The Florida Holocaust Museum hears a lot of important questions. Guests of all ages ask how people could be so cruel. Museum visitors interact with Holocaust survivors’ recorded testimony via our Dimensions in Testimony exhibit, using advanced technology to learn how they deal with unimaginable trauma. Community members come to us with concerns about antisemitic incidents here and around the country, and many visit to engage with our programming about other genocides.
As antisemitic incidents surge to new highs, our role to share the lessons of the Holocaust with the public is more important than ever — but it has also become more complicated. People recognize how overtly antisemitic hate crimes connect to the Holocaust’s targeted violence, but the rise of Holocaust equivalencies threatens public understanding of the Holocaust as a unique historical event.
Holocaust equivalencies aren’t merely inappropriate; many are so profoundly off-base that they appear darkly ridiculous. COVID vaccine cards were not like the yellow star badges the Nazis forced Jews to wear. Migrant detention centers at our Mexican border are not concentration camps.
The Holocaust should never invite comparison, even when used to better understand the characteristics of genocide at-large.
Historical atrocities like the slave trade or Mao’s Great Leap Forward are abhorrent on their own, and can be condemned and examined without equating them to the Holocaust.
In scale and character, the Holocaust is unique. Primarily motivated by antisemitism, Nazi Germany’s continent-wide extermination campaign resulted in the murders of six million Jews and five million other civilians, including homosexuals, Romani, people with disabilities, and anyone else the Nazis deemed “inferior.” Most people don’t know that the global Jewish population still has not recovered from that catastrophe — in 1939, there were about 17 million Jews in the world, and today there are 15 million.
Of course, large-scale acts of bigotry and marginalization share core themes, among them dehumanization and scapegoating. It can be tempting to lump such events together — but we must resist that urge. Each atrocity needs its own space if we are to truly learn from it.
Almost daily, our museum staff and volunteers wrestle with this conundrum. We are asked to comment on a range of matters — from debates over parental influence in public education, the nature of America’s relationship with Israel, what constitutes child-appropriate material, the ongoing impact of historical injustice, and more. Many of these questions fall wholly outside the scope of our mission.
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It rarely works in reverse: Other groups are almost never asked to comment on the Holocaust and antisemitism. That’s not a bad thing; while we welcome their support, we wouldn’t expect, say, a nonprofit advocating for migrant farm workers to comment on antisemitism. Unrelated institutions may care deeply about fighting the demonization of Jews, but it’s not what they exist to do.
This one-way inquiry probably results from what some call the “universalization” of the Holocaust: the presentation of the event as a crime against humanity that only targeted Jews incidentally. While it shares features with other genocides, any representation of the Holocaust that does not center on antisemitism is at best incomplete, and at worst offensive. Respecting victims and their descendants requires us to be honest about not only what happened to them, but why.
The Florida Holocaust Museum honors the innocent people who suffered or died in the Holocaust, and is dedicated to using the Holocaust to teach members of all races and cultures the inherent worth and dignity of human life in order to prevent future genocides. It is a mission that requires our focus and commitment, now more than ever.
To do anything less would be unfaithful to the victims and survivors of Nazism, along with their families. It would also poorly serve the worthy organizations passionately devoted to social causes outside the Holocaust, antisemitism, and genocide. Their stories, perspectives, and subject matter expertise are indispensable, and their voices deserve to be heard.
As our local and national communities continue to confront challenging questions, I urge each of us to address those questions to the people and institutions whose mission it is to provide answers.
The grandchild of Holocaust survivors, Mike Igel is the board chairperson of The Florida Holocaust Museum and a partner at Johnson Pope in St. Petersburg.