History is our warning; there is still time to change our future.
This week has brought the gravity of history front and center for us all. The mission of El Paso Holocaust Museum is to educate about the Holocaust in order to combat prejudice and bigotry today. As an institution that teaches the dangers of hate and advocates for the equal rights of all people, we have been deeply disturbed by the increased distortion and manipulation of history alongside a growing disconnect to the relevancy of the past. From ignorance and outright denial of Holocaust facts to the rise in hate speech and targeting of minorities, we recognize this is a true crisis.
The Jewish Material Claims Conference recently released a state-by-state study on the Holocaust knowledge of Millennials and Generation Zs. The disturbing findings of that study show an overall ignorance of Holocaust facts. In Texas, 60% of those surveyed could not name a concentration camp, even the infamous Auschwitz, and did not know that 6 million Jewish men, women and children were murdered in the Holocaust. The same percentage have seen antisemitic and racist neo-Nazi rhetoric on social media. Most disturbingly, 11% of those surveyed believe that Jewish people caused the Holocaust. Holocaust denial and misinformation is virulent and increasing monumentally. It is not surprising that we have also seen a sharp increase in antisemitic and racist hate speech and violent hate crimes.
This is not a new issue. Our country has struggled for a long time with our own complex history and how it is represented. America has long grappled with sentiments of exceptionalism that came hand in hand with oppression. Celebrated and heroic moments of the past- abolition of slavery, the fight against fascism, the Civil Rights Movement, to name a few, must be taught- while not belying a more complex history. To teach the abolition of slavery, one must first recognize the founding of this nation came alongside years of atrocities, dehumanization and murder of the enslaved. U.S. involvement in World War II was instrumental in defeating the Nazi regime and liberating Holocaust survivors. But there was also a reality of American antisemitism that stalled immigration of Jewish refugees and of racial segregation even in the U.S. armed forces. Japanese Americans went to war for a country that held their families in internment camps. Latinx and African American soldiers fought and died for a country that would not allow them to sit at the same lunch counter as their white compatriots. The Civil Rights Movement changed the entire landscape of American society in many powerful ways, but the struggle for equal treatment continues today for so many Americans.
On September 17th, an Executive Order was signed calling for the re-patriotization of American history and how it is taught in our education system. The underlying principle must be addressed for its diminishing of larger historic contexts, issues, and voices. As an institution of education focused on teaching about one of the most horrific moments of human history, we know we are stronger for our knowledge of the past. National and state-by-state educational priorities must continue to teach the complex and difficult truths about the imperfection of our history. Strength in knowledge comes from learning about the real struggles and successes over obstacles of the past, rather than perceptions of perfection.
Examining and confronting history does not negate the significant moments or heroism in our past. But as we see with the Claims Conference study, to not understand all of our history is to diminish the struggle and suffering of the generations before us and is a great disservice, especially to younger generations. History is our warning. History shows us the depths humankind can sink to and the heights they can rise to. But only by studying history in its entirety and seeing the direct connections to today can we actually learn from it and address the destructive effects of racism, antisemitism, and discrimination. In that way, we become better stewards of our democracy and citizens of our country, living up to the highest of our shared ideals.
We encourage others to get involved and to speak out against the misuse of our history and actions that allow racism and antisemitism to reverberate in our society. We especially encourage educationally minded institutions to join their voice with ours in advocating for the protection of education, history, and contemporary connections.
Staff and Board of Directors of El Paso Holocaust Museum & Study Center