Special CAEF Bulletin - Has Holocaust Education Been Effective? August 17, 2021

A New View of Holocaust Education

This issue of the CAEF Bulletin is dedicated to one article, one idea, one writer. Ruth Wisse addresses a topic that seems sacrosanct in Western society, the value of Holocaust Education. As there has been a very significant rise in antisemitism, in physical attacks on Jews, in demonization of Jews and Israel, of denying Israel’s right to exist, and an exponential spread of online hatred , many see the antidote as increasing Holocaust education. After all, Jew hatred is often accompanied by Holocaust denial, and that horrific massacre of Jewish life, culture and history, stands as the worst atrocity by humans in all of history. Yet, where is the evidence that education about the Holocaust is effective in decreasing Jew hatred? Governments are increasing funding for Holocaust education and some are building long overdue “memorials” to the dead Jews. So, why is there no connection between remembering and honouring the dead Jews and loving and honouring the live Jews? The essay below is published with a view to encouraging people to read, ponder and resolve to address the issues described, to take us to a place where we will consider, collaborate, invest in different solutions. This requires time—start by reading the entire essay now.

An essay by Ruth Wisse, published May 2020 in National Affairs, the quarterly journal of the American Enterprise Institute. Read here.

Video with Ruth Wisse for Tikvah Fund on The Dark Side of Holocaust Education. See here.

The Dark Side of Holocaust Education

By Ruth R. Wisse

In January 2019 Carolyn Maloney, Democratic representative from New York, introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to support Holocaust education in the United States. Called the "Never Again Education Act," it was passed almost unanimously by the House and the Senate and signed into law by President Donald Trump on May 29, 2020. It authorized the expenditure of $2 million annually, for the next five years, to be distributed at the discretion of the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The stated purpose of the act was to remind us of the enormity of the Holocaust and to further education about the Nazi Final Solution:

As intolerance, antisemitism, and bigotry are promoted by hate groups, Holocaust education provides a context in which to learn about the danger of what can happen when hate goes unchallenged and there is indifference in the face of the oppression of others; learning how and why the Holocaust happened is an important component of the education of citizens of the United States.

This reasoning — that hate groups promote hate and that studying the Holocaust will prevent hate — prompted the establishment of the Holocaust Museum in 1980 and continues to undergird Holocaust education in all its facets. To this has been added the need for resistance to Holocaust denial that proliferates on social media. Currently, 12 states require schools to teach students about the Holocaust, but the new law extends resources to many more schools and teachers, "including those in underserved communities," to deliver "quality Holocaust education."

The motivation for the law is by now so widely accepted that its introduction raised almost no objections and only praise from Jewish organizations, like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), that are charged with combatting anti-Semitism. The ADL echoed the sentiments of Congress when it said that, through study of the Holocaust, "students can grow as responsible citizens in a democratic society and develop critical thinking, empathy, and social justice skills for the future." Both cited the spike in anti-Semitism as reason to increase support for Holocaust education.

It's easy to see why there is so much support for such a project. But is there any evidence that Holocaust education decreases hatred of the Jews among those Americans who are susceptible to it? In reality, anti-Semitism in the United States has spread in tandem with increased teaching about the Holocaust. And there is really no sound theoretical underpinning for this expanding educational initiative. Societies that concentrate on their self-improvement generally rely on positive instruction and reinforcement. Jews teach the Torah and the Talmud as a means of encouraging behavior within those guidelines. The Bible, the Constitution, and Poor Richard's Almanack were traditional American sources of moral education, good citizenship, and democratic values. A pedagogical fixation on hate, by contrast, has been associated with societies like fascist Germany and Soviet Russia that wish to direct blame and hate against designated alien or undesirable groups. How did teaching about hate to prevent hate become an American priority?

Already 30 years ago, in a Commentary Magazine article titled "How They Teach the Holocaust," noted historian and intellectual Lucy Dawidowicz raised serious concerns about the distorted curricula and questionable outcomes of Holocaust-related projects like Facing History and Ourselves. Consulted as an authority on what she called the "war against the Jews," Dawidowicz undertook a thorough study of these materials, leading her to question the wisdom of encouraging "oppression studies" in the absence of any robust teaching of history. Essential reading for anyone approaching this subject, her study identified problems ranging from the failure to suggest that anti-Semitism had any history before Hitler to teaching American children raised in unprecedented freedom and permissiveness that "obedience to the law is not necessarily the determinant of a moral person." What's more, Holocaust education is routinely appropriated for activist agendas.

Things have gotten far worse in the intervening three decades. We are required to ask the more basic question of what Holocaust education was intended to do and whether it distorts by definition. This means understanding how this idea and project developed.


The big American story following the Second World War was the Allied victory, spearheaded by the United States, over Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. The big Jewish story was the exodus of refugees from Europe and the re-establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Newsreels at the time showed unimaginably shocking scenes of what had been done to the Jews, followed by scenes of the cruel British blockade of ships crammed with refugees trying to reach Palestine. Arab attacks against the badly outnumbered Jews of Palestine aligned with images of the recently annihilated Jews of Europe, and Jews raising the Israeli flag evoked the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima. One could better sympathize with the survivors knowing that the ingathering of Jews in Israel meant that other democracies would not have to absorb too many of them.

The decisive Allied victory made right-wing anti-Semitism so out of fashion in America that villainy has been portrayed in Nazi uniform ever since. Americans did not fight so hard against fascists in Europe just to have them resurface in their midst. In books and films like Gentleman's Agreement and Focus (the latter an almost forgotten novel by Arthur Miller), American Gentiles who are mistaken for Jews — as an experiment in one case and inadvertently in the other — experience discrimination and intimidation that expose the evils of local prejudice. In this post-war climate, anti-Jewish quotas were lifted. Anne Frank's Diary became a classic. The idea of Protestant, Catholic, and Jew came into fashion as the ecumenical model of religion in America.

The popular positive image of Israel in those years found its clearest expression in the 1958 novel Exodus by Leon Uris, which, at the time, was the biggest bestseller in the United States since Gone with the Wind (1936) and was turned into a blockbuster movie starring Paul Newman as the heroic Ari Ben Canaan. The heroine of Exodus is nurse and war widow Kitty Fremont — "one of those great American traditions like Mom's apple pie" — who accepts a posting in Palestine. Initially, she doesn't like Jews and feels much closer to their British overseers, but the novel traces her change of heart as she is drawn to two versions of the Jewish experience: Karen Hansen, a young refugee from Denmark whom Kitty wants to take with her back to America, and male hero Ari, the ideal Israeli — tough as nails on the outside but soft and gentle on the inside. Amid many subplots, the main one follows this slightly anti-Jewish American as she falls in love with heroic Israel and wants to adopt the Holocaust survivor.

Pitiable refugee and admirable Israeli were two sides of the liberal image of the Jews that prevailed for the quarter-century after the Second World War. America had come to the rescue of what was known as the Free World and, in simplest terms, had defeated evil and liberated the good. Jews were the emblem of those it had rescued, yet at the same time — here was the happy surprise — they were no longer in need of rescuing because they were doing it themselves in a spunky way reminiscent of the founding of the United States. The Arabs were cast as the evil forces — multiple countries declaring war against the smallest among them, almost half a billion Muslims raging against 6 million fewer Jews than the world's 16.5 million before the war. The asymmetry was overwhelming, yet the transformed Jews were holding out like their archetypal David against Goliath. Their liberation was easy to appreciate as a great liberal cause.

Even more important from the liberal perspective, for the first time since the dawn of Emancipation, anti-Jewish politics was now also out of favor on the political left. Inherent in the teachings of Marx and all their offshoots was opposition to the Jewish amalgam of peoplehood and religious civilization. Bolshevism outlawed these manifestations of Judaism in Hebrew and Zionism. The Soviet Union hailed the Arab attacks against the Jews of pre-state Palestine as the start of an Arab revolution and turned anti-Zionism into a Soviet cause. Among its passionate adherents were Jewish internationalists in the communist cells of New York and Hollywood who claimed that only communism could defeat the fascists. These trends penetrated American elite circles in the 1930s and '40s but then subsided with revelations of Stalin's crimes, the Gulag prison system in Russia, and Soviet spying abroad. Thus, the decline of Soviet communism, even more than the defeat of Nazism, rehabilitated the reputation of Jews and Israel among liberals. Once the Communist Party became inactive, it took several decades before the New Left once again injected anti-Zionism into American culture.

This compressed summary of a much more layered process begins to explain why the Jews and Israel were popular among liberals. So-called "realists" of the American State Department, who weighed competing economic and political benefits in the Middle East, had almost always tilted toward the Arabs, but the Cold War against the Soviet Union also tipped Congress favorably toward the Jews. Jewish and liberal politics merged most firmly in the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, introduced in 1972 and passed two years later, denying normal trade relations to countries with non-market economies that restricted freedom of emigration. It put human rights at the forefront of American foreign policy, but it was also specifically targeted at the Soviet Union for denying Jews the right to emigrate to Israel. This was the high point of a liberal alignment between an anti-communist, human-rights-oriented American foreign policy, an anti-communist culture in America, and a movement to free the Jews by allowing them to emigrate to the thriving state of Israel.

Jews in particular might wish to understand that moment and savor it, because it will not come again until the same opposition to radical leftism re-asserts itself in American politics. The Jackson-Vanik approach represented a hard liberalism that could stand against communist political repression. Hard liberalism generally sides with the Jews against their enemies, who are always simultaneously the enemies of liberal democracy. All enemies of liberalism may not be anti-Jewish, but all anti-Semites and anti-Zionists are anti-liberal. This political axiom means that hard liberalism will stand against a hostile left as resolutely as it does against a belligerent right. One could say that defense of the Jews — whether in their dispersion or in their homeland — is the surest test of liberal resolve; when that resolve collapses, we get the rise of anti-Jewish politics. And it is just then, too, that we find the rise of Holocaust education.

The change from that robust Exodus view of the Jews to the split between the bad Zionists of Israel and the good Jews of Auschwitz occurred in the same country — America — under the same system of government with more or less the same institutions. The change is part of a larger tectonic shift with certain specific features.


Edward Said introduced anti-Zionism into higher education. Said was a professor of literature at Columbia University, a colleague and eventual successor of Lionel Trilling — regarded by some as the most influential American critic of his generation — who had claimed that in the America of the 1950s, liberalism was "not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition." By "liberalism," Trilling meant a loosely defined political centrism between the conservatism he dismissed and the Stalinism he opposed. One of a cadre of New York intellectuals, Trilling was famously ambivalent about his Jewishness — never denying it, which would have been impossible, but clearly downplaying its value relative to his lifelong commitment to preserving and teaching the best aspects of Western civilization.