A national survey of Holocaust awareness among America’s youth showed disappointing results for both the nation and Alaska, according to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, who commissioned the study.
The survey ranked Alaska as 41st out of all 50 states in terms of Holocaust awareness, but Alaska’s youth also showed a desire to learn about the event so that it wouldn’t happen again.
Seventy-five years after millions of people, including 6 million Jews, were killed in coordinated acts of genocide, the Claims Conference released a comprehensive study of Holocaust knowledge among young Americans, particularly among Generation Z, also known as Zoomers, the generation born in the late 1990s. The release of the study also roughly coincides with Rosh Hoshana, the Jewish New Year, which began Friday at sundown.
The Claims Conference negotiates with the governments of Germany and Austria for payments to victims of the Holocaust. It commissioned the study with help from a number of institutions specializing in Holocaust education, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, George Washington University and Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem.
The study’s results show what Claims Conference President Gideon Taylor called a disappointing or even disturbing lack of knowledge about the Holocaust nationwide and Alaska.
“In the survey we saw a disappointing level of knowledge,” Taylor said in an interview with the Empire. “The most graphic illustration of this was the percentage of respondents who were unaware that 6 million Jews had died.”
Nationwide, the survey found that 63% of all respondents, not just Generation Z, didn’t know 6 million Jews died and 36% believed the number to be 2 million or fewer. In Alaska, 36% of respondents knew the number of Jews killed, but 11% said they had never even heard of the Holocaust. The state ranked 41st out of all 50 states — in a four-way tie with Delaware, Maryland and New York — in terms of Holocaust awareness.
That’s concerning to Taylor and the Claims Conference, who feel that as time passes and fewer Holocaust victims are still living, young people are increasingly disconnected from the Holocaust — even as anti-Semitism remains.
“Some (respondents) thought the number of Jews killed has been exaggerated,” Taylor said. “That was the most concerning of all, and where we feel there’s an implication of anti-Semitism.”
In Alaska, 13% of respondents said they believed the Holocaust happened, but the number of Jews who died has been greatly exaggerated. Seven percent of Alaskan respondents said the Holocaust did not happen and 9% said they were unsure whether the Holocaust happened.
Survey shows tolerance for intolerance
Also troubling to Taylor were the 16% of Alaska’s respondents who said an individual holding neo-Nazi views is acceptable, with 5% saying they believed it was strongly acceptable. Part of the conference’s work involves talking to social media companies about their hate-speech policies, Taylor said, arguing that ideas that were once on the fringe of politics have become more mainstream, largely through their broadcasting to wide audiences through social media platforms.
Forty-four percent of Alaskan respondents said they had seen some form of Holocaust denial or distortion on social media, Taylor said. The number was 49% nationally.
“Social media companies have said hate speech is not something they want to be promoted,” Taylor said. “A social media company gives a platform and a megaphone, all companies have said hate speech is not part of that.”
Facebook is an exception to that, Taylor said.
“Facebook has not defined Holocaust denial as hate speech,” Taylor said. “They said certain kinds of Holocaust denial is hate speech, but it’s very clear from the studies what’s behind Holocaust denial is anti-Semitism.”
The Claims Conference is currently in talks with Facebook about their hate-speech policies, he said.
Not surprised but still disheartened
The presence of anti-Semitism both nationally and in Alaska is not surprising to Patricia Armstrong Custard, a member of Juneau’s Congregation Sukkat Shalom.
“I have to admit that I was not surprised, but I was disheartened,” Custard told the Empire. “I know there is a lack of awareness in our country nationally, and in Alaska specifically. There isn’t a lot of overt anti-Semitism, more of what we call microaggressions. A lot of times there are, on a daily basis, when you go out and about, you hear things that have become turns of phrase ‘Jewing things down.’ It all comes down to an unawareness of people. Alaska has always had really deeply ingrained Jewish activities, Anchorage has had Jewish mayors, basically since Anchorage was around. We’re within politics in Alaska, we’ve been here for a long time, we’re ingrained in the community.”
Custard too cited the spread of misinformation as a concern, one that’s followed the Jewish people for some time.
“This whole ‘fake news’ business, this is how things start, Custard said. “Germany at the time was a modern, first world, educated country. The Holocaust slowly happened through propaganda and ‘othering’ of people.”
Custard said “othering” is “making people seem less than human.”
“Once you do that, then it’s very easy to think of people as not being human, instead of your neighbors,” Custard said.
More than half of Alaskan respondents, 59%, said they had seen Nazi symbols in their community, on social media or both in the past five years.
There were recent events in Alaska that showed what a lack of understanding about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism can lead to tension, Custard said. In May, state Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, likened stickers given to those who’ve been screened for COVID-19 upon entering the State Capitol Building to the yellow Stars of David Jewish citizens were made to wear in Nazi Germany.
Custard recalled an incident in 2018 when mailers were sent out opposing state Sen. Jesse Kiehl, who is Jewish and was running for Senate at the time. The mailers showed a man in a dark suit, putting a stack of money into his jacket with the words “If you give Jesse Kiehl your vote…you may as well give him your wallet.”
Custard and other members of her congregation felt the mailer played on anti-Semitic tropes about Jews and money. But she said it was more troubling that when the congregation reached out to the group behind the mailers, Republican Women of Juneau, their overtures to meet were turned down.
“We reached out to them to talk to them about it and to help educate them about different tropes, and they would not sit down with us to talk about it all,” Custard said.
Sukkat Shalom sent out offers to several local groups on what she called “anti-Semitism 101,” but that offer was only taken up by the local Church of Latter-Day Saints.
Republican Women of Juneau President Ginger Johnson declined to comment for this article.
Nationally, 59% of respondents said they felt something like the Holocaust could happen again today, 51% of Alaskan agreed. Yet 16% of Alaskans said they thought people talk too much about the Holocaust and 11% believe there is no anti-Semitism in the U.S. today.
A desire to learn
The survey’s findings were not all bad, Taylor said, and showed a strong desire on the part of young people to be educated about the Holocaust. Seventy-three percent of Alaskan respondents said they felt teaching about the Holocaust is important, partly so it doesn’t happen again, that number was 80% nationally.
Nationwide, 64% said Holocaust education should be compulsory in schools, 60% of Alaskans said the same. Likewise, 60% of nationwide respondents said schools and teachers should be responsible for Holocaust education, 57% in Alaska.
“I think we have a limited window of time,” Taylor said. “While this generation cares about the issue, it doesn’t know about it. But they’re trying to put effort into learning the lessons of the Holocaust. Holocaust education is as much about the future as it is the past. When Holocaust education is prioritized in the school system, the lessons are transmitted to a younger generation to ensure the racial hatred that was so devastating at the time is not something that creeps back into our society.”
Taylor made the case a lot of anti-Semitism comes from a simple lack of understanding of the historical events that led to the Holocaust. Both pointed to the Nazi propaganda integral to the spread of misinformation about the Jewish people.
“We’ve seen where Nazism takes us,” Taylor said. “We saw that in Germany in the 1930s. What starts with expression of viewpoints of extremist ideology, we think that’s a concern for those views to be taking hold. We’ve seen that expression of those kinds of viewpoints could potentially lead to the kind of attacks that took place in California and New Jersey.
But the strong response from young people showed there was a desire to learn about the Holocaust, and Taylor said he believed society should respond to that call.
“At the end of the day, education is done at a local level, state local, home,” Taylor said. “But education is covering the entire gamut of our system of living. What we’re hoping is a sense of the importance of educating the younger generation about the Holocaust. We need to make those tools available in whatever school they’re working for. This is a partnership, it’s not something that can be forced or imposed. We hope this survey would say to people, ‘Yes, it’s disturbing, but on the other hand they want to understand.’ We hope this will be a collective, joint effort. Let’s use this survey as a wake-up call.”
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at email@example.com. Follow him at @SegallJnuEmpire.