In the Forward last week, Donald Snyder puzzled over an apparent contradiction in German society: despite the country’s mandatory Holocaust-education programs and laws against Holocaust denial, recent studies have found that some anti-Semitic theories are actually on the rise.
The findings show that 57 percent of Germans agree that Israel is waging “a war of annihilation” against the Palestinians, while 38 percent agree that “considering the politics of Israel it is easy to see why one would have something against Jews.” Perhaps most disquieting was that over 40 percent of Germans agree that “what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is basically no different from what the Nazis did with the Jews during the Third Reich.”
Snyder chalked up this phenomenon to a new “strain” of anti-Semitism caused by a changing population and the growing popularity of the anti-Zionist movement:
Muslim and classic right-wing anti-Semitism are combining with left-wing demonization of Israel to produce a toxic mix, despite Germany’s postwar efforts to ensure that future generations continue to learn the lessons of the Holocaust. This new strain renders old ways of combating anti-Semitism less effective. According to some observers, in Germany the Holocaust narrative is no longer the powerful antidote it once was.
But while Holocaust education is important for many reasons, it’s a lousy way to combat anti-Semitism. For one thing, it assumes that ignorance of the Holocaust is the cause of anti-Semitism — when, in fact, the exact opposite is often the case. Sam Schulman made this point well in a Weekly Standard essay this week:
Most anti-Semites are perfectly well-informed about the actuality of the Holocaust; so are most people who believe that the time has come for the state of Israel to be eliminated. … Holocaust education, however well its teachers are trained, will never pry such people loose from their defects of character and judgment—or from their underlying feelings about Jews as individuals and fellow-citizens.
Holocaust denial tends to be a symptom of anti-Semitism, not the cause. Most of the revisionist theories about the Holocaust are aimed at rebutting the notion that Jews were innocent victims — i.e., “The Jews were in cahoots with the Nazis” or “The Holocaust was exaggerated.”
Germany has banned these types of statements, and so anti-Semites have latched on to a more socially acceptable argument: the Holocaust was really terrible, they typically concede, but now the Jews in Israel are doing the same thing to the Palestinians.
“The Israelis tried to dehumanise the Palestinians, just like the Nazis tried to dehumanise me. Nobody should dehumanise any other and those who try to dehumanise another are not human,” said Dr. Hajo Meyer, a Holocaust survivor and anti-Zionist, last January.
Unlike typical Holocaust revisionism, which relies on misstatements about the Jewish genocide, this argument relies on gross mischaracterizations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But its purpose is similar: it implies that Jews are unworthy of tolerance because they are morally equivalent to the Nazi regime.
This brings us to another problem with Germany’s use of Holocaust-education programs to combat anti-Semitism. The memory of the Holocaust isn’t an “antidote” to anti-Semitism but rather an example of what can occur when this sort of bigotry remains unchecked. It’s apparently not enough to say that Jews should be “tolerated” simply because they are human beings; they should instead be tolerated because of their suffering under the Nazis.
Not only is this notion offensive; it’s also deeply problematic. It holds that it’s only necessary to “tolerate” Jews as long as they are viewed as victims of persecution. But if Israel is falsely seen as engaging in “Nazi tactics” — as 40 percent of Germans surveyed believe — then the Jewish state must forfeit its grievances and victim status. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that nearly as many Germans agree that Israel’s “politics” justify animosity toward the Jewish people in general.
And it’s also noteworthy that these poll numbers come from a country that is still ultra-cautious when it comes to voicing anti-Semitic opinions. It would be interesting to see how other European states, with less of a historical connection to Nazism, would respond to the same survey.