My father-in-law is a Dutch Holocaust survivor who was liberated from Bergen Belsen at the age of twelve. Though he was exceedingly young at the time of his ordeal and liberation, the book of memoirs he wrote decades later is a startlingly accurate and detailed depiction of the political, religious, and communal climate in Holland during the Nazi era. And it is a meticulous account of his harrowing experiences in concentration camps, which included the death of his parents.
His book is just one of a plethora of Holocaust memoirs and testimonials, each one a personal documentary of the most horrific event in modern history. But apparently the surplus of first-hand testimony and our closeness in historical proximity to the Holocaust are not enough to convince some naysayers of its veracity. Indeed, a quick Google search yields close to five million hits under “Holocaust denial,” an unfathomable number slowly encroaching on the actual number of Jewish victims.
Several weeks ago the Rialto Unified School District in California defended an eighth-grade writing assignment that asked students to debate whether the Holocaust actually happened. Though the school district eventually pulled the assignment after coming under pressure, the fact that an American school would ask its students to debate whether the Holocaust was “merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain” is both astounding and frightening.
Rialto students were asked to write an argumentative essay, using “textual evidence” to explain why some people claim “the Holocaust is not an actual historical event, but instead is a propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain.”
Though the ADL condemned the assignment as lending “legitimacy to the hateful and anti-Semitic promoters of Holocaust denial,” it ultimately concluded there was no evidence this was part of a “larger, insidious agenda” on the part of the school.
Perhaps not. But it is difficult to accept how the assignment itself does not spell out an agenda. Granting legitimacy to the idea that the Holocaust was merely a “propaganda tool” and teaching students that such a viewpoint is as valid as the historical authenticity of the Holocaust cannot be dismissed as merely an academic exercise.
Would the Rialto school have assigned a debate on whether or not slavery actually occurred or asked students if slavery was used as a “propaganda tool”? What about the Armenian genocide? No one questions the veracity of atrocities that occurred decades before the Holocaust. No one denies the tens of millions killed by the Red Chinese or the Soviet Union during the time frame overlapping World War II.
The movement to deny the Holocaust is novel even against the backdrop of the long history of crimes against the Jews. There is no history of Spanish Inquisition denial, pogrom denial, etc.
The question is why.
The answer is because denying the Holocaust does not just deny a historical event but also the perceived implications of that event. It rejects the tacit linkage between the Holocaust and its aftermath.
After the world turned its back on the systematic murder of six million Jews, its conscience niggled at it and in many cases expressed itself in an endorsement of statehood for the Jewish people. But the concept of returning to our homeland long predated the world’s (short-lived) remorse for its abandonment of the Jews. The Jewish claim to the land of Israel is not seventy years old – it’s more than two thousand years old. Our biblical inheritance is a bequeathal from God, not a guilt offering from the community of nations.
But because it is widely believed that the world’s collective guilt was responsible for the establishment of Israel in 1948 – even President Obama in his 2009 Cairo speech stated that “the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied” – those with nefarious motives recognize that denying or downplaying the reality of the Holocaust weakens Israel’s legitimacy in the eyes of too many people.