USC Special Panel Discusses Challenges to Holocaust Memory Amidst Rising Antisemitism

Fri, 09/08/2023 - 10:15am
L-R: Rt Hon Lord Pickles; Ellen Germain; Dr. Robert J. Williams. Photo: Kim Fox Photography
L-R: Rt Hon Lord Pickles; Ellen Germain; Dr. Robert J. Williams. Photo: Kim Fox Photography

More than 300 people turned out Wednesday for a public convening at which a high-level panel discussed threats to Holocaust memory caused by growing antisemitism and revisionist campaigns that deny and distort details of the Shoah.

The event, “Protecting the Future of Holocaust Memory in an Era of Rising Antisemitism and Misinformation,” brought together the U.S.’ and U.K.’s highest-ranking government officials dedicated to preserving Holocaust memory, in conversation with USC Shoah Foundation Finci-Viterbi Executive Director Chair Dr. Robert J. Williams. 

Lord Eric Pickles is the U.K.'s Post Holocaust Issues Envoy and Ellen Germain is the U.S. State Department Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues. The Special Convening was moderated by Tami Abdollah, a national correspondent for USA TODAY and a senior editor at Noema Magazine, and co-sponsored by the USC Shoah Foundation and the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future.

Dr. Williams, Germain and Lord Pickles have decades’ worth of experience in combating antisemitism and Holocaust denial and distortion. And at the convening, each warned of the perils of downplaying or ignoring the current upsurge in physical and verbal attacks on Jews around the world as well as the proliferation of Holocaust misinformation.

“The United States…I hate to say, has become a very deadly place to be Jewish since 2014 with the shooting in Overland Park, Kansas,” Dr. WIlliams said, referring to a shooting at a Jewish community center and nearby Jewish retirement home in which three people were killed by an antisemitic gunman. “One community after another has been targeted with deadly violence.”

Germain spoke of the continued proliferation of what she termed “the oldest hatred.”

“[Antisemitism] seems to spring up every time you think it's been pounded down a bit, it springs up elsewhere,” she said. “We've all read stories about how in some cases Jewish students are afraid on campus to speak up about being Jewish, to speak up about Israel or [of] being Zionists. This is not something I would have believed was going to happen 30 years ago.”

The role of social media and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in enabling and amplifying antisemitism and Holocaust distortion and denial featured prominently in the discussions.

Dr. Williams said that organizations that counter hate speech are still determining how best to communicate in the rapidly moving and changing world of cyberspace.

“At the end of the day, [extremist] sites like Stormfront.Org still get more web traffic than the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem, the USC Shoah Foundation, and the Auschwitz Memorial combined,” Dr. Williams said. “People who spread hate reach audiences better than we do. We need to figure it out and we need to figure it out quick.”

Lord Pickles spoke of the frightening distortive power of AI, citing manipulated videos already in circulation, and warned of  the prospect of deepfake videos that might appear to show, for instance, a Holocaust survivor downplaying the horrors of Auschwitz.

“The Holocaust shaped the latter part of the 20th century and continues to shape it now. And we think that because we've got all this [documentary] material that somehow it's all going to be OK,” Lord Pickles said. “But because of…deepfakes and Artificial Intelligence, our very strength could be our Achilles heel… And [the quality of propaganda] doesn't need to be that good, because [AI is] able to home in to people with that basic prejudice and is able to feed on that prejudice.”

Germain said that the teaching of critical thinking is vital in combating denial and distortion, and called for more work in determining the origin of such revisionism online.

“If we can get more quantitative data, a better understanding of where it's coming from, how it's spreading, how it's being disseminated, then maybe we can create better policy recommendations for government officials, for government policy to address some of these issues.”

Members of the panel extolled the value of Holocaust survivor and witness testimony in providing a permanent reminder of the past but warned that the death of the last survivor will be a seminal moment.

“When the last survivor dies, everything will change,” Lord Pickles said. “There's been more books written about the Holocaust, more films, more in-depth databases, testimony than practically any event that has taken place. But all that will mean nothing when the last person who smelled the stacks, who saw the outrages, goes. And I think we move into a period almost of kind of international indifference.”

Germain said the death of the last Holocaust survivor will require new ways of educating people about the Holocaust.

“Looking into a future where there are no eyewitnesses and no survivors who can stand in front of an audience like this or can stand in front of an audience of schoolchildren and say, ‘This is what I saw. This is what I experienced.’ That's a future that we have,” Germain said. “We have to work very hard to think about alternatives and how we maintain that sense of connection.” 

Looking ahead, the panelists discussed a wide range of strategies to tackle antisemitism and push back against Holocaust denial and distortion.

Dr. Williams spoke of expanding the USC Shoah Foundation’s collection of oral histories and finding compelling new ways to use the 55,000 Holocaust-related testimonies already in the Visual History Archive.

“You have to make the subject relevant,” Dr. Williams said. “These testimonies can become a permanent reminder of the relevance of this past if we make them available and if we bring scholars, if we bring public intellectuals, if we bring journalists and others to the content.

“But you have to make the content resonate,” Dr. Williams added. “You have to push the envelope. You can’t keep teaching and talking about the same thing.”

The panelists called on the audience to demand more assertive and proactive leadership from government officials in countering antisemitism and Holocaust distortion, with  Dr. Williams suggesting that the US develop a more robust structures, based on the European model, to tackle the problems.

He noted that Germain, along with U.S. antisemitism envoy Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, work diligently to counter antisemitism and Holocaust denial, but that their State Department positions do not include a mandate to focus on domestic issues, as perhaps a Department of Justice position might.

“At the governmental level, I think Europe has actually taken a healthier approach than the United States to these issues. In Europe, you have a number of antisemitism and Holocaust envoys who do more than just look outside their countries—they look inside their countries as well,” he said. “I wish that were true of the United States.”

Lord Pickles encapsulated the necessity of learning the lessons of the Holocaust.

“If we fail to understand it, while everybody in this room could imagine themselves as being the victim of the Holocaust, it’s within us all to be the perpetrator of the Holocaust. And that's why it's so important that we need to hold on to the truth and understand that. Because when we see the Holocaust, we see a reflection of ourselves.”

Read about upcoming events in our Antisemitism Lectures Series

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Philip Wood
Pip Wood has worked as a journalist for outlets including ABC and CNN and in communications for the United Nations, multinational development banks, and non-governmental organizations.