This Teaching Idea introduces students to contemporary examples of Holocaust trivialization and distortion. In Activity 1, students learn about the history of Star of David badges and the role they played during the Holocaust. In Activity 2, students explore the ways in which symbols associated with the Holocaust, including the Star of David, are being appropriated today and the potential harms of drawing inaccurate comparisons between current events and the Holocaust. In Activity 3, students explore questions about how and when we can responsibly apply lessons from the past to our present circumstances. Each activity takes approximately one class period to teach, and you can use the entire Teaching Idea or a selection of activities best suited to your students. If you are teaching students who have not had prior Holocaust education, consider first using our Holocaust and Human Behavior resources to better prepare students for this Teaching Idea.
This collection of resources is designed to help educators integrate the study of traditional and contemporary antisemitism into their efforts at combating prejudices and stereotypes in the classroom.
While Holocaust allusions have typically been used to compare political leaders or acts to Hitler and the Nazis, a current trend has surfaced where groups who believe they are being oppressed or persecuted liken themselves to Jews during the Holocaust. For example, shortly after the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, a Russian propaganda video on a state-run media channel declared Russians “the new Jews.”
In European, Canadian, and US cities during the COVID-19 pandemic, some groups protesting mask and vaccine mandates have compared these public health responses to Nazi edicts that dehumanized Jews and restricted Jewish civil liberties. Some anti-vaccine protestors have worn Star of David badges that imitate those the Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust. While in a healthy democracy citizens are free to criticize government policies with which they disagree, the use of symbols and references to the Holocaust to make political statements can be harmful.
Critics of appropriating the Holocaust for modern political purposes call this practice Holocaust distortion or trivialization. By taking the Holocaust out of its historical context and bending it to serve a political agenda (e.g. “The Holocaust is just like...”), we risk distorting the specifics of this historical event. Holocaust survivor and author of Night Elie Wiesel often spoke of how the term itself Holocaust has been trivialized by overuse, conjured to describe a range of unrelated events from a sports team’s bad loss to animal rights abuses. Even when it came to other genocides, Wiesel said, “I don’t like to compare one atrocity to another. That would be demeaning to both.”
Holocaust comparisons can trivialize the magnitude and severity of suffering that victims of the Holocaust experienced by diluting the Holocaust’s gravity and singularity. If we lose sight of the Holocaust as an actual series of decisions and events orchestrated by real people that caused the suffering of millions, our ability to recognize and prevent human rights violations becomes compromised. We also compromise the Holocaust’s specific place and function in the history and identity of Jews as a people.
Is it ever appropriate to make comparisons between the Holocaust and the present? Jewish History professor James Loeffler, in his essay “The One and the Many,” argues that public Holocaust remembrance charges us to consider the “causes and consequences” of the Holocaust, and in doing so, to examine how it influenced and influences other “events past and present.” In other words, how can we truly make good on the moral command that emerged from the Holocaust, “Never again,” if we don’t compare aspects from that era to the beliefs, policies, and actions that exist in our world today?
The challenge, however, is to avoid comparisons that pit one group’s suffering against another’s or only make a provocative political point. Instead we can learn from historical events like the Holocaust to inform our levels of empathy, responsibility, and action in responding to current events. Perhaps we need to shift from making comparisons to making connections. In the article “Invoking History in Today’s Politics,” Facing History’s Jocelyn Stanton and Laura Tavares write:
As students of history, we want to resist turning the past into just another tool of partisan rhetoric, selectively shaping a narrative that makes the sharpest political weapon. . . . [H]istorical comparisons have a way of hardening antagonisms and shutting down conversation, not opening up communication. Yet we also reject the idea that the past is just an irrelevant series of long-ago events. Is there a middle way? Understanding the relationship between past and present is key to a healthy democracy, and also crucial to the education of young people. While we don’t want to make facile comparisons between the present and the past, at Facing History, we do believe it is important to allow, if not provoke, students to discover their connections to events and choices in history.