Museums unite to fight near record levels of antisemitism

A recent symposium in New York looked at how institutions can come up with new and innovative strategies for countering misinformation

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An electrified barbed-wire fence separates male and female prisoners at a German concentration camp. A Nazi guard keeps watch in the foreground. The inmates appear to be in relatively good health at this point in their internment, indicating they may have arrived recently at the camp © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

An electrified barbed-wire fence separates male and female prisoners at a German concentration camp. A Nazi guard keeps watch in the foreground. The inmates appear to be in relatively good health at this point in their internment, indicating they may have arrived recently at the camp © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Last month, at the Auschwitz concentration camp complex, a series of English messages were sprayed onto buildings that—only 80 years ago—held some of the circa 960,000 Jewish prisoners on their way to the gas chambers. The graffiti claimed the Holocaust never took place.

In May of this year, swastikas were sprayed or glued onto the Florida Holocaust Museum, the Alaska Jewish Museum and the Oregon Holocaust Memorial. In March, a news investigation by the Guardian newspaper found a series of antisemitic messages on the reviews section of a Google search for the Auschwitz Memorial, some published almost a decade ago. In February, at the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, five statues dedicated to Jewish children killed during the Holocaust were destroyed.

According to the Anti-Defamation League’s 2020 audit, antisemitism remains at a near all-time high in the US.

“Antisemitic vandalism has defiled and defaced museums and sites of memory in the US repeatedly over the past six months,” says Michael Glickman, the founder of the American arts philanthropist organisation jMuse and the former president of the Museum for Jewish Heritage in New York.

“We can no longer afford to ignore such signs of hate. We must insist Jewish communities are safe and empowered to create public spaces where people of all backgrounds can gather, learn and remember.”

What can museums and archives do to achieve this, and to counteract such modern, endemic and commonplace forms of racial and ethnic hatred towards Jewish people? This question formed the basis of a symposium, “Confronting Antisemitism: Activating Archives, Libraries, and Museums in the Fight Against Antisemitism”, at the Centre for Jewish History in New York on 17 October.

The event was organised by Glickman and included contributions from the presidents of Princeton and Harvard Universities and the Library of Congress, as well as multiple leaders from public institutions around the world including the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, the National Library of Israel and the New York Historical Society.

“It became abundantly clear there was a tremendous need to diversify the conversation around antisemitism,” Glickman says of the concept behind the symposium. “We needed to find ways to think about antisemitism differently, so we decided to get the best minds on this subject on a stage together.”

It was the first in what will become a recurring series of virtual symposiums and research papers that will continue to explore how the museum sector in the US and beyond can contend with the “shape-shifting, amorphous and protean nature of contemporary antisemitism”, in the words of the Center for Jewish History’s director, Peter Baldwin.

Conversations ranged from how to contend with the tolerance of Holocaust denial and revisionism among the leadership of social media platforms like Facebook, to examinations of how to tackle forms of antisemitism that use Judaism as “a scapegoat and cipher for any contemporary neuroses”, Baldwin said.

Modern-day museums must find ways to understand, explore and communicate antisemitism as something more than “just an Auschwitz issue”, the British historian Simon Schama said in the symposium’s opening session.

The challenge, Schama said, “is to understand antisemitism as not simply seen with the badge of the swastika on it—but something that has to be faced and dealt with as a nearly universal problem”.

‘Collapse of truth’

This universal problem is one almost uniquely connected to what Schama calls “the collapse of truth”. From this footing, the symposium explored how the use of archives in libraries, museums and universities can find contemporary ways to counteract the very modern tropes and motifs that, often subtly, express antisemitic thought.

To do so, museums must find ways to stay ahead, said Dariusz Stola, the former director of the Polin Museum and a current professor of history at the Polish Academy of Sciences. “We can’t allow anti-Semites to be more innovative than us,” Stola said. “Providing information is not enough.”

Stola spoke of the importance of interpreting archives in “polyphonic” ways—“to make sure they are of interest for a diverse audience”, he said. “We remain relevant by listening carefully to the questions people have and showing them that the lessons of history are relevant to the events of today.”

This is especially pressing given that museums have had to rely purely on digital output during the pandemic. “I have three young children, so I’m seeing this in real time,” Glickman says.

“We’re raising a generation who thinks the first Google hit is fact. When a student searches: ‘Why do people hate Jews?’, “they’re not then being given information that helps them understand the realities of antisemitism.”

What would Glickman consider best practice? He speaks about the work of the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum, whose official Twitter feed has 1.1 million followers. Each day, at regular intervals, the memorial posts a portrait of one of the victims of the Holocaust, along with short, factual details of their lives.

Glickman says that the work of Piotr Cywiński, the director of Auschwitz Museum, and his team “has really set the bar. They have invested time and thought and energy into a really important way of communicating, and it’s a great example of how we can begin to address this challenge.”

Then there’s the social media strategies of Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Since it’s publication in 1947, shortly after Frank's death at age 15 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, Anne Frank’s diary has been victim of antisemitic attacks.

Holocaust deniers claim it was a forgery authored by a cohort of people other than Anne Frank, and written after her death.

Ronald Leopold, director of Anne Frank House, spoke in the symposium of the impact of a series of short films his team had created that carefully dramatise some of the tragic moments of Anne Frank’s life, which were then posted to Youtube.

They show viewers what would have happened to Frank and her family after they were discovered in hiding by the Nazi Secret Service. Some of the videos also subtly counteract, misprove and condemn those who have attempted to question the authenticity of Anne Frank’s story.

“It’s about giving future generations access to information in the way they expect to receive it,” Leopold says.

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