like those who insist that the earth is flat. Rather, Holocaust denial is a particular form of bigotry. In order to deny anything as vast and well-documented as the Nazi Holocaust, one must assume that the world’s peoples have been victimized by a hoax of extraordinary proportions. Such a hoax could only be perpetrated by an enormously powerful and malevolent group of deeply crooked people who are able to control global media for their own sinister purposes. Unsurprisingly, these outlandish claims perfectly correspond with traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes. In encouraging students to debate this topic, as if it were merely a difference of opinion, Rialto gave credence not merely to absurd misinformation but also to virulent ant-Semitic defamations of precisely the sort that led to the Holocaust in the first place.
Next came reports that Temple Adjunct Professor Alessio Lerro was arguing that Jews are exaggerating the extent of the Holocaust to obtain political advantages. In the course of supporting the Modern Langue Association’s new anti-Israel resolution, Lerro wrote this about the Holocaust: “6 million? Mh … we all know [ or should know] that the counting of Jews is a bit controversial.”” Lerro is a reportedly a gamer, and CBS Local’s Don Giordamo reports that “mh is internet slang for map hack, a term meaning cheating to gain an advantage. In other words, Lerro is arguing that Jews are “gaming” the Holocaust numbers in order to gain a political advantage in public debates. Lerro also reportedly accused “Jewish scholars” of manipulating academia and charged that it is “time that Zionists are asked to finally account for their support to the illegal occupation of Palestine since 1967.” Here we have a fine example of the ugly stereotypes that underlie Holocaust denial and Holocaust minimization. It is highly disturbing to finds these stereotypes circulated by a university professor.
A Temple University spokesman appeared to support Lerro’s comments, or at least to reject efforts to condemn them, arguing that “the exercise of academic freedom necessarily results in a vigorous exchange of ideas,” although the spokesman later added that “the views and opinions of any individual are those of the individual and not those of the university.” While academic freedom certainly results in a robust exchange of ideas, it need to result in an ugly exchange of racist canards. An institution of higher learning, like Temple University, should understand the difference between debatable “views and opinions” and classical expressions of bigotry.
In a final insult, popular MSNBC host Toure Neblett recently apologized for a tweet in which he insinuated that Jewish survivors of the Holocaust have succeeded because they are white. Toure had tweeted “The power of whiteness” in response to a tweet that reported, “My family survived a concentration camp, came to the US w/ nothing, LEGALLY, and made it work.” In other words, Toure minimized the extent of the Nazi atrocity, insinuating that Jews have been able to overcome disadvantage because they are “white.” In a rather feeble apology, Toure wrote that “It was a dumb idea by me to debate serious and nuanced topics in 140 characters or less. In an attempt to comment on racism in post World War II America, I used a shorthand that was insensitive and wrong. I am very sorry and will make sure this doesn’t happen again.” Toure’s mistake was not merely to debate serious topics via Twitter but to diminish the extent of the Holocaust. While Toure’s statement was not as outrageous as Lerro’s, such comments from respected media figures give cover and respectability to those whose Holocaust minimization is part and parcel of a more insidious program.
It is not enough for institutions like Temple University to distance themselves from the statements of professors who deny the extent of the Holocaust. Nor is it sufficient for school districts like Rialto to apologize for the insensitivity of assignments that encourage students to participate in Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial is not merely a mistake of opinion or a factual error. Rather, it is an implicit endorsement of some of the most insidious lies that have ever been told about a group of people. The horror of Holocaust denial is that it replicates the very same thinking that supported the rise of the Nazi party in the first place. Such thinking should not merely be rejected but rather condemned with the greatest possible force.
This article first appeared at the Brandeis Center Blog.