Six candles for six million Jewish people killed during the Holocaust

Can Holocaust education prevent antisemitism?

23 March 2023
Combatting an international rise in antisemitism
The recent Nazi-tainted demonstration in Melbourne has highlighted the vulnerability of our ethical codes. Associate Professor Avril Alba examines whether historical reflection on the Holocaust can itself ensure ethical action in the present.

Last weekend the sight of thirty men, clothed in black and raising their arms in the Nazi-salute in front of the Victorian parliament, understandably sent shock waves across the state and beyond. The event raised some serious questions — among them, whether and how education can counter such trends.

Underlying these anxieties are concerns as to what those harnessing the power of these symbols really knew about the history their actions evoked. If they did understand its enormity, then does knowledge of history automatically have the salutatory effects one might expect? In other words, does educating about histories of atrocity such as the Holocaust ensure greater sensitivity to racism and bigotry in the present?

Thirty men dressed in black and intending to harass and intimidate transgender advocates should not be taken as a representative sample of Australians’ knowledge of and attitudes toward the Holocaust. But what this incident does demonstrate is that a simple, causal correlation between knowledge and action cannot be assumed, and hence it should stimulate deeper thinking as to whether and how education can confront these challenges.

The ceiling in the Hall of Names in Yad Vashem’s Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, Israel. Photo credit: Alexandre Rotenberg via Shutterstock

Sources of information about the Holocaust are readily available in staggering proportions. Historical research on this period continues unabated and has outstripped that on the Second World War. Artistic representations in film and literature, as well as in memorial sites and museums also abound. Yet, as the developmental psychologist Howard Gardner astutely observed, “attaining historical mastery of the Holocaust is not equivalent to understanding its moral dimensions”.

Post-war survivors, philosophers, and writers such as Emmanuel Lévinas and Primo Levi believed that, through encountering the horrors of the camps and witnessing the suffering of the victims, a new ethics would arise. Such a response was powerfully expressed by the cultural critic Susan Sontag in her famous description of her own reaction to viewing photographs of Nazi atrocities for the first time:

Nothing I have seen … ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Indeed, it seems plausible to me to divide my life into two parts, before I saw those photographs (I was twelve) and after, though it was several years before I understood fully what they were about.
Susan Sontag

For Sontag, along with many others, the encounter with the evidence of genocide became indicative of a turning point in the history of the West, an indication that a “limit had been reached” and a “prototypically modern revelation: a negative epiphany” was experienced. Sontag describes attaining a form of knowledge that went beyond the historical. Indeed, it was the sheer emotional effect of the photographs that shook her, because she would only come to understand their historical content years later.

Avril Alba is an Associate Professor in the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies in the School of Languages and Cultures. She teaches and researches in the areas of Holocaust and modern Jewish history, and is currently leading an ARC Linkage Grant into the efficacy of Holocaust education programs with colleagues from UTS and Deakin University. This article was originally published on ABC Religion and Ethics

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Associate Professor Avril Alba

Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies
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