Holocaust education won't protect us against antisemitism. Oct. 7 made that clear.

As the author of two post-Holocaust novels, a frequent speaker on the lessons of the Holocaust, and a former high school history teacher who has promoted Holocaust education since the 1970s, recent events have convinced me that more must be done to educate students about the Jewish people.

Just as Black studies education must go beyond teaching about the horrors of slavery, the story of the Jewish people and their history must go beyond Holocaust education. This is at a time when fewer than half the states in this country even mandate Holocaust education in their public schools. What we saw after Oct. 7 made it abundantly clear that Holocaust education is not an inoculation against antisemitism.

The proof is that after the surprise early morning Hamas attack on primarily Jewish civilians whom they butchered, beheaded and raped – killing 1,200 and kidnapping 240 – a tsunami of antisemitism followed.

Whatever sympathy and empathy the Jews initially received was quickly replaced with attacks against them, both verbal and physical, in the United States and throughout the world.

“Never again is now” written by candles in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate during a campaign against right-wing extremism in January 2024.
“Never again is now” written by candles in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate during a campaign against right-wing extremism in January 2024.

Oct. 7 led to more antisemitism – not empathy

In Germany, there was a 320% increase in antisemitism in the two months after the attack. And early this month, a 30-year-old Jewish student was brutally assaulted and hospitalized with facial fractures after a 23-year-old pro-Palestinian student in Berlin violently attacked him during an argument, repeatedly kicking him after he was knocked to the ground.

In the United States, according to the Anti-Defamation League, there was a 388% increase in antisemitic hate crimes in October over the same period last year. Jewish students on college campuses, those wearing Jewish symbols on the street, as well as synagogues and Jewish community centers have all been targeted. The result is increased and costly security measures. But what else is needed in addition to enhanced security?

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Besides empathy, compassion and longer attention spans – a complete educational overhaul is needed from elementary school through college. All young people would benefit from a robust understanding of Jewish and Israeli history.

Respect for Jews and the Jewish tradition should not be based on pity, but rather on respect and admiration.

We need to teach the accomplishments and perspectives that are uniquely Jewish, such as monotheism, as well as compassion for the poor, the sick, the downtrodden, the enslaved, the widow and the orphan. The concept of "tzedakah" – charity. The value of forgiveness. The importance of education. These were and are ideas and ideals that Judaism contributed, and continues to contribute to the world.

Israel itself is a model of high tech and medical innovation. It not only desalinated salt water but it made the desert bloom. It is the only country in the Middle East where the LGBTQ+ community can live in freedom without fear. Unlike the popular American canard that all Jews are creatures of white privilege, Israel is proof that Jews come in all colors and denominations.

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Jewish history is full of joy and innovation – not just suffering

Jews have contributed mightily to this country and to the world. One of the most amazing Nobel Prize statistics is that 22% of winners have been Jewish, although Jews make up only 0.2% of the world’s population.

Two Jews – Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin – eradicated the scourge of polio with their vaccines. Who doesn’t love the music of Leonard Cohen, Itzhak Perlman, Carole King and Paul Simon? Irving Berlin wrote the classic Christmas and Easter songs that remain the staples of the two major Christian holiday seasons, “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade.” And people throughout the world have been moved, inspired and entertained by Steven Spielberg movies.

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Jewish and non-Jewish young people need the information and the tools to respond to the abundant misinformation that is proliferating. They need to be educated about the history of the Jews, including acts of antisemitism that have gone on for millennia.

They should learn that there was political antisemitism in Germany and Austria in the 1870s, and that Hitler drew upon a fertile playbook.

And we all need to remind ourselves that it was only in 1965 that the Catholic Church for the first time proclaimed that the death of Jesus Christ "cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today."

We need a huge educational initiative and media campaign to counteract the rampant hatred polluting our country and the world – and putting all Jews everywhere in harm’s way.

We can also stop hate with small steps. In 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Jane Elliott taught a lesson to her class of all white students where she separated them according to their eye color. The blue-eyed students were told to discriminate against the brown-eyed children and then vice versa. The results were shocking: The children began to discriminate against one another based on eye color. But at the end of the exercise, the students said they had learned that it was wrong to judge someone on the color of their eyes.

Meryl Ain is a writer, author, podcaster and career educator.
Meryl Ain is a writer, author, podcaster and career educator.

It is incumbent on all of us – Jews and non-Jews – to start immediately to develop and lobby for better ways of teaching our children how not to hate. But at the same time, we should convey that Jews are not just victims or stereotypes.

We must share the many ways Jewish ideals and individuals have contributed to the lives of people of all backgrounds. The time is now to call upon leaders in education, government, the private sector and philanthropy to act. Who will be the first to step up to the plate before it’s too late?

Meryl Ain is a writer, author, podcaster and career educator.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Holocaust education is key. Antisemitism after Israel attack proves it