Holocaust Museums Debate What to Say About the Israel-Hamas War

Rabbi Joseph Prass, the education director at the Breman, a Holocaust museum in Atlanta, speaks to a school group from Monticello, Ga., April 17, 2024. (Audra Melton/The New York Times)
Rabbi Joseph Prass, the education director at the Breman, a Holocaust museum in Atlanta, speaks to a school group from Monticello, Ga., April 17, 2024. (Audra Melton/The New York Times)

ATLANTA — At a Holocaust museum in Atlanta, staff members had typically ended their tours by saying that many survivors of the death camps immigrated to the Palestinian territories.

But after the start of the Israel-Hamas war, the guides noticed that some students would ask a simple but complicated question: Is this the Gaza Strip that we’ve been hearing about?

So staff members at the museum, the Breman, made a few changes, according to Rabbi Joseph Prass, the museum’s education director. Now, docents explain to visitors that many Holocaust survivors found refuge in “the British Mandate of Palestine” or “the area that would become the country of Israel.”

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Each year, roughly two dozen Holocaust museums in the United States teach millions of visitors — often students on field trips — about the Nazi genocide of 6 million Jews, a history that is fading from living memory.

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel and the ensuing war, that mission has felt especially urgent, as the number of bias incidents against Jews has risen across the country.

The Israel-Hamas war has also forced museums to confront one of the most emotional and divisive issues within the Jewish community: how to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Many Holocaust museums include the story of Israel’s founding in 1948, depicting the country as a refuge for Jewish survivors. But they often do not mention, or address only in guarded terms, a subject that increasingly interests some visitors: the Nakba, Palestinians’ term for their displacement amid Israel’s founding.

“The question is always context,” said Debórah Dwork, a Holocaust historian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. And at these museums, she said, Israel’s founding is set in the context of the mass murder of Jews in Europe.

“The Nakba is not part of that context,” Dwork said. “It’s rarely treated, if at all.”

Many of the museums have a broader mission beyond the Holocaust: They want to raise awareness about prejudice, mass killings and human rights. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington has created case studies of other atrocities, including the Ottoman genocide of Armenians, ethnic cleansing in the Ethiopian civil war and the Burmese killings of Rohingya Muslims, which the U.S. State Department considers to be a genocide.

In May, the Illinois Holocaust Museum opened a core exhibition called “Voices of Genocide,” highlighting the experiences of witnesses to mass killings in Armenia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Guatemala.

And many museums have devoted attention to non-Jewish victims of the Nazis, such as the Roma, LGBTQ+ people and people with disabilities, as well as to U.S. civil rights abuses such as Jim Crow laws and the internment of Japanese Americans.

Now, the museums must contend with the Israel-Hamas war and the fact that all sides invoke the Holocaust to make their case. To supporters of Israel’s war effort, there is a direct line between the antisemitism that fueled the Holocaust and the ideology of Hamas, whose attack on Israel made Oct. 7 the deadliest day for Jews since the Nazi genocide.

Others, including many young museum visitors, have heard anti-war protesters’ claims equating the Israel military campaign with genocide. And they have been steeped in social media images that show tens of thousands of Palestinians killed and millions displaced from their homes. For them, no humanitarian crisis is more pressing.

Omer Bartov, a professor of history at Brown University and a scholar of genocide, said that in the current political climate, visitors will naturally have questions about how the museums see the war in the Gaza and Israel.

“If you talk about equality, dignity, human rights as the lessons that we learned from the Holocaust, when an entire regime of international law was put into place, does that apply to everyone?” he said. “Or is the Jewish state exempt from that because of its past?”

Engaging with a New Generation

Some Holocaust museums have developed plans for how to handle questions related to the Israel-Hamas war.

If visitors raise the question of genocide, Prass said, he and other museum speakers have developed a clear response: Although the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is tragic, “The term genocide? We don’t feel this is an appropriate use of the term, given the topic we talk about. It doesn’t apply.”

Some museums point visitors to the text of the United Nations Genocide Convention, which does not define the term merely as the killing of civilians from a particular national, ethnic or religious group. It requires that the killings were committed with “intent to destroy” the group.

The Illinois Holocaust Museum — founded by Holocaust survivors in Skokie, outside Chicago — prepared an eight-page guide on the Israel-Hamas war to help volunteers answer questions. The document states that Hamas was the “aggressor”; that international legal scholars have not found the war to meet the criteria for genocide; and that there is “nothing antisemitic” about supporting Palestinian statehood, but there is in supporting Hamas or in chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine must be free.”

“It’s natural that when people are processing what they’re seeing in the world, to ask questions about Israel and Gaza,” said museum CEO Bernard Cherkasov.

He added: “The hostages not being released and the innocent Palestinians paying the ultimate price — that is a humanitarian crisis that needs to be acknowledged, no matter what labels we put on it.”

Andrew Hollinger, a spokesperson for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, declined a request for an interview about how the museum was responding to the war and the claim of a genocide in Gaza. In a written statement, he said that “the museum’s primary role is educating the public about how and why the Holocaust happened, and the long-standing unchecked antisemitism that made it possible.”

Ruth Wisse, a scholar of Jewish literature and politics at Harvard University, said Holocaust museums should respond to the moment by teaching students more about contemporary antisemitism, including on the left and in the Muslim world.

And museums should celebrate Israel, she said, and present its founding in 1948 at the “middle point” of their historical narrative, instead of at its culmination. This would allow the museums, she said, to depict Jewish self-determination — for the first time in two millennia — as a potent contrast to the victimization of the Holocaust.

“If they do it that way, you would have kids who would understand the story of Israel,” she said. “They would understand its miraculous nature.”

Debating a Genocide’s Legacy

Since the Israel-Hamas war began, antisemitic images have sometimes crept into anti-war protest imagery. For instance, the Star of David in the Israeli flag has sometimes been replaced by a swastika, and some pro-Palestinian activists have shared images that recall classic antisemitic propaganda, such as the portrayal of the Jew as a hidden and manipulative puppet master.

And more students have mentioned antisemitic tropes they have heard, including claims that the media are controlled by Jews, according to Mallory Bubar, an education consultant for Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.

In response, the museum published a guide to antisemitism for educators. It explains some basic facts about Jewish history — for example, that for centuries, governments limited the types of jobs Jews were allowed to do, helping to explain their prevalence as moneylenders. The guide sketches how antisemitism often takes the form of conspiracy theories about Jewish power.

But the guide, and many of the museums, do not address a question that has been fraught for decades, and has been central to the U.S. political debate over the war: At what point does anti-Israel protest veer into antisemitism? It has been a matter of fierce debate among Jews, especially between generations.

For instance, there is a divide over the phrase “never again,” long associated with remembering the Holocaust. The Nancy and David Wolf Holocaust and Humanity Center in Cincinnati has used the phrase “never again is now” to highlight the horror of Oct. 7 and what the museum has characterized as global indifference to Jewish suffering.

Jackie Congedo, a spokesperson for the museum, suggested in an interview that accusing Israel of genocide could itself be an antisemitic act. “It feels to me a lot like what has happened to Jews throughout history — the vilification and jumping to frame Jews as the worst possible thing in every given society,” she said.

But some Jewish pro-Palestinian groups including Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow have used the same slogan — “never again is now” — to call attention to Palestinian suffering and push for a cease-fire, while referring to Israel’s conduct as genocidal.

Simone Zimmerman, 33, a founder of IfNotNow, recalled that on a visit years ago to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, stories of anti-Jewish laws and segregation reminded her of elements of the Palestinian experience.

“It’s unsurprising they are asking questions about parallels,” Zimmerman said of today’s young visitors to Holocaust museums. “The reason we make comparisons is not to say everything is exactly the same, but to learn from history.”

At the Illinois Holocaust Museum, Marion Deichmann, a 91-year Holocaust survivor, periodically shares her story with middle school students. As a girl, she journeyed with her mother from their native Germany to Luxembourg, and then France. Her mother was arrested in the 1942 Vél d’Hiv roundup of Jews in France and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she was killed.

Deichmann has thought about how she would respond if a student compared the present war to the Holocaust.

“There is no comparison,” she would say, “with the 6 million Jews that were murdered in camps.”

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