“Shocking Levels of Ignorance”? A Closer Look at the Survey of Millennials' Holocaust AwarenessBreaking News
tags: Holocaust, teaching history
Recently, you may have heard that many young Americans are unaware of what happened in the Holocaust, or who was to blame for it. Worse, many believed it was a “myth” or “exaggerated.” “Nearly Two-Thirds of US Young Adults Unaware 6m Jews Killed in the Holocaust,” a headline blared in the Guardian, over a piece that asserted “shocking levels of ignorance about the greatest crime of the 20th century.” NBC News also reported the numbers, writing that the survey “showed that many respondents were unclear about the basic facts of the genocide.”
The study in question came from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. It included people ages 18–39 in all 50 states, and it generated a number of alarming statistics, including that 11 percent of survey respondents “believe the Jews caused the Holocaust.”
If young Americans’ shocking ignorance sounds familiar, that’s because the Claims Conference and other organizations have commissioned similar surveys on Holocaust knowledge for decades—often with explosive results. Just two years ago, the Claims Conference released another survey of Americans that found “Two-Thirds of Millennials Don’t Know What Auschwitz Is,” as a Washington Post headline summarized it. The New York Times reported on the numbers at the time as proof that the “Holocaust is fading from memory.” Lest it appear the group is singling out Americans, the Claims Conference also released surveys with “stunning” results from Canada, France, and Austria.
But a deeper look at the Claims Conference data, which was collected by the firm Schoen Cooperman Research, reveals methodological choices that conflate specific terms (the ability to ID Auschwitz) and figures (that 6 million Jews were murdered) about the Holocaust with general knowledge of it, and knowledge with attitudes or beliefs toward Jews and Judaism. This is not to discount the real issues of anti-Semitism in the United States. But it is an important reminder that the Claims Conference, which seeks restitution for the victims of Nazi persecution and also to “ensure that future generations learn the lessons of the Holocaust,” is doing its job: generating data and headlines that it hopes will support its worthy cause.
Whether or not the assumptions in the Claims Conference survey are fair, and how to tell, is at the core of a decades long debate over Holocaust knowledge surveys, which are notoriously difficult to design. In 1994, Roper Starch Worldwide, which conducted a poll for the American Jewish Committee, admitted that its widely publicized Holocaust denial question was “flawed.” Initially, it appeared that 1 in 5, or 22 percent, of Americans thought it was possible the Holocaust never happened. But pollsters later determined that the question—“Does it seem possible or does it seem impossible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened?”—was confusing and biased the sample. In a subsequent Gallup poll, when asked to explain their views on the Holocaust in their own words, “only about 4 percent [of Americans] have real doubts about the Holocaust; the others are just insecure about their historical knowledge or won’t believe anything they have not experienced themselves,” according to an Associated Press report at the time. More recently, the Anti-Defamation League was criticized for a 2014 worldwide study that asked respondents to rate 11 statements—“People hate Jews because of the way they behave, for example”—as “probably true” or “probably false.” If respondents said “probably true” to six or more of the statements, they were considered to harbor anti-Semitic views, a line that many experts said could not adequately represent real beliefs.
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