The Harvard Lampoon student-run magazine recently published a photoshopped image of Anne Frank’s face on the body of a woman wearing a bikini. The caption reads: “Gone Before Her Time: Virtual Aging Technology Shows Us What Anne Frank Would Have Looked Like if She Hadn’t Died.” The caption concludes with “Add this to your list of reasons the Holocaust sucked.”
The cartoon provoked a backlash that led to an online apology by the magazine’s co-presidents: “We realize the extent of offense we have inflicted and understand that we must take responsibility for our actions.”
This cartoon was undoubtedly perceived as sexist, anti-Semitic, dehumanizing and just plain creepy by many people who saw it. Nonetheless, apologizing for the publication of an offensive cartoon is a form of self-censorship since it also silences discussion about that creeping feeling that anti-Semitism in the United States is on the rise.
It’s more than a feeling. Recent data shows an alarming rise in hate incidents against Jewish people and institutions. In 2017, anti-Semitic incidents jumped 57% compared to 2016. Hate crimes against Jews grew by 37% during the same period, according to a separate FBI analysis.
But one doesn’t need to do the data to see that the ancient scourge of Judeophobia has shapeshifted to fit contemporary political sensibilities. Today, anti-Semitic tropes are regularly being expressed from the hallowed halls of Congress. Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have successfully infused the old hatred of Jews with a new guerrilla chic appeal by asserting that their controversial statements and questionable associations are on behalf of an oppressed class of people, the Palestinians.
But saying ‘I’m sorry’ or outlawing any forms of expression that could be regarded as hateful only drives such drivel underground, giving it a sort of ‘street cred’ among the confused, angry, uneducated or ignorant. Apologizing for controversial content short circuits a primary purpose of free speech: robust, unhindered debate.
And debate doesn’t just matter, it’s essential to the nurturing of a free, pluralistic society. Being exposed to even the most offensive ideas helps us develop the ability to rebut them. John Stuart Mill wrote in ‘On Liberty’ that if someone is, “…equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion…He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”
Unfortunately, Holocaust education in the United States has failed to combat ignorance about anti-Semitism. Two-thirds of American millennials surveyed in a recent poll don’t know what Auschwitz is, according to a study released on Holocaust Remembrance Day. This poll also found that knowledge about the genocide that killed 6 million Jews during World War II isn’t robust among American adults in general, with 22% of millennials saying they haven’t heard of the Holocaust or aren’t sure whether they’ve heard of it.
This gross lack of awareness is the result of a Holocaust studies curriculum that universalizes the destruction of two-thirds of European Jewry, morphing the mass murder of a distinct religious, ethnic and national group into a broadside against all forms of racism and prejudice. Anti-Semitism as a uniquely malevolent force has been glossed over in the service of a wider, more fashionable, social justice agenda.
The educational system’s failure to combat anti-Semitism highlights the importance of individual responsibility. Americans don’t have the luxury of outsourcing the struggle against ignorance and prejudice to self-appointed moral gatekeepers. In a free society, citizens must be encouraged to pursue truth on their own, even if that means having unpleasant encounters with falsehoods along the way.
Disallowing debate and quietly toiling in a culture of instant outrage will only result in the mainstreaming of anti-Semitism in the United States and the ascent of its proponents.
This piece was originally published in United With Israel on May 16, 2019.