Anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head in Europe again, and it is reaching levels that parallel to 1930’s Europe. The reasons may be less obvious than one thinks. Although there may be a rise in a population of people with overt prejudices against the Hebrew people such as an ever expanding Muslim population, there may be other factors at play. The biased teaching of history, or lack thereof, could be a factor. As Mark Twain was once reported to say, “History never repeats itself, but it sometimes rhymes.” This is all sounding quite familiar, if we look at it with history in mind.
The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg considers the recent rise in anti-Semitism and asks if the time has come for Jews to leave Europe. He explores the elements contributing to the rise of racism towards the Jewish people, which seems to be fueled mainly by Muslim immigrants who outnumber Jews 10 to 1 in France and Europe. While the article cites a number of examples, the author borders on the shrill, with sweeping generalizations of Catholics, Germans, and other non-Jewish groups that can sound almost paranoid. Despite this, if a person sees their existence threatened publicly by a growing, influential political group, is it wholly unreasonable for that person to feel a little paranoid? Perhaps it is a learned response, given the historical facts of the past century. If we see history repeating itself, it makes sense to be concerned.
Ironically, this comes at a time when Finland is abandoning the traditional subject method of teaching, which includes history. The Washington Post reporter Max Ehrenfreund discusses the many rationalizations that are used by Finnish teachers for making this decision, as well as the comparisons to the United States Common Core standards recently introduced by the Department of Education. Setting aside history is a controversial notion. American educators find history and other single subject courses to be of value, despite the Finnish model.
Michael Conway explains the problem with teaching single perspective history classes to students in The Atlantic and suggests it might be better to teach children the critical analysis of history using multiple narratives as is taught in historiography. The presentation of multiple narratives and perspectives rather than one single conclusive story is supported in constructivist psychology, and it is also consistent with experiential theory in method in light of the many ways memories can be different for those who recall the events of a particular time.
He posits the idea that history should be presented as something that is not definitively determined, but rather, perceived by a variety of groups and individuals that is strongly influenced by the biases they hold. It is a solid argument. The experience one person has for an event can alter based on their influences. Shouldn’t children be presented a variety of perspectives in order for them to come to their own conclusions? Is this not the purpose of critical thinking in Common Core? This is not to suggest revisionist history should be the goal. Facts, such as the bodies of six million plus Jews, should not be put into question. Even if a person does not have a living memory of the people who died in the Nazi camps, the absence of memory does not negate their deaths.
David Brooks’ New York Times article makes an argument that anti-Semitism is a different form of bigotry than oppression and racism, in that it seeks genocide as its end goal rather than oppression. He breaks down the difference between genocidal bigotry of Jews in areas of the Middle East where the Jewish population is small and equates the prejudice as a result of a type of brainwashing as the individual receiving it does not have benefit of real-life examples of the target population. Brooks suggests the bigotry in Europe is different to the Middle East where a caricature of the Jew is presented. In Europe, the bigotry should be challenged publicly to destigmatize Jewish people.
Brooks makes the distinction (thankfully) that the U.S. is different to Europe in that American sensibilities are predominantly still offended by anti-Semitism. I wholeheartedly agree, not that the existence is not real here as well, but here the issue remains a lack of empathy for the Jewish people in Europe. Americans sometimes view European Jews as being paranoid, as I did when reading Goldberg’s article. This is not to say we do not appreciate their struggle. We just don’t see it in our own environment. This makes it harder to fight on the European front.
A good example of this problem of negating the anti-Semitism in our own country can be seen in the recent events experienced in UCLA. Arielle Mokhtarzaeh argues in the Huffington Post the very real threat that anti-Semitism presents on the college campuses in the U.S., and how they are ignored. The Jewish people are held to a double standard, demonized, and delegitimized in the very institutions that are renowned for tolerance. She posits the cause for this odd conflict on college campuses has to do with the polarity that is created by identifying (and shaming) the oppression of one group.
For example, the perception of Islamophobia was ignited by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the bombing (by both groups) in Gaza. This affords the opportunity for blame on the group assumed to cause it by those who were affected. However, the circumstances surrounding the issue are highly complex and cannot be fully attributed to just one group…unless those who identify with Islamic beliefs point a blaming finger at the Jews. The anti-Israel climate makes anti-Semitism seem acceptable. Mokhtarzaeh suggests the problem lies in the approach by schools to resolve the issue. It may be better to address anti-Semitism by bringing students together to celebrate their differences, rather than promote the shame-and-blame approach.
This raises the question as to the wisdom of removing history as a subject in Europe, especially now. To remove history lessons about the Holocaust and other events of Nazi Germany would have the same effect as removing the history of slavery in the South for African Americans or failing to teach children the callousness Willowbrook for disabled children. The oppressed groups run the risk of becoming oppressed, once again.
In The New York Times parenting blog, Motherlode, David Perry discusses his own experience of stigma and public shaming with his son who has Down syndrome. He equates the use of the r-word with the use of the n-word. Both have the effect of communicating the individual as a subclass human being. The view that some people perceive those with disabilities as less that worthy of living are not different than those who view those from other races, ethnicities or religions, such as Jews, African Americans, or any other oppressed group as unworthy of life. I know this feeling, having a son with autism. Sympathetically, Perry raises this very reality I often face, knowing we bear the additional complication of not having any outward sign that our children have challenges. Being judged as worthy of existing is unfair, and Perry suggests we should all become more aware of our judgments and consider that these judgments are part of the problem.
Finally, the Huffington Post offers a method of testing for whether we are racist. Dr. Phil offers five questions for self-reflection to know if we are racist in our views, and 10 steps for combating it in ourselves. The article is concise and honest in approaching honestly examining our own biases. The points can be uncomfortable to consider, as most Americans believe they are not racist, but the microaggressions surface upon examination. To change the attitudes of others, we must educate ourselves in our own biases, proceeding outward.
My daughter was arguing her reason for failing history class. Along with the group project mandate in Common Core for history, she simply did not see the relevance for history in her own life. I explained to her that history is the only gift our ancestors can leave their descendants, which has the potential of lasting for millennia. It allows their progeny to learn the vital lessons they learned, without the bonehead mistake of repeating them. This made sense to her. It does to me too.