Roses left by mourners next to one of many plaques detailing transports of Berlin Jews to concentration camps. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is every January 27, the day of the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. (Photo: Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Monday, Texas A&M University Professor Ashley Passmore said one of the most powerful weapons used by the Nazis to commit its atrocities were anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories, many of which are ubiquitous today and non-Jews may not recognize them.
More than half of Americans don’t know that 6 million Jewish people were murdered in the Holocaust, according to Pew Research Center survey
results released last week. Passmore, an expert in German Jewish history and culture, said that learning about the Holocaust is important because it illustrates the failure of civil institutions to protect vulnerable citizens in democratic societies.
“The series of events that led to the Holocaust tells us a great deal about how destructive conspiracy theories can take hold of societies, even democracies, with established social and political institutions designed to protect the rights of citizens,” Passmore said. “How those institutions failed is something we must continually study and learn, because we too live in a democratic society.”
Today’s anti-Semitic rhetoric shares much in common with what fueled the Holocaust and is often coded, making it difficult for some non-Jews to recognize.
“The most important role today is actually that of non-Jews, even if they aren’t that familiar with Jewish people or Judaism.”
“Certain people use anti-Semitic code to communicate in-group solidarity with one another under the radar while simultaneously expressing bigotry against Jews,” Passmore said. “Some people use such tropes unwittingly because they’ve received them through upbringing or culture, but for the most part, it’s an intentional way to communicate group ideology.”
Social media today is filled with such coded language and relies on stock characters, always with different names, depending on the times. Passmore said these include, “The Jew as imposter, the Jew as globalist, the Jew as thief, the Jew as trickster pulling the strings, the Jew as disruptor of our realization as a nation, as a people, or of our way of life.”
Governments and other powerful organizations will use anti-Semitism when it suits their needs to place blame on a shadowy “other” for problems in society, she said.
“Like so many things today, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories circulate in online spaces, so it’s not a problem easily confined within national borders anymore,” she said, adding it’s often hard to measure just how bad the situation has become until something terrible happens, such as recent attacks against Jewish people in
California, Pennsylvania and New York, among others.
Passmore said that standing up against anti-Semistism begins with understanding it.
“Once one is familiar with the history and the imagery of anti-Semitic tropes, and why they were used as propaganda to target Jews and influence politics, most coded anti-Semitism doesn’t seem coded anymore,” she said.
Resources such as the
Translate Hate Glossary, published by the American Jewish Committee, may come in handy for those not familiar with anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories.
Passmore said anyone can stand against anti-Semitism and that it’s especially important for non-Jews to do so, if they are able.
“I think the most important role today is actually that of non-Jews, even if they aren’t that familiar with Jewish people or Judaism,” she said. “In the Holocaust era, there were many individuals who used their roles in society to counter the Nazi regime and its fraudulent claims about Jews, often under the threat of great personal harm. And there was nothing especially different about them; they simply showed courage and did what they could to stop injustice in their midst.”
She said anyone who finds anti-Semitism in their community, family, social or political organizations, and who feels able to use their role in those groups to change the discussion, inform, or oppose such ideas, should feel empowered to do so.
A Jewish solidarity march across the Brooklyn Bridge on January 5, 2020 in New York City. The march was held in response to a recent rise in anti-Semitic crimes in the greater New York metropolitan area. (Photo: Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)
Those who witnessed the Holocaust first-hand will soon no longer be with us and their testimony has been critical for understanding how it happened.
“There is a threat, just as there was during and immediately after the Holocaust, of elements in our society instrumentalizing our forgetting for political ends, especially when the voices of the survivors and the witnesses are kept at a distance,” Passmore said.
Remembrance is one way to awaken the conscience of people who might not have been affected by the Holocaust and can create empathy, she said, adding, “Nothing will ever happen again exactly like the Holocaust, but the social and political mechanisms that allowed it to take place did not go away in 1945.”
“On the contrary, they still remain, even if they have sometimes moved into new territories and taken on new faces.”
Campus Events To Learn More
Tonight, the Department of International Studies at Texas A&M will screen the award-winning documentary film
Farewell Herr Schwarz in the Academic Building, Room 130 beginning at 6:45 p.m. Passmore will give a brief introduction to the film with a Q&A following the screening.
Additionally, Holocaust survivor Max Glauben will visit Texas A&M in March. Named “Texan of the Year” in 2019, the 92-year-old speaks about his experiences living as a Jew in Nazi-controlled Poland and how hatred, discrimination and intolerance led directly to the Holocaust.
Tickets are available now.