Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Just a week ago I had the honor of being a guest speaker in my friend Allison’s AP U.S. Government and Politics class. She is a teacher at a high school near me, and had asked me to talk to seniors about antisemitism in the media today. I aimed to educate the class on the definition, history, and impact of antisemitism on all of us.
As someone who was born in the Netherlands and studied communications and media studies at the University of Amsterdam, and cultural studies at the University of Tübingen, Germany, I have a personal connection to the topic of antisemitism. Throughout my life I’ve continued to learn about it, and in recent years, as I have helped to expand DEI initiatives at Flipboard, my knowledge and understanding of the topic has deepened thanks to my Jewish coworkers sharing personal stories, and watching the documentary Viral: Antisemitism In Four Mutations in our DEI Media Club.
In preparation for my talk I also did additional research, using Flipboard as well as the websites of the ADL, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dove Kent and Anne Frank House. They all provide helpful resources for educators.
It’s impossible to understand antisemitism today without understanding history. To create a narrative that would resonate with the students I used several videos.
The Relevance of Anne Frank’s Story Today
I started with the story of Anne Frank, who went into hiding during World War II in a secret annex in Amsterdam, as an introduction to the systematic persecution and murder of Europe’s Jews by Hitler and his Nazi Party. In this genocide, known as the Holocaust, six million Jewish people died as well as millions of other people Hitler considered politically, racially, and socially unfit, such as Roma, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, priests and political dissidents. I wanted to find a video that would capture the essence of the story in a couple of minutes and played part of this History Channel documentary.
I made the connection from a teen in the 1940s to teens today by showing a clip from a CBS News video in which Jewish teens are interviewed about their experiences with antisemitism. They share about a swastika being drawn on their school and someone saying “gas the Jews.”
The history of antisemitism goes much further back than the last century. It was important to me to unpack its definition, which goes beyond “hatred of Jews.”. While on the surface antisemitism may look similar to other forms of discrimination, bigotry and oppression, it’s also different because of the myths and conspiracy theories it is built on. All ‘isms” tell a story about a people that dehumanizes them and sets them up for targeting, but antisemitism is a conspiracy theory about how the world works; a conspiracy theory that tells a story that Jews are ultimately responsible for other people’s suffering.
That’s a lot for anyone to wrap their brain around. To illustrate what that means and start looking at some of the myths, I showed this video from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Antisemitic Conspiracy Theories
We talked about the myths, stereotypes, and conspiracy theories that contribute to antisemitism—conspiracy theories have spread antisemitic beliefs that blame Jews for problems in the world for centuries. Examples of these are the belief that all Jewish people are good with money and the myth that Jewish people control the banks, business, media, and Hollywood. The ADL has created an overview of conspiracy theories and myths that are circulating today.
I wanted the students to apply this knowledge by reviewing media coverage of recent antisemitic events.
One of the examples I used was a news event from a year ago, when a gunman held members of the Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, hostage and demanded to speak with the rabbi of New York’s Central Synagogue, whom he believed to be “America’s Chief Rabbi” (a title that does not exist). He thought that the rabbi had the authority to release a prisoner from a nearby prison. Clearly, that’s not how America’s prison system works. Initially, the FBI did not classify this as antisemitism, which Christopher Wray, the bureau’s director, corrected later. I asked the students if they could detect the conspiracy theory underlying the initial statement and press coverage.
I used the event as an example to show that people often don’t recognize this as a form of antisemitism because it tells a story about its Jewish targets as privileged and powerful. My goal was for the students to understand that antisemitism is not just a social bias, but a belief in conspiracy theories that assign blame to Jews for the world’s issues. When society blames “the Jews” for its problems, the actual causes are ignored. This means that antisemitism is not just a problem for Jewish people, but for everyone.
What We All Learned
I wanted the students to feel empowered and know they can make a difference. If one person can have an impact on a whole school by spraying a swastika on a bathroom stall, so can each of them — of us — have a positive impact. So I ended my talk with four things we can all do:
- Learn to see and recognize antisemitism.
- Don’t spread it, even if it may seem like a funny meme.
- If you are comfortable, challenge antisemitism with people you know
- Continue to learn about antisemitism and how it’s connected to other forms of bigotry and oppression.
By recognizing and challenging stereotypes and conspiracy theories, we can work towards a more inclusive and equitable society for all.
— Christel van der Boom, head of communications, is curating Going Dutch.