I did a double-take when I saw the recent photo in the news of the students forming the Solo Cup swastika and making a Nazi salute at a weekend party. This image came on the heels of another photo of a group of laughing young men making the Nazi salute prior to a school dance. Swirling around these events have been Jewish cemetery desecrations, hate-filled graffiti, and even swastikas drawn in blood. And in this context, we still grieve for the Jewish congregants shot dead at the Tree of Life synagogue and now the murder of 50 Muslim worshipers at two mosques in New Zealand.
I am sure many have felt as I do: What is happening? What can I do about it? On an intellectual level, I know this is not new – hatred, violence, and targeting of the “other” has always been with us. The acts of violence may ebb, but it is always there.
Having spent the better part of 25 years working in anti-bias and Holocaust education, I feel some sense of failure. Even though I know these incidents do not reflect the values and beliefs of the majority of people, I can’t help but question if the work I have done has mattered. I recall my former colleague who would say that the efforts to counter hatred, antisemitism, and racism could sometimes feel like having the tiniest of pink Baskin-Robbins sample spoons, trying to chip away at the mountain of mistrust, fear, anger, ignorance, resentment, or downright apathy that can so often push against positive change. She would use this analogy to inspire others – if we all worked together, even with the smallest of tools, we could get there.
So, I move on. But I haven’t quite been able to get the image of the Solo-Cup swastika out of my head. Is the Holocaust such a remote event that it has lost all meaning? Are students merely reflecting a society where hate crimes are on the rise, and the swastika the symbol of choice to provoke and shock? Is this an inevitable by-product of a world where life for so many young people (and some not so young) is defined and experienced through rapid-fire photo snaps, posts, and tweets, without any time to think or process the words or images that consume them?
In some despair, I reached out to one of my wisest counselors: my 16-year-old daughter. “What is this about?”, I asked her. “Do you think these young people have never been taught about the Holocaust? Do they not understand the pain this causes or recognize this as a symbol of the most awful form of hatred?” “Sure, but they probably don’t care,” she quickly answered.
Therein lies the rub: caring. I’ve always framed my work, as many do, in three, interlocking phases of impact: What do we need to know about an issue/topic, why should we care, and how can we act to make a positive difference. Or, in the more poetic frame, how do we inform the head, move the heart, and motivate the hands.
In Holocaust education, these three concepts could not be more vital and interdependent. What do we want students to know about the history of the Holocaust? There are so many complex concepts, events, decisions, and actions that occurred. If you want to understand the why and how this genocide could have happened, you need a foundation of the what. The Echoes & Reflections Partners toiled for a year to distill the core historical content that now forms our ten classroom units. Our goal was – and is – to guide teachers to build this essential knowledge with their students and to ask those critical questions of why and how at every step.
Now, to the caring. The Holocaust is practically ancient history for many young people, and in the United States, for the majority of the population, this is not their history. It’s remote, it happened somewhere else, and it’s over. This is where our primary belief of teaching about the Holocaust as a human story comes in. We seek to bring this knowledge to life through the integration of visual history testimonies and primary sources. We want young people to see, listen, and come to know that these were real people who had desires, dreams, hopes, and lives that were just waiting to be lived. While I would never ever guarantee that a student who watched a testimony of a survivor describing his arrival at Auschwitz or who read a poem by a girl left alone in the Lodz ghetto, would reject the Solo Cup swastika game, maybe, just maybe, they would make a different decision in that moment.
Which brings us to action. How do we create and inspire a sense of personal agency so that in the face of hatred or antisemitism, or when someone is excluded or “othered,” we don’t just walk away or swipe the screen? When I began my work in this field, this step was almost always about an in-person response – will you speak up if someone is being taunted? Will you call out an antisemitic comment or joke? Today, for most adolescents, these moral choice moments are experienced online and at lightning speed. Does this make it easier or harder to intervene? Does it fuel a level of insensitivity to these issues that carries over to real-life choices and decisions? Does an intervention online have more or less power to impact the person who is being offensive?
These are the questions I have been wrestling with these past few months. As we approach Yom HaShoah, this sacred day of remembrance for all those who perished during the Holocaust, I hope to start to find some answers. At Echoes & Reflections, we will be working with educators in our network to learn more about the experiences and perspectives of the adolescents in our country and what is driving some of them to engage in and/or ignore hurtful behavior – and how can we inspire more to stand up. And I encourage others, not just educators, to do the same. At a time when it feels so hard to have these tough conversations, doesn’t it mean it is that much more important that we try? If we want our children to care, we must first care enough to listen to them.
About the Author: Lindsay J. Friedman has been the Managing Director for Echoes & Reflections since 2014.