The limits of ‘Never Forget’: Phoebe Maltz Bovy on Dara Horn’s challenge to Holocaust educators

We’re all familiar with the school guest speaker whose message backfires. A lady comes in to explain what bulimia is, and instead of helping students suffering from this eating disorder, or preventing its development, she winds up inadvertently instructing a classroom full of adolescents on a wild new diet technique they’d never heard of.

This is not exactly what Dara Horn describes as happening with Holocaust education in the United States, but it sort of amounts to the same. It’s not that children learn about the Holocaust and then go and draw a swastika in the school bathroom (except when, in one memorable instance in the article, it sort of is that). It is, as Horn writes, a bit more complicated.

In her article, “Is Holocaust Education Making Anti-Semitism Worse?,” published in The Atlantic’s May 2023 issue, she expands on the theme of her 2021 book, People Love Dead Jews, about which this still-living Jew’s feelings were mixed. She faults Holocaust museums for getting the messaging all wrong, and acting as though the Holocaust were simply about good versus evil, and not addressing the particularities of anti-Jewish hatred. She objects—and rightly so—to an oversimplified portrait of what Jewishness involves, as though antisemitism were primarily about non-Jews’ objections to Jewish religious tenets.

But her main point, here as in her book, is that all the focus on Jewish death obscures the past and continued existence of Jewish life. Writes Horn, “a docent [at a Texas Holocaust museum] told me that one question students ask is ‘Are any Jews still alive today?'”

As I was reading her article, with its litany of pointed but fair criticisms of contemporary Holocaust education, I kept wondering: what will be her conclusion? Because an article like this will have an action plan. It’s not going to end on a note of hopelessness, even if that is the only thing that would make sense.

And sure enough, there it is. In lieu of virtual reality Holocaust exhibits (which I fully agree sound dreadful), she writes:

“I want a VR of bar mitzvah kids in synagogues being showered with candy, and a VR of weddings with flying circles of dancers, and a VR of mourning rituals for Jews who died natural deaths—the washing and guarding of the dead, the requisite comforting of the living.”

This is what Horn “want[s] to mandate this for every student in this fractured and siloed America, even if it makes them much, much more uncomfortable than seeing piles of dead Jews does.”

It’s an interesting idea, but there’s a hitch. Jews are just one group of people, a very small group, as Horn herself notes. The world only cares about us in the disproportionate way it does for two interrelated reasons: the Bible, and antisemitism. The wider world is not scared of day-to-day Jewish existence. It quite simply doesn’t care.

The only people interested in everyday life of actual living Jews, as such, are Jews, and the five or whatever historians or sociologists of Jewry who don’t happen to be Jewish themselves. Jews as an idea are compelling. Jews as actual boring human beings who are stuck in traffic or want to lose five pounds? Not interesting to the wider world.

If you really want to get rid of antisemitism, what you need is a world where nobody who isn’t Jewish is giving Jews, as such, any thought. But there’s no initiative getting us there. No note of hope, and no action plan. Nothing, that is, beyond universalist platitudes about how murder and bullying are bad.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz