Despite universal condemnation of the oppression of Jewish communities during the Holocaust, hatred toward Jewish Americans today goes largely ignored, according to author Dara Horn, recipient of three National Jewish Book Awards.
“Jews in non-Jewish societies, and this I think this is true for many minority groups, often feel the need to erase themselves in order to make other people comfortable,” Horn said. “My goal is to make you uncomfortable. One of the people that this makes uncomfortable is me.”
Horn discussed her new book, People Love Dead Jews, at an event co-sponsored by the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and the Jewish studies program at Boston College on Tuesday night.
“The two main points I’m exploring in the book is that people tell stories about dead Jews that make themselves feel better about themselves, and living Jews have to erase themselves in order to gain public respect,” Horn said.
Horn began by recounting a trip she took to the city of Harbin in Manchuria, China to visit a Jewish heritage museum that was built to commemorate a local Jewish community that no longer existed.
“I remember being in this Jewish museum where you enter a series of small rooms that are filled with life size, plaster people posed with furniture,” Horn said. “And there’s a caption that says ‘real Jewish businessman in Harbin.’”
According to Horn, Jewish heritage museums are built primarily as tourist attractions, and they are constructed by the same local governments and communities that drove their respective Jewish communities out to begin with.
“What I think is interesting about that is that this is an example of people telling stories about dead Jews that make them feel better about themselves,” Horn said. “What was really striking about these Jewish museums is nowhere does it tell you why this wonderful community no longer exists.”
Horn said Jewish people continue to face discrimination today, noting the tens of thousands of court records that show Jewish Americans who changed their names to hide their identities.
“These are not people who are running away from Jewish life,” Horn said. “Why were they changing their names? They were staring down a reality that they couldn’t avoid, which is American anti-semitism.”
Horn also addressed the rise in anti-semitism across the United States in recent years, explaining that Holocaust education across America has been largely unsuccessful in stopping prejudices.
“Rates of anti-semitism in the United States, no matter how you measure them, are much higher now than they were when these museums opened and when these school mandates started being passed 30 years ago,” Horn said.
According to Horn, the content many students consume about the Holocaust in school comes directly from Nazi propaganda.
“There was one question that none of these students could answer and that question was, ‘why did the Nazis target the Jews?’” Horn said. “They said, ‘Well, I guess it’s because the Jews were rich and took the Germans’ money.’ Or ‘I guess it was because they didn’t fight in World War I.’”
While it is important to reflect on the past, it is also critical to be educated about the modern oppression of Jewish people, Horn concluded.
“I think that the actual way to fight anti-semitism is by teaching people about living Jews, and about the content of Jewish civilization,” Horn said. “Because what I have discovered is that people who weren’t about this story immediately see its value.”