These tombstone was desecrated with pro-Nazi graffiti outside of Eastern France . (Photo credit: Haaretz.com)
After years in education without a specific path in mind, I found myself compelled to devote my life to the Holocaust and genocide studies in an effort to celebrate resistance over submission, courage over cowardice, and humanity over barbarity. In the summer of 2015 I took part in a program that studied Jewish resistance and for two weeks I, along with other teachers from across the United States, walked the hallowed grounds of the Nazi camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and five others along with cemeteries, synagogues, and museums to Jewish heritage and the horrors unleashed by the Nazis and their sympathizers. While the brutality of the Holocaust is well reported and studied, I left my experience shaken by the sights of anti-Semetic graffiti found on Jewish graves and other forms of desecration. Three and a half years later, the spike in hate crimes specifically anti-Semitism, has spread from the woods and streets and Eastern Europe to the streets of America’s largest cities.
The Question is Why and the Answer is Not that Clear
It would be too naïve to simply blame the election of Donald Trump and the rise of the so-called “alt-right” for the increase in hate crimes, but numbers are there to support this claim. FBI data reveals that November 2016 was the most violent month in nearly ten years and two weeks following the election there was a staggering ninety-two percent increase in such crimes. Affixing blame to one person or one event will not alleviate the darkness that permeates the nation and large swaths of Europe; instead, education must become the new focus of leaders hoping to both celebrate liberal democratic values and alter the landscape that inspires future perpetrators of these acts.
The most distressing numbers are in the category of religiously-based crimes, with fifty-eight percent of crime victims targeted in 2017 because they were Jewish, according to the Southern Poverty law center, an organization that has spent decades successful tracking, identifying, and eliminating hate groups through legal means. These numbers do not take in account events such as the desecration of tombstones or other acts of random vandalism. Some community leaders challenge the response of local police as failing to stop these crimes, thus allowing copycats to perpetrate more violence, but I believe that once these events reach the level of police attention, the cause is already lost. Fighting hate crimes of all natures is not a job for the police, but for educators on all levels to begin to instill a sense of media literacy and cultural awareness. It is impossible to deflect or destroy all sentiments of bigotry and racism, for when a child leaves one’s school or university, that individual may find him or herself bombarded by ignorance from those around them. Yet, without a concerted effort by educational organizations beginning at the youngest level, the U.S. will continue to lose global respect, a reality the world has watched play out as the nation’s increased isolationism and devotion to nationalism has ostracized it from European powers.
What to Do and Who has the Responsibility?
A quick scan of Twitter, 4Chan, or even the comments section on many YouTube videos (even those appearing to be either innocuous or completely devoid of any racial or ethnic connection) will reveal a collection of vile, despicable language unleashed by individuals who feel compelled to espouse ignorance at an alarming rate. While social media may have entered the world with the best of intentions-the sharing of images, ideas, and an open dialogue in the form of a twenty-first century Enlightenment-era salon-the reality is that younger and younger people use it and struggle to differentiate between what is real and what is an “alternative facts”. From Holocaust denial to the “Q Anon” phenomenon, online forums allow people to introduce farfetched and even dangerous ideas into the mainstream. The answer requires a commitment by local governments, school organizations, and individuals to take an active stance against the toleration of any such hate. Those who perpetrate the crimes must be punished swiftly and with significance, and these acts must be given priority and imbued with a level of magnitude. The annals of history are riddled with those who spoke of aided those in need by failed to act; in the cause of fighting hate crimes, each citizen has an obligation to do all they can to alleviate this global ill. The same social media that allows the purveyors of violence and bigotry to propagate their messages with ease is the same and best weapon to denounce and debilitate those who engage in policies of intolerance. However, lone vices or a smattering of groups are not enough; this must become a global priority, for the basic tenets of individual liberty and the hopes of future generations is at stake.