I learned about the Holocaust through osmosis.
Both of my parents were survivors, and my first language was Yiddish. Surrounded by survivor neighbors and relatives in Pelham Parkway, my first culture shock was the fact that most Americans were not Jews. My second was that most Jews did not have European accents. Unlike my native American friends, we had no grandparents, aunts or uncles, or first cousins. The survivors became our extended family.
My parents and their peers were hesitant to speak of their experiences during the Holocaust because it brought up so many painful memories. As the second generation, we wanted to protect them from any additional trauma, beyond the unspeakable horrors they had experienced in their youth.
As the years went by, more and more histories and testimonies by survivors were published, led by Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” George Steven’s movie version of the “Diary of Anne Frank” in 1959, and Lucy Dawidowicz’s magisterial “War Against the Jews.” Studies on the psychological adaptation of survivors spread. My late wife, Gail, and I organized a study of survivors and their children in Milwaukee, “Survivors of the Holocaust and their Children, Current Status and Adjustment,” which was published in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology” in 1981. The results demonstrated a successful adaptation for those studied.
Then there was the landmark television series “Holocaust” in 1976, making stars of Meryl Streep and James Woods, among others.
And the third generation made films about their grandparents’ experiences for posterity. For example, my nephew Evan Kleinman’s film “We Are Still Here” is about my parents’ experience before, during, and after the war.
Against this backdrop, at the height of the convulsions of Vietnam and with the advocacy of survivors and their allies, more and more states mandated Holocaust education for their high school students. The New Jersey Legislature enacted this requirement in 1992, 18 years after the establishment of the New Jersey Holocaust Commission, and 21 other states have followed suit.
There has been apparent success by Holocaust education in building empathy, tolerance, and open mindedness. At least that’s what a study by the Florida Department of Education’s Task Force on Holocaust Education found. The study surveyed 1,500 college students between the ages of 18 and 24, divided between those who took Holocaust education courses and those who didn’t. Students who had taken Holocaust education classes have more pluralistic attitudes, are more open to differing viewpoints, and more likely to stand up to negative stereotyping.
Unfortunately, since October 7, the moral rot of the woke indoctrination of college students has been in full graphic display, with the intimidation of students and faculty who don’t adhere to far-left orthodoxies. This ideology sees the world through the lens of the oppressors and the oppressed, judged solely by race. This is well documented in “The Canceling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott.
Jews who support Israel hit the trifecta of being white, oppressors, and colonizers. Facing this destructive herd mentality on their campuses, three elite university presidents lawyered their answers, failing the test of leadership and moral clarity.
While donors, politicians, and government bureaucrats threaten universities with investigations, withdrawal of gifts, and other tools, what can we do to better educate our high school students about the Holocaust and the lessons it teaches to build a better society before they enter the repressive gauntlet of the college campus?
Teaching the history of the Holocaust, how Nazism mushroomed to engulf a continent, how otherwise good people became indifferent, how survivors survived and how we must confront contemporary genocidal threats with forceful activism are laudatory educational goals.
But on college campuses, the lightning rod issue is the existence of Israel, as manifested by demonstrations calling for the elimination of the Jewish state and a global intifada killing Jews in Israel and anywhere. Moreover, Israel is viciously maligned as being Nazi-like, genocidal, and an apartheid state.
Holocaust education must teach that if there had been a Jewish state in the 1930s, it would have resettled the millions of Jews in Europe in the aftermath of the disastrous Evian Conference, which closed the gates for Jewish refugees. There simply would not have been a Holocaust if there had been an Israel.
Hitler came up with the Final Solution only after he recognized that virtually no country wanted to accept Jewish refugees. Decades earlier, Theodore Herzl was prescient when he wrote that stateless Jews could not endure in Europe.
Then there’s the fact that survivors constituted nearly one-third of the newly formed Jewish state. Another Holocaust was averted when Israel defeated multiple Arab countries during the War of Independence when they refused to accept the United Nations’ 1947 resolution forming a Jewish state and an Arab state. Many survivors fought and died fighting for their newly found Jewish homeland. Then there have been the multitude of wars since, trying to eradicate the Jewish state.
Israel has been continuously settled by Jews through the millennia; Jews are in effect its indigenous population. Whitewashing the Jewish presence in history, as UNESCO and the Palestinian Authority have sought to do, is insulting not only to Jews but Christians. Jesus’s presence in Jewish Jerusalem is the climax of the Gospels.
Then there’s the antisemitic double standard of accepting 22 Arab countries but not a Jewish one, and it would be genocidal if Palestine was formed “from the river to the sea.” Another Holocaust.
The October 7 massacre was the worst disaster for Jews since the Holocaust, perpetrated by a terrorist group whose covenant reads like Mein Kampf. Its spiritual leader, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, allied himself with Hitler. The mission of Hamas, Iran, and its proxies is another war against the Jews and Western civilization, with their respect for individual rights.
If ever Holocaust education should be relevant, it is now. It must teach that Jews are entitled to the self-determination denied to the victims of the Holocaust, and how Israel, with the United States, is the greatest bulwark against another Holocaust directed against a people suffering the loss of one-third of its people two generations ago.
Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014. He is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation and consultant for the Jewish Community Legacy Project.