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A prayer for more accurate historical knowledge

If I’m worried about levels of Holocaust knowledge in my country, I’m also anxious about Americans’ grasp of the history of the Jewish state, writes Erika Dreifus from New York.

    Prime Minister David Ben Gurion (m) reads Israel's independence declaration in Tel Aviv's museum in Israel. Picture taken on the 13th of May, 1948
    Prime Minister David Ben Gurion (m) reads Israel's independence declaration in Tel Aviv's museum in Israel. Picture taken on the 13th of May, 1948 (DPA/DPA/PA Images)

    In a recent episode of The Atlantic Interview— a relatively new podcast from one of America’s oldest and most esteemed magazines — editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed Michele Norris, the former National Public Radio host who currently directs The Bridge, an Aspen Institute programme on race, identity, and inclusion. Toward their conversation’s end, Goldberg asked Norris to suggest ways to improve “where we are” as a country insofar as those topics are concerned.

    “A big part of it,” Norris replied, “and this is the piece that we seem never to get right — is understanding our history. I mean, we don’t understand where we have come from as a country. We don’t understand the vestiges of slavery, we barely understand what slavery meant in America, how it manifested itself in everyday life. Most people really don’t have a strong understanding of how this nation was formed.”

    Norris’s comments resonated, and not only because I’m an academically trained historian. Especially given the timing — I listened to the episode on the eve of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), while I was simultaneously monitoring coverage of happenings along the Israel/Gaza border — my mind travelled to other topics that “most people really don’t have a strong understanding of,” historically speaking.

    For starters, last week also drew attention to a survey, commissioned by the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, on Holocaust knowledge and awareness in the United States. Reporting for The New York Times, Maggie Astor summarised: “Many adults lack basic knowledge of what happened — and this lack of knowledge is more pronounced among millennials, whom the survey defined as people ages 18 to 24.” (You can find more about the survey and its results here; this newspaper has also covered it.)

    This news rang alarm bells for many, especially since it coincided with Yom Hashoah. Even with certain silver linings among the results, such as the finding that “virtually all US adults (93 per cent) believe all students should learn about the Holocaust in school”, I, an American-born granddaughter of Jews who’d fled their homes in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, was dismayed.

    Still, as I read the articles and social-media shares around this subject, I was already moving on, as we Jews are compelled to do at this time of year. Last week, we focused on Yom Hashoah. This week, we turned to Yom Hazikaron (Israel Memorial Day) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day), holidays which take on even deeper meanings in 2018/5778, 70 years after the establishment of the State of Israel. And, if I’m worried about levels of Holocaust knowledge in my country, I’m also anxious about Americans’ grasp of the history of the Jewish state.

    Here, data seem scant. A quick search as I prepared this column revealed no research analogous to the recent Holocaust survey regarding American knowledge of the history of the Jewish presence in what is now Israel, or understanding of the defensive wars Israel has had to fight, or awareness of the multiple offers that have been made — and rejected — that could have provided the Palestinian people the state that still eludes them.

    Perhaps the closest approximation to such a study is a Brandeis University 2015 Israel Literacy Measurement Project report, which includes results from a survey administered only to a select group: American Jewish college students planning to join Birthright Israel trips.

    Those findings, too, are troubling: “The testing to date has demonstrated a less than acceptable level of knowledge about Israel… More than half of all students answered less than half of the questions correctly, and over 90 per cent scored less than 75 per cent.”

    Based on the distortions and omissions that I encounter regularly when it comes to Israel — from Jewish and non-Jewish Americans alike, including highly educated ones — I can imagine similarly (if not more) discouraging results if the survey were to be administered to a wider swathe of subjects.

    Among the prayers for Israel’s future at this milestone moment, then, we should perhaps add this one: a hope for more accurate knowledge and awareness of its past. That won’t resolve every problem facing the Jewish state today. But, as Norris’s conversation with Goldberg emphasised to me, little will be improved without it.

    Erika Dreifus is a writer who is based in New York, @ErikaDreifus

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