Thank you for inviting me to speak at this important event. I’m honored to be talking to such a distinguished audience. I want to thank Rabbi Shmuel Katzman and CHAJ, the Municipality of The Hague, and the Israeli Embassy for organizing this commemoration.
I was asked to talk about a topic of my own choosing, but one that took into consideration the ethical, religious, or moral dimensions of the aftermath of the Holocaust. After a lot of thought and discussion, I decided to focus on Holocaust denial and distortion. Passage of the UN General Assembly resolution on combating Holocaust denial and distortion on January 20 is just more evidence of the importance of this issue. It seems incredible that more than 75 years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust, people still deny and distort the facts of the genocide, one of the best-documented mass atrocities in human history. We have mountains of evidence, extensive survivor testimonies, and eyewitness accounts from those who liberated the concentration and death camps. Yet Holocaust denial and distortion persist. Indeed, one could say they have gone viral. Modern day Holocaust distortion and denial have been exacerbated, and amplified, through the use of digital tools and the ease with which misinformation and disinformation can be spread on social media platforms. This is shocking. The Holocaust is fact; the evidence is overwhelming. So, what is going on, why does it matter, and what can we do about it?
First, some definitions. According to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, “Holocaust denial seeks to erase the history of the Holocaust. In doing so, it seeks to legitimize Nazism and antisemitism.”
“Holocaust distortion acknowledges aspects of the Holocaust as factual. It nevertheless excuses, minimizes, or misrepresents the Holocaust in a variety of ways and through various media.”
The United States, alongside the Netherlands, is a proud member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, or IHRA; and I want to acknowledge the excellent work that IHRA has done on identifying and countering Holocaust denial and distortion. Indeed, IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism – which the United States embraces and encourages other countries to embrace – identifies Holocaust denial and distortion as forms of antisemitism, and their increase is particularly relevant in the context of rapidly rising antisemitism around the world. I’ve drawn extensively on IHRA’s work for this talk, and I want to especially thank Dr. Robert Williams and other members of the U.S. delegation to IHRA for their invaluable help and suggestions.
I was in Malmo, Sweden last October for the International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism. During the opening session, Holocaust survivor Tobias Rawet talked about how hearing a Holocaust denier made him realize he had to bear witness to what had happened. He said that when he was 56, he heard a Holocaust denier on television, and it felt as if that person was saying that Mr. Rawet’s life was a lie – as if his cousins and other family members had never lived and never been murdered during the Holocaust. So he decided that he had to start speaking up and sharing his experience of the Holocaust. Born in Poland, Mr. Rawet was taken to the Łodz ghetto with his parents when he was three years old and then deported to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Miraculously, he and his parents survived, but much of his extended family was murdered.
Mr. Rawet’s story of why he decided to bear public witness to the Holocaust was incredibly moving, and it showed us in a few words how Holocaust denial tries to erase the suffering of Holocaust survivors and tries to wipe out the historical reality of the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators. Professor Deborah Lipstadt, an eminent historian of the Holocaust, said it very clearly: “The Holocaust has the dubious distinction of being the best documented genocide in the world. For deniers to be right, all survivors would have to be wrong.”
Holocaust distortion is a more recent threat, especially in our social media age.
One example of Holocaust distortion is the rehabilitation of people who played roles in committing the crimes of the Holocaust. Some, like Jonas [YO-nas] Noreika in Lithuania and Roman Shukhevych in Ukraine, are considered national heroes because they fought against Soviet tyranny, but they also collaborated with the Nazis. Some countries have named sports stadiums after Nazi collaborators. But all countries, the United States included, need to face up to the reality of their history, both the bad as well as the good. Indeed, my own country took steps that made it more difficult for Jews fleeing the Holocaust to enter the United States.
Another example of Holocaust distortion is the use of Holocaust imagery or language for political or ideological purposes. This can trivialize and demean the Holocaust. A recent example is the yellow stars worn by anti-COVID vaccination protestors in the United States and Europe. The Nazis forced Jews to wear yellow stars of David on their clothing so they could be easily identified in order to harass and isolate Jews, force them into ghettos, round them up, deport them, and kill them. It’s crazy to have to say this, but that is not comparable to the inconvenience of not being allowed to enter a restaurant because you choose not to be vaccinated. Some politicians in both the United States and in the Netherlands have compared COVID-19 restrictions to the persecutions suffered by the Jews in the Holocaust. These false comparisons distort the Holocaust’s significance as a uniquely horrific effort to systematically annihilate an entire people. They harm our democratic institutions by comparing measures taken to protect public health and save lives to measures taken by the Nazis to cold-bloodedly target and murder six million Jews.
Holocaust distortion can also involve minimizing the impact of the Holocaust or claiming that fewer people were killed than has been established by overwhelming evidence. Holocaust distortion is a form of antisemitism and it feeds more antisemitism. And of course the Holocaust is the most horrifying example of the destruction and death to which unchecked hatred can lead.
Countering Holocaust denial and distortion matters because all efforts to downplay or blur the facts of what happened and who was complicit are insults to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust. It matters because it further perpetuates antisemitism. It matters because it can also fan the flames of violent extremism. One terrible example from the United States is the gunman who killed 11 people in a synagogue in the United States in 2018. He frequented a social media platform that trafficked in Holocaust denial and other forms of antisemitism.
Countering Holocaust denial and distortion matters because they threaten our ability to understand and learn from the history of the Holocaust. We often say that we must teach about the Holocaust and learn from it so that no such depravity is ever permitted to happen again. “Never again” is one of the most important moral lessons the world can draw from the Holocaust.
But the world has been far from perfect in applying this lesson – mass atrocities throughout the world, such as the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Darfur, and Xinjiang show that very clearly. But we are trying to do better, including by bringing a measure of justice through efforts to support war crimes units, and international investigative mechanisms and courts like those in The Hague.
Our efforts to prevent and deter atrocities also include peacekeeping operations; and importantly, education. The United States, for example, supports programs to train teachers to teach about the Holocaust and supports exchange programs for teachers, civil society, law enforcement, and others to learn about confronting antisemitism and Holocaust distortion and denial.
Education means not only teaching the facts of the Holocaust and other genocides and mass killings, but also teaching tolerance and inclusivity, so that – maybe – in the future people will be less inclined to discriminate against and otherwise harm or even kill those who are different from them.
And that kind of education has been shown to have positive associations. The Anti-Defamation League, the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation, and Yad Vashem did a survey in 2020 of American university students. The survey looked at the relationship between Holocaust education and students’ behavior and attitudes. Students who had received Holocaust education in their high school classes not only did better in their historical knowledge of the Holocaust, they also had “more pluralistic attitudes” and were “more open to differing viewpoints.” They were also more willing to challenge intolerant behavior in other people. Correlation is not cause and effect, of course, but those survey results at least offer some hope that teaching about the Holocaust can have positive effects on people’s behavior in the real world.
One of the real challenges in countering Holocaust denial and distortion is that such efforts inevitably get caught up in debates about freedom of expression. Many European countries have laws criminalizing Holocaust denial and promotion of Nazi ideology. The United States, on the other hand, does not criminalize hate speech of any kind, including Holocaust denial and promotion of Nazi ideology, as odious as it may be.
In fact, in the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution broadly protects speech, including offensive speech, from government regulation.
In a seminal court case that tested the limits of free speech, in 1977 a group of neo-Nazis sought a permit to demonstrate, carrying Nazi banners, in downtown Skokie, a Chicago suburb that was nearly half Jewish and home to hundreds of Holocaust survivors.
The attorney who represented the neo-Nazis (who was himself a Jew) saw the issue as clear-cut because, “if the government can prevent lawful speech because it is offensive and hateful, then it can prevent any speech that it dislikes.” In the end, although the courts ultimately ruled that the neo-Nazis had a right to peaceful assembly, the demonstration took place in downtown Chicago rather than in the town of Skokie. It was a very controversial case. But it illustrates quite clearly that in the United States, even abhorrent and hateful speech is protected.
Indeed, in the United States’ tradition, the answer to bad speech – including racist, antisemitic, Holocaust denying and distorting speech – is not government intervention or censorship, but more speech; speech that promotes tolerance and counters lies with facts. Internet and social media platforms are now the subject of debate about regulation of content. As a general matter, U.S. law does not require digital platforms or services to regulate user content online that is protected under the First Amendment.
So in the United States, that means social media platforms are not liable for content posted by third parties. We might ask: should social media companies be responsible for the information that people post on their sites. Should they be held responsible for the results of algorithms that incite hatred and violence? Should companies be regulated to limit their ability to do those things? Governments are trying to figure out how to deal with these thorny questions while respecting and protecting freedom of expression.
In the meantime, some platforms have taken some actions against online Holocaust denial and distortion. In late 2020, Facebook finally agreed to take down posts that deny or distort the Holocaust and to direct users to authoritative sources when they search for information. By the way, I tested that out myself by searching for “Holocaust,” and “Holocaust hoax” on Facebook and each time I was directed to reliable sources. Twitter followed Facebook’s lead and banned Holocaust denial posts. But everyone acknowledges that it’s extremely difficult to find and remove all instances of Holocaust distortion and, denial.
I also want to acknowledge that online platforms can be powerful tools for spreading truth. They pose a challenge to authoritarian regimes and can help amplify voices of peaceful dissent. Russia recently fined Google $100 million for “systematic failure to remove banned content,” which includes posts related to the peaceful political opposition. The People’s Republic of China has sophisticated controls to block websites and censor content, including about the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang. And so, while the Internet and social media help spread Holocaust denial and distortion, they also make it easier to publicly spread accessible, accurate information about the Holocaust and to disseminate important information about serious violations of human rights.
In conclusion, Holocaust denial and distortion not only deny and distort historical fact, they are antithetical to our democratic values. Accurate historical education and truthful commemoration of the Holocaust teach new generations about our past, and the horrors to which unbridled hate can lead.
So what can we do about this? As we commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we must do all we can, every day, to counter Holocaust denial and distortion, and other modern manifestations of antisemitism and other forms of hate. We must stand up for the truth and promote the accurate and truthful history of the horrors of the Holocaust. We must highlight the painful lessons of the Holocaust, including the importance of respecting the human rights and dignity of people who are different from us. That is the only way we will ever fulfill our solemn pledge of “never again.”