Office Hours: Is Holocaust Education Broken?

In this new feature, local scholars share new and interesting ideas from the world of Jewish Studies.

From Dr. Matthew Kraus, Head, UC Department of Judaic Studies:

Dara Horn offers a critical assessment of the effectiveness of American Holocaust museums and Holocaust education programs in “Is Holocaust Education Making Anti-semitism Worse,” Horn provocatively claims “I have come to the disturbing conclusion that Holocaust education is incapable of addressing contemporary anti-Semitism. In fact, in the total absence of any education about Jews alive today, teaching about the Holocaust might even be making anti-Semitism worse.” Coming from someone deeply concerned about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, the challenges raised by Horn merit consideration and cannot be summarily dismissed.

Horn seeks to understand why the recent increase in anti-Semitic incidents seems to be unaffected by the proliferation of education about the Holocaust. These incidents occur in places with Holocaust museums and with robust, even mandated Holocaust education programs. Drawing on interviews and studies of museums, curricula, and teachers, Horn doubts their efficacy despite the best of intentions. Concluding with “A Way Forward,” she suggests a far less common and more effective approach to Holocaust education.

Less controversial, but equally fascinating are two recent books by Mira Balberg, Professor and David Goodblatt Endowed Chair in Ancient Jewish Civilization, at University of California at San Diego. In When Near Becomes Far: Old Age in Rabbinic Literature (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2021, co-authored with Haim Weiss), Balberg demonstrates how selected narratives from rabbinic literature capture the contradictions, ambiguities, and anxieties of old age. The book is a delightful read inviting insightful reflection on old age that speaks to a contemporary audience.

Her most recent work, Fractured Tablets: Forgetfulness and Fallibility in Late Ancient Rabbinic Culture is available at no charge through Open Access. Unless one enjoys the intricate analysis of early rabbinic legal texts, this work is somewhat less readable. Nevertheless, it makes the fascinating and convincing point that ancient rabbis accepted forgetfulness as a normal aspect of human fallibility. Human imperfection is acutely significant to a Judaism dependent on precise observance of legal prescriptions.  The rabbis presume that people will not only forget laws, they will also forget consequential details necessary for proper application of laws, such as from which market stand they bought their meat yesterday. The rabbis mercifully imagine forgetful Jews (and even forgetful rabbis) conscientiously rectify the effects of their forgetfulness. They care so much about Jewish law that forgetfulness provides an opportunity to show devotion to Jewish tradition.