Michael Igel had listened to his grandparents’ memories of the Holocaust for years when as a tween, he first confronted a friend who had a swastika drawn on his shoe. At that moment, he quickly realized the atrocities his family survived were unknown to many.
The other boy drew the symbol without knowing its meaning simply because it caught his eye, said Igel, who is now 41 years old.
Decades after that encounter, Igel and many other Jewish people in America are reminded in 2022 that ignorance and intolerance continue fueling perceptions about their communities. In recent weeks, a hostage standoff in Texas, vandalism at two Chicago synagogues, flyers with anti-Semitic language being distributed in several states and even “The View” host Whoopi Goldberg’s comments on the Holocaust have made Jewish people more vigilant and highlighted a “growing crisis” in the United States, experts and Jewish advocates said.
“You see anti-Semitism coming at Jews from all sides,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). “It is really dizzying for our community, and it’s a growing crisis for the country.”
Anti-Semitism persists nearly 80 years after an estimated six million Jewish people and five million others were killed as a result of the Nazis’ racist ideology during the Holocaust. Anti-Semitic incidents in the US have been on the rise for years, with 941 incidents in 2015 and 2024 incidents tracked in 2020 by the ADL.
“These issues are happening in our houses of worship, and in the supermarkets where we shop and in the communities where we live,” said Greenblatt, adding that in-person incidents are only a portion of the hate, compared to the threats and harassment that happen online and is “a tremendous problem.”
A ‘worrying lack of basic Holocaust knowledge’
Although Greenblatt and others in the Jewish community have accepted Goldberg’s apology after she falsely declared on “The View” that the Holocaust was “not about race” this week, many still see it as a clear sign of the need for more education about the Holocaust.
A 2020 survey of 11,000 Americans, commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, showed a “worrying lack of basic Holocaust knowledge” among adults under 40.
More than half of respondents were not aware that six million Jews were killed, 48% could not name a concentration camp where Jews were taken during the Holocaust and 11% said they believed Jews caused it, according to the survey.
Igel, who chairs the Florida Commissioner of Education’s Task Force on Holocaust Education and the board of The Florida Holocaust Museum, has made it one of his goals to fight for more education.
“It’s on me, it’s on you because the survivors are no longer going to be here very soon,” he said.
Igel’s grandparents were Polish farmers and got married the night Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. He says they would tell him stories about how various other farmers hid them and eventually helped them escape.
“My grandfather had a thick accent you know, he would always say it was the worst in people but we always want you to know it was the best in people, too,” Igel said.
For him, the Holocaust must be discussed and taught in schools because the “absence of these lessons leads to a lack of empathy.”
Across the country, there are only 22 states that require some form of Holocaust education in K-12 schools, according to the US Holocaust Museum. The states’ mandates vary from annual Holocaust remembrance weeks to providing a manual to history and literature teachers that “emphasizes the causes and ramifications of the Holocaust and genocide.”
But in recent months, there have been a number of controversies surrounding how the Holocaust is being taught and the materials used by teachers. In January, a Tennessee school board removed the graphic novel “Maus” by Art Spiegelman from the eighth-grade English language arts curriculum, citing “rough, objectionable language” and a drawing of a nude woman.
“Maus,” which was initially serialized and then published in two volumes in 1986 and 1992, is a blend of historical fiction and memoir that follows Spiegelman’s Jewish parents in 1940s Poland, from their early experiences of anti-Semitism to their internment in Auschwitz. It depicts Jewish people as mice and Nazis as cats.
Last year, a staff member at a Washington, DC, elementary school was investigated after allegedly telling third-grade students to reenact incidents from the Holocaust and a school administrator in Texas told teachers that if they have books about the Holocaust in their classroom libraries, they should also include books that present “opposing” views.
“It was the antisemitic, systematic murder of 6 million Jews and there is no legitimate ‘opposing’ perspective to that,” said Joel Schwitzer, regional director of the American Jewish Committee, Dallas.
Violent attacks and vandalism
Security has become a concern for Jewish synagogues and the attack on worshippers at the Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas last month has led more Jewish leaders to seek help to keep their congregations safe.
Evan R. Bernstein, the national director and CEO of Community Security Service, which trains volunteers to help secure synagogues and Jewish institutions, said he had been concerned that the Jewish community was not taking threats seriously because deadly shootings at synagogues in Poway, California, and Pittsburgh were no longer “top of mind.”
A few weeks before the standoff in Texas, he says, some synagogues he had been in touch with did not appear to have an interest in taking “a deeper dive on security.”
Since the standoff, the group has seen an increase in calls and has scheduled multiple trainings every night over the next month.
“There’s been more and more investment in security in the different major cities and communities around the country but it needs to stay that way. I think there needs to be reminders and the reminder shouldn’t have to be a Colleyville,” Bernstein said.
In the weeks since the standoff, a man was arrested after being accused of spray-painting swastikas on columns at Union Station, another man in Chicago is facing hate crime charges in connection with a series of antisemitic vandalism incidents at synagogues and Jewish schools, and anti-Semitic flyers were distributed to homes in South Florida and at least five other states.
While those incidents were not violent, Bernstein says, there’s been a continuation of the wave of anti-Semitism the country had seen in the years prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, which may have slowed down in-person incidents but continued being “rampant” online.
For Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish community has been vigilant and resolute as they face anti-Semitism in various ways but only an interfaith and wider response is needed to stop hate and bigotry.
“Just like I would say to you that racism is not simply an issue for Black Americans and it’s an issue for all Americans,” he said. “I would say anti-Semitism isn’t just a problem for the Jewish people. It’s an American problem that demands an American solution.”