Beware of chain-letter blight

Scandals that are ‘exposed’ on the internet should be regarded with the utmost scepticism

By Daniel Finkelstein, August 12, 2010

The Judaic Studies programme of the University of Kentucky offers a course designated as "History 323: The Holocaust". I found this out last week for a rather odd reason, and I thought you would like to know.

Every so often over the past three years, you see, I have been receiving emails about the teaching of the Holocaust. Perhaps you have, too. And I have been ignoring them. But now I realise that perhaps I shouldn't have.

The emails take the form of a chain letter to which I am asked to append my name and then circulate to 10 friends. The hope, says the text, is to accumulate 40 million names.

In the subject line are the words: "In Memoriam". The email then opens with the story of how General Dwight Eisenhower had evidence of concentration-camp atrocities filmed so that no one could ever deny them. Then comes this startling news: "Recently this week, the UK removed The Holocaust from its school curriculum because it 'offended' the Moslem population, which claims it never occurred. This is a frightening portent of the fear that is gripping the world and how easily each country is giving into it."

The chain letter asks only that, in the light of this disgraceful decision in the UK, as many people as possible signal that they will never forget the Holocaust. Which seemed to me, when I first received it, a rather mild request. If the UK authorities had really removed the Holocaust from the curriculum to appease those who denied its truth, it would be a scandal.

We Jews are the big losers from rumours and conspiracy theories

Something would have to be done. I'd, well I'd, I'd most certainly, I don't know, want to write a column about it at the very least. But it struck me as surprising that I had missed the story. That the whole thing had happened so quietly that I'd only heard about it from a chain email. Unless it was, er, not true at all.

Back in 2007, the Government received a report, commissioned by the schools minister from the Historical Association, into the teaching of controversial subjects in school history. It wanted to make sure that topics such as black slavery, which might engage the emotions of pupils and their families, were taught with confidence.

They gave some examples that had given them cause for concern, and showed how important it was for the Government to press on with its efforts to ensure that the teaching of sensitive subjects was improved.

One of these examples was a single school, un-named, in the North of England, where the history department had taught pupils about the Holocaust but had not set it as GCSE course-work "for fear of confronting antisemitic sentiment and Holocaust denial among some Muslim pupils". A bad story indeed. And one that made the news.

Yet, through a combination of sloppy reporting and misunderstanding, this story became a - totally false but remarkably tenacious - internet rumour that the UK as a whole had taken the Holocaust off the curriculum.

And my letter from the University of Kentucky? Well, it turns out there is a big campaign going on to get the university to put the Holocaust back on its curriculum. Why? Because, absurdly, at some point someone reading the false chain letter about the United Kingdom had read the letters "UK" as standing for the University of Kentucky and set the whole chain off in the United States.

I have always found these emails rather irritating. My mother gives talks all the time to school groups, so it was obviously still in the curriculum. But receiving Kentucky's email made me reflect that perhaps it is a little more than irritating.

We Jews are the big losers from rumour and conspiracy theories. And our friend is the truth. We should treat internet gossip with great scepticism, insist on evidence and knock nonsense on the head hard. As I hope that I've now done.

Daniel Finkelstein is executive editor of The Times

Last updated: 2:24pm, August 13 2010


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