Holocaust education is key in tackling global anti-Semitism

Holocaust education is key in tackling global anti-Semitism
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Today, on the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz Birkenau, communities around the world commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day, reflecting upon the six million Jewish lives stolen and the millions of other victims of Nazi violence. However, the findings from a new study on Canadian Holocaust knowledge and awareness recently conducted by our firm underscore that reflection alone is simply not enough to ensure that something like the Holocaust never happens. What we found is that there are some critical gaps in Holocaust knowledge among Canadian adults.

Make no mistake, this is not a uniquely Canadian phenomenon. Indeed, the Canadian survey results are harrowingly similar to those in a study we conducted in the United States last year, which revealed a disquieting lack of knowledge about key Holocaust facts among American adults. To be sure, 85 percent of Canadians 89 percent of Americans have heard of the Holocaust. But even baseline Holocaust awareness is alarmingly lower among Generation Z and Millennials in both countries, where more than 20 percent respondents under age 35 had either never heard the word Holocaust before, or were not sure if they had heard of the Holocaust.

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When we probed beyond superficial awareness, the knowledge gaps in both countries were striking. As we saw in the United States, a majority of Canadian adults and more than 60 percent of Canadians under age 35 did not know that six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. When we dove deeper, we found that Canadians lacked knowledge of other important details about the Holocaust. As in the United States, nearly half of all Canadian adults could not identify one camp or ghetto.

When it comes to personal connection to the Holocaust, the Canadian numbers were more dismal than what we found in the United States. Over 70 percent of Canadians have not visited a Holocaust museum in person, and do not know someone who has visited one, compared to 55 percent of Americans. Canadians were also slightly less likely to know a survivor than Americans were. This growing detachment from the Holocaust has certainly not gone unnoticed by Canadians, a majority of whom agreed that “fewer people seem to care about the Holocaust than they used to.”

These numbers are disturbing in isolation. However, they are even more alarming at a time when right wing nationalism is on the rise around the world, and anti-Semitism is growing across North America. In the United States, the Anti-Defamation League reported last year that anti-Semitic incidents were up nearly 60 percent from the previous year, while a 2016 study by Bnai Brith Canada reported a 35 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents. One in five of the incidents were related to Holocaust denial.

Both the Canadian and American studies shed light on a relationship between detailed Holocaust knowledge and the likelihood of rejecting anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism. In Canada, 16 percent of people who had never heard of the Holocaust found neo-Nazi beliefs acceptable. Among those with deeper Holocaust knowledge, just 4 percent said neo-Nazi beliefs are acceptable. We saw a similar correlation in the United States.

As Jewish Americans, we were particularly struck by a stark divergence revealed in our surveys when it comes to the perceived prevalence of neo-Nazism in Canada as compared to the United States. Just 17 percent of Canadians said there are a great deal or many neo-Nazis in Canada today, compared to 47 percent who believe there are a great deal or many neo-Nazis in the United States. This cannot be dismissed as Canadians looking down on their southern neighbors, as even more Americans at 51 percent said that there are a great deal or many neo-Nazis in the United States. But above all, what both studies show clearly and unambiguously is that comprehensive knowledge of the Holocaust, not just superficial awareness, is a critical tool in combating anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism.

What then can be done? The answer is simple. The answer is education. Today, it is our profound hope that these studies will serve as a wakeup call to countries around the world that we are facing a global crisis when it comes to Holocaust knowledge, and that there is a fundamental need for optimized mandatory Holocaust education. In Canada, there is not one provincial authority that mandates Holocaust education, so it is up to individual teachers to decide if and how they incorporate Holocaust study into their curriculum. In the United States, only 12 states require that the Holocaust to be taught in school. This must change. Our leaders must expand teacher training and build new standardized learning plans to ensure that students leaving school are well educated on Nazi atrocities.

Positively, our two surveys found that public support for such action is high in both countries. A sizable 82 percent of Canadians and 93 percent of Americans believe that all students should learn about the Holocaust while at school. In both countries, around 80 percent of adults agree that it is important to keep teaching about the Holocaust so it does not happen again. The time to implement comprehensive Holocaust education reform is now. The only way to ensure that the lessons of history are not forgotten is for our leaders to mandate Holocaust education nationally in Canada, in the United States, and indeed in other countries around the world. In this way, we can all fulfill the promises of “Never Forget” and “Never Again.”

Douglas Schoen is a pollster and founder of Schoen Consulting. Arielle Confino is the senior vice president of Schoen Consulting. The Canada Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Study was conducted by Schoen Consulting on behalf of the Azrieli Foundation in partnership with the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Read it here.