Tag Archives: Claims Conference

Don’t Know Much About History?

stylized images of lynching victims from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice
The national lynching memorial

Laurie and Debbie say:

Yesterday’s news had several reports about a new study of what younger Americans know about the Holocaust, conducted by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference). The results are certainly disturbing. Harriet Sherwood wrote about the survey for The Guardian:

The survey, the first to drill down to state level in the US, ranks states according to a score based on three criteria: whether young people [defined as adults aged 18-39]  have definitely heard about the Holocaust; whether they can name one concentration camp, death camp or ghetto; and whether they know 6 million Jews were killed.

Nationally, 63% of respondents did not know 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, and more than one in three (36%) thought 2 million or fewer had been killed.

Eleven per cent of respondents across the US believed that Jews had caused the Holocaust.

Some statewide data is available in the article, and more at the ClaimsCon site. Perhaps more upsetting than the main data is this gem:

More than half (56%) said they had seen Nazi symbols on their social media platforms and/or in their communities, and almost half (49%) had seen Holocaust denial or distortion posts on social media or elsewhere online.

As two Jews substantially older than the survey respondents, we have a lot of reactions:

ClaimsCon is clearly doing good work, and is doing it very explicitly for “Jewish victims of the Holocaust.” Thus, their survey tells us nothing about the millions of other direct Holocaust victims, including people with disabilities, homosexuals (to use the language of the times), the Rom. and other ethnic, religious and social minorities, not to mention civilians in various countries including Poland, the Soviet Union, and Serbia. While the 6 million number is very familiar to people of our generation, the actual number of Nazi victims is certainly more than 11 million people; the awareness of those horrifying casualty statistics is undoubtedly much more limited than the awareness of what happened to the Jews. We’ve also been reminded frequently since the murder of George Floyd about how much Americans don’t know about our own racist history: what if this survey had also asked “how many Black people were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968?” (answer: at least 5,000).

It is in the nature of time and history that people know less about what happened before our parents were alive, and in the nature of governments and school systems that many historical atrocities are ignored, if not erased. Americans between the ages of 18 and 36 have no shortage of more recent genocides and social calamities to concern them: they are, after all, the generations that grew up with school shooter drills. The younger half of the group has also grown up with videos of Black men being killed by police. These survey respondents cannot be dismissed as either ignorant or callous, though their teachers and parents could and should certainly have done much better.

What is different about this historical period from previous ones is the ubiquity of social media. Disinformation and conspiracy theory are as old as human civilization, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theory in particular is easily traced back hundreds of years. Social media, however, at least in its current infancy, has proved to be astonishingly efficient at spreading lies, rumors, conspiracies, and paranoia. We’d love to see data on what proportion of those 49-56% of survey respondents who’ve seen Nazi symbols or Holocaust denial felt compelled to take a stand, let them go by as ridiculous, or admired/believed what they saw (as well as all the shades of reaction in between).

After putting the survey results in context, we are still galvanized. In a time of rising anti-Semitism, racism, and violent “nativism” around the world. Hate speech is normalizing in many countries, and white/Christian supremacists are gaining traction. Every one of us who cares about historical truth and contemporary justice should be talking to the people we know — especially the people in the survey age group and younger. Information wants to be shared; our knowledge is all have to drive out a lot of the dangerous untruths — when we make the commitment to speak.

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