The Effects of Holocaust Education on Students' Level of Anti-Semitism

Article excerpt

Since the 1970s Jewish and other religious organizations in the United States and elsewhere in the Western World have made a substantial effort to introduce the Holocaust as a subject for study in the curricula of public secondary schools as well as institutions of higher education.1 The effort has met with considerable success. Hundreds of schools and universities throughout the United States, not to mention secondary and higher education programs in Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands etc. now offer instruction about the Nazi campaign to exterminate the European Jewish community during World War II.2 The format for Holocaust education varies. In some cases it is included on a voluntary basis, but in others school authorities have made it a mandatory part of civics or hi story instruction. In some instances the Holocaust stands by itself while in others it shares attention with the sufferings of other ethnic groups; in some instances, entire programs of study are devoted to the subject.

The American public in general appears to agree that learning about the Holocaust is a good idea. According to a 1990 Gallup survey conducted on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an exceptionally high percentage of Americans know in general terms what the Holocaust was but agree overwhelmingly on the importance of learning about it. Between 80 and 90 per cent of those questioned by Gallup believed valuable lessons could be learned by studying the Nazi attempt to destroy the European Jewish community. By learning about the Holocaust, the respondents believed, students were likely to become more tolerant of minority groups in general, not only Jews. In addition to greater tolerance, most Americans believed Holocaust education would encourage students to avoid "going along with the crowd"; they would learn to resist in-group pressures towards racial and religious bigotry. Lastly, for those responding to the Gallup survey, a major benefit from learning about the Holocaust was preventive. Teaching the subject would inoculate against the occurrence of a new Holocaust.3

It is difficult to say with precision how much of the current decrease in anti-Semitism has been attributable to Holocaust education in the classroom. Exposure to such films as Schindler 's List and visits to the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and similar museums in other cities may have played a role as well. Or, it may be simply the result of a generational change in the American public. But no matter the cause(s), anti-Semitism in the United States recently reached an all-time low. Compared with surveys, using similarly worded questions, dating back to the 1960s, the findings reported by the ADL (based on a national opinion survey conducted on its behalf by Kiley, et al.) suggest that in 1998 only about 12 per cent of Americans could reasonably be regarded as anti-Semitic.4

The good news must be qualified by the fact that 12 per cent of some 275 million people still represents a large number of individuals. And among this anti-Semitic minority there are a handful of individuals who are willing to express their prejudices through violence. For example, America has witnessed recent terrorist attacks carried out in the summer of 1999 by such individuals as Buford Furro Jr., and Benjamin Smith-the latter a University of Indiana student who had received some Holocaust education while attending high school in a Chicago suburb.5

Despite the apparent benefits, Holocaust education is not without its opponents and skeptics. Recently one critic objected to its evident growth as a field of study in universities.6 According to this critic, "Holocaustology," replete with study centers, professional journals, major and minor areas of concentration, graduate degree programs et cetera, serves only to cheapen and trivialize the tragedy. And in an even more critical vein the historian Peter Novick casts doubt not only on the medium but also on the message. …