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In a widely-panned interview with Recode, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, last Wednesday defended Facebook’s policy of not deleting content promoting Holocaust denial.
Much has been written since contesting Zuckerberg’s statement that Holocaust denial doesn’t cause harm and that those who promote it aren’t “intentionally getting it wrong.” I want to focus on something slightly different: how Holocaust denial is one of the issues that threatens a broader consensus around free speech.
Free speech absolutists believe that speech shouldn’t be enforced by the government or private entities. They believe this because of their faith in the “marketplace of ideas,” a notion that traces back to John Milton and other English thinkers of the 17th century.
In essence, the marketplace of ideas is the political allegory to the economic theory of capitalism. It states that in a world without regulation from above, the best ideas will naturally rise to the top, and those that are bad will find fewer and fewer supporters as time goes on because they won’t be able to hold their own in debates. It is a fundamental part of Western democracy, which contends that the people will select the best candidate after seeing them all engage with one another’s platforms.
Zuckerberg – like many others in Silicon Valley – is an adherent of this belief. He thinks that as people engage with various ideas on Facebook, those without merit (like Holocaust denial or people who think school shootings in the United States are hoaxes) will gradually fade away.
He is wrong.
Holocaust denial threatens the marketplace of ideas because it subverts the fundamental assumption underlying the system: that everyone is a rational actor engaging in good faith debate.
Holocaust deniers are not acting in good faith. They, like conspiracy theorists before and since, have no intention of engaging substantively or rooting their arguments in anything approaching a rational framework.
Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the great 20th century French philosophers, wrote shortly after the Second World War of how anti-Semitism more broadly subverts the norms of civil discourse. “Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies,” he wrote, as if he were addressing Zuckerberg’s claims of deniers’ intentionality today.
“They know their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words,” Sartre added.
In other words, when one actor is acting in good faith and the other is not, the marketplace breaks down. One person is using facts and seeking truth while the other is purposefully lying to accomplish a selfish and ideological aim.
By restricting ourselves to the framework of the marketplace of ideas, which says that every idea must be debated and not banned, we allow Holocaust deniers to use our own systems of discourse against us.
This is, in many ways, a representation of the broader breakdown in social and political norms that much of the Western democratic world is experiencing. How can the press hold those in power accountable when those in power lie without shame? How can politicians engage with voters who don’t care what is or isn’t true, but simply want their biases confirmed?
This is the key fallibility of the marketplace of ideas: it is bound not by laws and regulations but by norms and conventions. When one party breaks these conventions, anyone who sticks to them is hopelessly outmaneuvered.
It is for this reason that a laissez faire approach to free speech is irresponsible. Facebook is the largest social platform in the world, with 2.19 billion active users each month. It has the potential to facilitate unprecedented communication of ideas for human betterment – but also the potential to facilitate the spread of noxious ideas and evil actors who intentionally subvert its expectations of good faith.
Facebook has an obligation to its users and to society to stop taking a hands-off approach to Holocaust deniers and other users who abuse its belief in the marketplace of ideas. Like any market, Milton’s marketplace of ideas requires some regulation to stop bad actors from taking advantage of the rest of us.
It is past time that Facebook start enforcing the conventions of good faith debate through banning those that abuse them – and that starts with Holocaust deniers.
Since the United States government began enforcing a policy that resulted in the separation of families of undocumented immigrants at the US-Mexico border, commentators around the world have referenced the Holocaust in denouncing these acts. Of course, this isn’t the first human rights issue which has been compared to the Holocaust and it won’t be the last either.
In my previous blog posts, I have both insisted on the necessity of using Holocaust scholarship to combat human rights abuses and discussed the dangers of idly referencing the Holocaust. Given this, how should we evaluate these claims? Should we support them because the “Never Again” is a call to action, or oppose them because they minimize the Holocaust?
There is no easy or blanket answer to these questions. There often are valid comparisons to be made between, for example, xenophobia and hate in the modern day and that which lead up to the Holocaust. Moreover, while most violations of human rights do not escalate to genocide, it would be untrue to say this never happened. We can learn from the fact that few anticipated the true horror of the Holocaust even as it had already begun.
At the same time, if every individual assault or hate crime is comparable to the Holocaust, then doesn’t that minimize the Holocaust? Whether or not the Holocaust was unique in the annals of history is a different academic debate, but it was certainly among the worst genocides ever undertaken – it is not equitable to most violations of human rights.
In the end, it is perhaps intent that matters. Comparing the Holocaust to modern-day violations in a nuanced manner allows for those violations to be elevated in the public consciousness. This is a good thing. To say, for example, that a violation “resembles the Holocaust in methodology if not in magnitude,” would be an appropriate use of the comparison.
Furthermore, linking today’s violations to specific aspects of the Holocaust should also be encouraged. When it is reported that parents on the US-Mexico border are told their children are being taken for a bath when they are in fact being incarcerated, to not mention the obvious Holocaust parallel is to do a disservice to the victims of both atrocities.
I think every comparison must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and good intent, nuance, and narrow scope are always preferred. In general, however, I lean towards permitting such comparisons because I believe that those who have studied the Holocaust have the obligation to share the lessons they have learned with the world.
In this week’s blog post, I want to reflect on the purpose of Holocaust study and remembrance. I think it is more than an academic pursuit and even more than an activity that honours those who lost their lives. It is neither a purely cerebral nor commemorative endeavour. It is also a commitment to future generations of Jews and other marginalized people: never again.
Never again should anyone have to suffer the indignities and atrocities suffered by Jews during the Holocaust – or anything close to such horrors. As Anne Frank, who will be featured in an international exhibition at the Holocaust Centre in Wellington this month, famously wrote, “What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again.”
This promise has not been kept. There have been other genocides, other atrocities. Today, around the world, oppression and violence continue to thrive. But if “never again” is to have any meaning, it is as a call to action. Another, even more important quotation from Anne Frank: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
The trends we see in many countries – religious and ethnic scapegoating, disregard for the rule of law, and exploitation of the most vulnerable among us – are shockingly reminiscent of political trends almost a century ago. The signs of impending catastrophe even in the most developed and democratic of countries are clear.
We, as conscientious individuals and even as a collective, may not have the power to fulfill the commitment of “never again.” There is, however, no excuse not to try. Equipped with the knowledge of our history, we must condemn dangerous political trends and violent atrocities alike – no matter who commits them. We needn’t wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.
What will be the relevance of learning about the Holocaust for the next generation, and in particular, the next generation in New Zealand? There are almost no Holocaust survivors left, and in a few years there will be none. Seeing DVDs of old people in distant lands talking about their terrible experiences will hardly be the sort of thing young people will be interested in. There is a real danger that Holocaust studies will be absorbed by programmes on Genocides, Human Rights, or God forbid, Tolerance. Whoever wants to be tolerated? Tolerance implies that the people tolerated are in some ways inferior, but due to the magnanimity of societies that are tolerant, such inferiority is not rubbed in.
There are Genocides and Genocides, all different in their way, all terrible, all with victims and perpetrators, but the Holocaust is significantly different from genocides. Human Rights is a basket that can accommodate numerous platitudes and at the end there are no lessons to be learned. It is not about Jews being forbidden to go to the swimming pools or sit on park benches, and certainly not about mass murder.
To learn something about the Holocaust and to understand its significance and relevance to our time, you have to think of it as a rift within Western civilization. It was a denial, a destruction of the values and principles of humanism that evolved over many generations since the seventeenth century, and that underpinned the basis of European values. Europeans who first encountered the Maori people found cannibalism abhorrent, Maori people on the other hand found flogging and hanging, European practices, cruel beyond all understanding. Maori saw kingship and aristocracy in simple tribal terms, something quite different form the British and European perceptions. Slavery as the Maori understood it was quite different from slavery as practiced in the American South, the Carribbean and Latin America. The wanton cruelty of ISIS or Boku Haram make perfectly good sense for people steeped in a primitive interpretation of the Koran, Stalinist crimes made sense in terms of his attempts to build a new dictatorship of the proletariat, and similarly racial purity, the annihilation of Jews as a priority above fighting and winning the war made sense for all whose thinking was confined by Nazi ideology.
The question that those of us who teach about the Holocaust need to address is what are the humanist values that are worth cherishing, values that we need to share and make a stand for. The Danube flows right though Hungary, and it divides the chauvinistic, intolerant patriotism of the Szeged school of politicians from the more universal, tolerant, broad embracing aristocratic school of Vienna and the West. Granted that this is a simplification, but there is an underlying truth in it. So if we talk about human rights we have to talk about the humanist view of human rights and citizenship. If we talk about racial harmony, about inequality, about humane treatment of minorities, of enemies, of victims, we have to turn back to the values of humanitarianism. We have to acknowledge that in an imperfect world such humanitarian values were always breached. The signatories of the American Constitution did not consider that the rights accorded to American people applied to African slaves, the humane treatment of the enemy in our time does not apply to torture of suspected terrorists and other enemies of the state.
Teaching the Holocaust we should set out to foster a consciousness that embraces the liberal humanist ideals that permeated Western culture and was destroyed by Nazism.
The news out of the U.K. last week, that a political candidate had tweeted about “sweating like a Jew in an attic”, ought to serve as a reminder. The behaviour of George Stoakley, whose Conservative candidacy in local elections in Cambridgeshire has since been suspended by the party for these old tweets, is emblematic of the fading awareness of the Holocaust in Western society more broadly.
While a recent poll of young Americans found that two-thirds don’t know what Auschwitz was, the issue extends beyond lack of knowledge. Ignorance is perhaps somewhat understandable, and will undoubtedly be the topic of a future post, but right now I want to discuss the ways in which the seriousness of the Holocaust is undermined through blasé references and jokes made in poor taste.
Stoakley is just a symptom of a broader problem in this context. More examples abound – a German rap duo that boasted in a song about how their bodies were “more defined than Auschwitz prisoners” nonetheless received the country’s highest music award in April and a German theatre hosting a play on Hitler’s adolescence offered free entry to anyone willing to wear a swastika.
Such behaviour can have two negative effects – encouraging harsher forms of Holocaust denial and expunging the strong cultural taboos against anti-Semitism that have built up in the West in the aftermath of the Holocaust. These challenges to the historical facts of the Holocaust, which I discussed briefly in my post on Poland’s new Holocaust laws, threaten to erase the crimes of the Nazis from our consciousness.
In Berlin, for example, there was a 60% increase in anti-Semitic incidents last year, the American Anti-Defamation League reported the single highest spike in anti-Semitic attacks in 40 years, and also last year the President of the New Zealand Jewish Council told Stuff that anti-Semitism was on the rise in New Zealand.
How can we tackle the attitudes towards the Holocaust that make such jokes palatable in the minds of some? There is no better way to do this than education. A 2007 paper in Educational Review found that Holocaust education in Scotland both lessened rates of racism and bigotry in pupils and also fostered positive citizenship values.
Outside of school, we can take on the onus ourselves to teach our families and communities about the Holocaust. The Holocaust Centre of New Zealand is an excellent resource for this. In fact, it will be hosting an international exhibition on Anne Frank this month, one that Mr. Stoakley ought to see before the next time he tweets about Jewish people and attics.
Today, Israel and much of the Jewish world mark Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day. It comes almost three full months after the rest of the world commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Why the disparate memorials? The international celebration takes places on January 27, the date that the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was liberated by Soviet troops. Germany began to mark this date in 1996 and the United Nations made it an international holiday in 2008.
Yom HaShoah has a longer history. Celebrated first in December 1949, the date – Nisan 27 in the Hebrew calendar – was concretised in 1951 and made a national holiday in Israel by the country’s Parliament in 1959.
I posit two reasons for the two separate remembrance days. One has to do with participants. The international holiday is a day for the global community to gather together to commemorate the Holocaust – and their various roles in it, as perpetrators, bystanders, victims, and liberators. Meanwhile, Yom HaShoah is a Jewish holiday, with a Hebrew name, for internal Jewish reflection on the Holocaust.
A second reason has to do with the specifics of the dates. As mentioned, International Holocaust Remembrance Day takes place on the date that Auschwitz was liberated. Yom HaShoah, however, takes place directly between the end of the Passover holiday, which celebrates Jewish liberation from Egypt in the biblical era, and Israeli Independence Day.
Moreover, it tends to fall on or around the period of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a month-long battle in which less than a thousand Jews faced off against Nazi troops working to deport the last of Warsaw’s Jewish community to the death camps. Warsaw’s pre-war community of 500,000 Jews – the second-largest in the world at the time, trailing only New York City – had shrunk to just over 50,000. The ghetto was burned to the ground by the Nazis during the fighting, killing an estimated 13,000 Jews. The remainder were deported.
Nonetheless, the different historical events tell two tales of Jewish agency during the Holocaust. In one, the Jews were mercilessly slaughtered until the Soviets arrived as a proud liberating army. In the other, the Jews took it upon themselves to fight back.
Overstating the case for Jewish agency is dangerous – most had no choice but to follow Nazi orders and continually hoped they were being taken to labour camps and not extermination facilities. But Jews also consistently found ways to resist, whether in rebellions like the Warsaw and Treblinka uprisings, in small ways like the frequent sabotage of war materials that Jewish labourers were forced to manufacture, or in deeply personal ways, like committing suicide as an act of defiance against Nazi extermination plans.
Yom HaShoah recognizes the many ways in which Jews seized control of their fates during the Holocaust and made what decisions they could, always with an eye towards resistance to the murder of their people.
Marc Daalder is a writer and History student co-located in Amherst, Massachusetts and Wellington, New Zealand. Marc has been published in the Financial Times, the Chicago Reader and Jewish Daily Forward.
This is the time of Passover, the holiday when the Jewish people celebrate their liberation from Egypt in biblical times. As with many other Jewish holidays, the Passover ceremony follows a familiar refrain: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!” How, then, did the survivors of the Holocaust interact with this holiday, given the painfully similar horrors they had suffered?
The recounting during Passover of bondage and escape, plagues and splitting seas, is a rather complex exercise, often requiring a Haggadah (a Jewish text setting out the order of the Passover service). A Haggadah published in the aftermath of the Second World War by three Jews – two survivors then living in a displaced persons (‘DP’) camp in Munich and an American army chaplain – grants us some insight into the complicated relationship between the Holocaust and Passover, as well as that between survivors and religiosity more generally.
Authored by Yosef Dov Sheinson, a survivor of four years in various concentration camps, and further embellished with woodcuts of Nazi Pharaohs and prison-garb-clad-slaves by survivor, Miklos Adler, and reprinted for a Passover service of some 200 hundred survivors by army chaplain, Abraham Klausner, A Survivor’s Haggadah makes a clear connection between Pharaoh and Hitler, between slavery and the camps, between Israelite labourers and Jewish prisoners.
In his English preface to the Yiddish and Hebrew text, Klausner emphasises that just as the Israelites had to wander the desert for 40 years after escaping Egypt, the saga of the Holocaust survivors – living in cramped DP camps with nowhere to go – had not yet ended. Indeed, the camps would remain open at least through 1953, when a quarter of a million refugees remained unsettled in Europe.
From Sheinson’s viewpoint, the tale of Passover and of the Holocaust connotes a central Jewish failing – the choice of Jews to remain in the Diaspora. The solution, of course, was aliyah – immigration to Palestine.
Foisting the burden for Jewish oppression on the Jews themselves is highly unusual, but an even more challenging theme makes itself known late in the service, when Sheinson’s version of the traditional “Dayenu” song is transcribed. “Dayenu”, meaning, roughly, “it would have been enough”, is a song which celebrates the many ways in which God helped the Israelites.
Sheinson inverts this, condemning God for his inaction. It would have been enough, he writes, “Had he scattered us among the nations but had not given us the first crusade.” Sheinson traces a path through the history of the Jews in Europe, concluding with the Holocaust. “Had he given us Hitler but not ghettos, dayenu. Had he given us ghettos but no gas chambers and crematories, dayenu.”
Such attitudes towards faith and God were not entirely uncommon in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel, the famed survivor, recounted an instance in which several rabbis in Auschwitz put God on trial for “crimes against creation and humanity” – and found him guilty.
What are we to draw from all of this? Most importantly, we must understand that the tale of Passover is not just in the past – it could and did happen again to Jews, and is happening again to other oppressed peoples around the globe.
These tales also show us how even when faith or belief is weak or non-existent, events of cultural and historical significance like Passover can strengthen us. When we find in the past some reflection of our present, we can use that to help us persevere against incredible odds.
Marc Daalder is a writer and History student co-located in Amherst, Massachusetts and Wellington, New Zealand. Marc has been published in the Financial Times, the Chicago Reader and the Jewish Daily Forward.
“All Poland was in the Jews’ hands.”
“Are they [the Poles] glad there are no more Jews here or sad?”
“It doesn't bother them. As you know, Jews and Germans ran all Polish industry before the war.”
“Did they [the Poles] like them [the Jews] on the whole?”
The above exchange appears about halfway through Claude Lanzmann’s documentary on the Holocaust, Shoah, as Lanzmann interviews a Polish witness about the Holocaust. The attitudes displayed here, although not uncommon at the time, have recently become the centre of a historical and legal controversy in Poland.
On January 26, 2018, Poland passed a new law making it illegal to blame the “Polish nation” or “Polish state” for atrocities committed as part of the Holocaust. Since then, the Israeli government, the U.S. State Department, and prominent academics and scholars have all criticised the Polish Government for abridging academic freedoms and freedom of speech.
What is truly concerning beyond the issue of civil liberties is the a-historicity of the Polish claim. While the Polish State did not actually exist between 1939 and 1945 (when the country was occupied by Nazi Germany), significant segments of Polish society were anti-Semitic and many Poles complicit in the crimes of the Holocaust.
Those entities which comprised the Polish nation – local government, popular opinion, militant partisans – often collaborated with the Nazis. Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men contains anecdotes of how Polish officials worked with a German police battalion tasked with murdering Jews; the wartime massacres of Jews by Poles in Jedwabne, Gniewczyna Łańcucka and elsewhere displayed the depth of anti-Semitic opinion; and the country’s largest anti-Nazi partisan group, the Polish Home Army, frequently rejected Jewish volunteers.
In the years since, Poland has failed to genuinely come to terms with these facts. Under Communist rule, Poles were largely taught that they were untainted by the Holocaust. But the opening of archives and the collapse of ideological borders that accompanied the end of the Cold War has exposed this – and us – to new facts and new ways of thinking about Poland and the Holocaust.
There are in Polish academia, for example, few texts such as Karl Jaspers’ foundational “On the Question of German Guilt”, or little public discussion of collective responsibility. Within the Polish national self-conception, a clear gap exists in relation to the treatment of Jews between 1939 and 1945.
This in no way ascribes blame to every individual Polish citizen for the crimes of the Holocaust. Indeed, more Poles have been honoured as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ for their service to the Jews during the Holocaust than any other single nationality.
Rather, we seek to open up the conversation to nuance and balance and support the work of historians in accurately identifying institutional and systemic anti-Semitism in wartime Poland. To deny these social structures ever existed, or that they did not impel the Polish nation towards collaboration and acts of genocide, is to engage in a form of Holocaust denial.
We can simultaneously appreciate the great lengths Polish nationals went to in order to save Jewish lives and understand that, on the whole, Poland bears some responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust.