December 10, 2023 - 5:00pm

As the last generation of Holocaust survivors begins to die out, it feels disturbing that, according to a new Economist/YouGov poll, 20% of young Americans believe that “the Holocaust is a myth”. Similarly concerning is that, if one breaks it down by race, 13% of black Americans agree with this statement (a similar number also applies to Hispanics). The statistic stands out in stark contrast to white Americans, for whom the figure is 5%. 

What explains such a racial disparity? How is it that a society that commits so much to official Holocaust memorialisation can raise a generation containing a significant minority which denies the Holocaust altogether? 

Such questions aren’t going to have simple answers, of course. One can look at other data, such as black Americans being more likely to endorse conspiracy theories than white counterparts; or in studies concluding that black Americans, especially those under 30, are more likely to affirm antisemitic stereotypes as partial explanations. Spillover from anti-Israel feeling, which is more prevalent among younger generations, can also lead some to engage in Holocaust denial.  

The Holocaust is undoubtedly key to the establishment of the state of Israel, and Israel — for many within these demographics — is a murderous, racist settler-colonial state that is fundamentally illegitimate. To deny the Holocaust, then, is to therefore negate Israel’s raison d’être. The memory of the Holocaust, as Enzo Traverso has argued, is the “civil religion” of the modern West, with a “secular liturgy of remembering”. And as with every religion, there will be blasphemers. 

There is a feeling among a slice of black Americans that the Holocaust was, in vulgar terms, a “white on white” crime, and that the only reason it is drilled into every schoolchild in modern Western societies is because it happened in Europe to “white people”. What about the genocides against the Herero and Namaqua peoples? Or the atrocities Belgium committed in the Congo? That’s not to mention the Atlantic slave trade, which, it could be argued, deserves a similar memorialisation.

These resentments have a history to them. The civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, in the prime of his political career, gave a voice to some of them during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. He said that while Jewish suffering during the Holocaust was “atrocious”, it was “really not unique in history”, since “60 million blacks had been exterminated over the four centuries of slavery in America.”

What’s more, this “white on white” view can lead many black Americans, even among the majority who understand its gravity, to struggle to understand how the Holocaust was racist in nature. Whoopi Goldberg was raked over the coals last year for claiming the Holocaust wasn’t “about race”. Black Americans’ intimate experience of racism in the American context has been through skin colour: thus, racism becomes something white people dish out onto non-whites, because of their darker skin. American Jews are a fully integrated, flourishing and influential minority, and are “white-passing”. So the idea that Jews experience racism, and not just “prejudice”, isn’t immediately apparent. 

This view, of course, misunderstands that racism isn’t just about skin colour, but also the essentialisation of a perceived difference to deem a people outside of the oneness of humanity. It also underestimates the racial nature of the “Jewish question” in Europe that formed the prehistory of the Holocaust. After all, the Nuremberg Laws were in part inspired by the Jim Crow regime. 

Underlying these arguments is a squalid competition for who can claim the title of history’s most abused victim. Yet there is nothing ennobling about suffering; victimhood is something that should be abolished, not fetishised. Instead of counterposing the Holocaust and Atlantic slavery, or antisemitism and anti-black racism against each other, we should understand how they relate to one another as the common ancestor of racism. Or as Frantz Fanon put it, “the antisemite is inevitably a negrophobe”.

Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.