Until a year ago, I could enter my Holocaust Studies class trusting that at least on one point my students and I unanimously and indisputably agreed: Genocides are bad.
Then came Donald Trump, and then came the Neo Nazis.
On August 11, 2017, just before the start of a new semester, the nation witnessed aghast the violent White Supremacy marches through Charlottesville, Va., which climaxed in the death of three people that weekend. My class enrollment for Understanding the Holocaust through Literature and Film went from 60 to 150. A good sign, I thought.
When I entered the lecture hall, however, I was confronted with something I had neither foreseen nor experienced before: a slightly more hostile audience.
At the first mention of the word Nazis, propaganda, government-sanctioned anti-Jewish riots and bystanders, bodies shifted, throats were cleared, an unseasonal chill cracked the late-summer southern heat block. Am I turning the Holocaust into anti-Trump propaganda? – I could hear my brain self-sabotage. There comes the progressive feminist agenda! – I could hear some of them think. I shifted in my skin and stuttered a tad.
A group of white young men, clustered together in the upper middle section of the amphitheater, made sure to let me know their conservative opinions from the start: verbally, asking disingenuous questions about history, and visually—through Trump-Pence stickers and hats. From the low orchestra where I stood, I unremittingly looked upwards towards them, neck stretched, endeavoring to make eye contact, to gently draw them into my field of reasoning, desperate to elicit a sympathetic nod of agreement. I spent the rest of the semester on pins and needles, overly qualifying my statements every time I used conservatism triggers like oppression, misogyny, racism, xenophobia. To this new audience, these are just the wearisome pet words of liberal propaganda. My teaching assistants reported hearing such comments from some students on their way out. “I am tired of feeling guilty of being white” the refrain went. I was not guilting anybody for being white: although it would be an effort to make Whiteness lilywhite when reckoning with the Holocaust. Even the implicit yet obvious inference that the Holocaust was perpetrated by “Caucasian” Europeans now seemed in bad taste and in need of qualification. I had to make sure to segue such inferences by explicitly reassuring them “of course, not everybody is guilty or bad.” A small, yet significant, group of white southern students felt offended, victimized even, by being told that people looking just like them, coming from their same fold of civilization (white, western, and Christian) have committed atrocities that are beyond the pale of the imaginable (and acceptable) and whose historicity is unquestionable. Another portion of the class was very receptive to the texts, films and documentaries and engaged in meaningful discussion; African-American and other minority students lowered their heads, retreating into a too well-practiced position of oppressed silence.
On any regular semester, teaching Jewish Studies in a mostly-Christian Southern state presents its difficulties. But the semester after Charlottesville, new challenges I hadn’t foreseen built walls between groups in the classroom, and students remained unable to reach one another across ideological barriers.
Despite my best endeavor to leave Harvey Weinstein out of our space, by the November elections in Alabama when Republican senate candidate Roy Moore brazenly dismissed the accusations of his sexual-predation victims, the issue of women’s vulnerability under patriarchy, in war, genocide, or peacetime, was too much in our face to ignore. A courageous female student was the first to raise the question: “Let alone the Holocaust, don’t we still silence the victims by disbelieving their experience of violence?” One of the young conservative men picked up his backpack and noisily left, punching the door open.
As all educators can attest, there is no worse defeat than “losing” the weak student, even if so many strong ones are won. I kept meaningfully interacting with dozens of wonderful people in class, but secretly all I said was meant to reach, touch, win over those few who were now avoiding looking at me altogether.
The question of how to make the Holocaust relevant, as the past becomes remote and the eyewitnesses disappear, is one over which WWII scholars have been agonizing for decades.
The war is practically as far from today’s students as Otto Bismarck’s campaigns were from me when I was their age. My own answer to the problem, which I was not going to give up even—or especially—after Charlottesville, is to posit the Holocaust within a broad socio-historical context. This context must take into account the entire history of oppression that reduces vulnerable groups to second-class citizens, untrustworthy witnesses, butts of all jokes, vile stereotypes.
For this purpose, during the last quarter of the semester, I bring up other genocides. This unit features a collage of video clips from documentary films and archival news report about Rwanda, the Bosnian rape camps, Guatemala, the Kmer Rouges’ massacres and so on, all the way back to the Armenian genocide. The video collage ends with two heartrending quotes from the remarkable documentary Africans in America: America’s Journey through Slavery. The reason why I worked these into my video is that, although slavery is not considered a genocide, the way in which its victims were thought and spoken of was in nothing dissimilar from the demonization of all victims of genocide. I wish for students to recognize the discourses of hatred that are the fiber with which the canvas of war, genocide, oppression, injustice is woven. Crimes against humanity whose perpetration is justified by a radical dismissal of another person’s right to be free and equal are profoundly rooted in a mentality and a worldview that builds up over centuries and is there before and after a genocide has taken place.
The conservative Falange got fiercely defensive at this point: “None of this is my fault. Why should I feel bad?” a man with the baseball cap over his eyes said. “If people don’t like it here, why don’t they go back to where they came from?” I couldn’t but wonder if he was talking about me too, with my inescapable foreignness. I assured him that no tribunal would sentence us for the past crimes of our fathers or our nations: but I asked them to consider whether it wouldn’t be constructive to feel a type of sorrow, partly akin to “guilt” (I dare not use the word shame in 21st-century America), for the wrongs we, collectively, have done to each other and the whole biotic community. I saw heads shake in a silent response: No. My heart sank.
Some students felt very comfortable declaring that they didn’t think history matters, that when we see someone being victimized in front of our eyes we have the ethical responsibility to intervene. I had never before met so much resistance to the idea of empathy or merely pity in fifteen years of teaching the Holocaust in America. “I mind my own business” was the answer of one of these students to the question: What would you do if your neighbors were picked up to be arbitrarily sentenced to death or sent to die in a concentration camp? Granted, the student’s answer was perfectly legitimate. But I had hoped a twenty-something-year-old wouldn’t proudly go for one of the two least humane options available (the other one being taking direct part in the killing).
Despite USC President Harris Pastides’ firm response to Charlottesville — “The violence wrought by white supremacists, neo-Nazi organizations and other hate groups has no place on our campuses” a statement read — two separate racist incidents on campus last autumn left everybody aghast. Off campus, the year had started with a mass-murder threat to congregants of Temple Emanu-El in Myrtle Beach by a white-supremacist meaning to emulate the 2015 massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, and ended with a series of Swastikas sprayed on street signs all over the Lexington area in December. When I moved to Columbia from New York City, I was surprised to discover here a vibrant Jewish community proud of its old historical heritage who made a big deal of the genteel southern benevolence they had always enjoyed: but in the historical long haul, “always” can be surprisingly relative. The Anti-Defamation League reports that in 2017 antisemitic incidents increased 60% in America. Indeed, the Jews of South Carolina are suddenly feeling a bit less secure than they used to. I myself feel that my background, my accent, my gender are at risk of becoming unwelcome in the classroom.
I can’t but wonder, if images of senseless mass murders don’t touch these young White, angry men, what will? Will even only one of them raise a dissenting voice at the next Thanksgiving table when a family member or a friend makes a hateful remark? Is the post-Charlottesville climate irreparably one of ethical laissez-faire at best? Those specific students did not seem to be in my class to allow for a differing point of view to challenge and perhaps transform their own. They seemed to have come to challenge the process itself of learning. The set of preconceptions they brought with them from the beginning are the armor inside which their anger and fears have the only chance of surviving. I failed at persuading them to leave that armor behind for a mere 75 minutes.
Not without anxiety and sadness, I accepted to teach this seminar again this semester. Because, as T. S. Eliot said, we fight even when we think a cause is lost because our defeat may be the preface to our successors’ victory.