Only 54 percent of the people surveyed by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in a massive, global poll have ever heard of the Holocaust. Even more disturbing, 32 percent of these believe the event to have been greatly exaggerated or a myth. That's something worth worrying about.
The ADL published the results today as part of a report on the attitudes towards Jews in over 100 countries. The ADL asked more than 53,000 people across the globe to respond to eleven anti-Semitic stereotypes attributed to Jews, including "Jews have too much power in the business world," "People hate Jews because of the way Jews behave," "Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust," and others. Those questioned were asked to respond with either "probably true," or "probably false." Those who answered "probably true" to six out of the eleven statements were counted as anti-Semitic in the survey, which, among other things, looked at the global breakdown of such attitudes.
Overall, the ADL found that 26 percent of respondents harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. About nine percent of American respondents agreed with six of the eleven statements, and the two that were most often mentioned were "Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country/the countries they live in" and "Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust," suggesting that much of the ill-feelings are wrapped up in attitudes toward Israel. A number of European countries, like the UK (eight percent) Denmark (nine percent) the Netherlands (five percent) and Sweden (four percent) had low rates of anti-Semitism and also positively responded to these two statements most often.
Other countries had disturbingly high rates of anti-Semitic respondents. Sixty-nine percent of Greek respondents, 37 percent of French respondents, 45 percent of Polish respondents, 92 percent of Iraqis and, not surprisingly, 93 percent of those in the West Bank/Gaza hold anti-Semitic beliefs.
The results are rather objectively upsetting, but some readers see it as a reflection of bigotry at large, rather than a reflection on anti-Semitic views. Bloomberg View's Leonid Bershidsky argues that the ADL's report is "a simplistic reflection of a highly varied global picture of ethnic and religious prejudice." Bershidsky continues:
At the same time, ADL found that Jews are viewed unfavorably by 21 percent of those surveyed, while 24 percent felt negatively about Muslims. Hindus are disliked by 18 percent of the world's population... In Greece, 69 percent of those surveyed turned out to be anti-Semites, and 81 percent said they believe that Jews have too much influence in the business world; other forms of xenophobia should be equally widespread there, considering the unprecedented economic hardship of recent years.
He adds that these overall rates of racism are more concerning than the respondents' lack of Holocaust awareness:
It is troubling that so many of our neighbors are anti-Semites and that 35 percent of the world's adult population have never heard of the Holocaust, as the ADL study shows. The overall bigotry level, however, is potentially much scarier.
But Bershidsky's rather casual dismissal of this figure ignores the connection between ignorance and hate. According to the ADL's findings, seventy percent of the anti-Semitic respondents had never even met a Jew. Familiarity has always bred tolerance, and not knowing anyone who could be personally connected to a major historical event could certainly fuel beliefs that it was exaggerated or invented.
Anti-Semitic tremblings have been felt by Jews throughout the world in recent months. In Ukraine, pamphlets were spread around demanding Jews identify themselves in eastern cities. The paper was discredited, but left Jewish communities feeling unsafe in Ukraine. French Jews have been fleeing to Israel in rapidly rising rates, fearing anti-Semitism at home. And Greece's Golden Dawn neo-Nazi party was recently cleared by the country's top court to vote in the EU. It's hard not to see these movements as being, at least on some level, bolstered by a lack of general knowledge of the events of the Holocaust.
The survey also comes at a time when Holocaust education is at a turning point. In coming years, as the Holocaust-surviving generation passes away, educators will need to find a way to make the events of the Holocaust resonate with students without relying on survivor testimonials. This is especially challenging in environments (like Eastern Europe) were Holocaust revisionism — not outright denial, but a refusal to accept the scope of the atrocity — poses a significant challenge. And, as the survey notes, younger respondents were the ones less likely to have heard of the Holocaust, making the issue of education even more pressing, and deserving of our attention.